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Open Access Digitalization and sustainability: A systematic literature analysis of ICT for Sustainability research

This article is Open Access under the terms of the Creative Commons CC BY licence.

Close scrutiny of the ICT for Sustainability conference proceedings on digitalization and sustainability reveals a bias on (technological) efficiency solutions. This bias is mirrored in blind spots in the public discourse and the political debate. The sustainable transformation of society calls for more comprehensive research ‐ and research funding ‐ to fill the gaps and integrate efficiency, consistency, and sufficiency strategies on the levels of life-cycle, enabling, and structural effects.

In order to govern processes of digitalization for the purpose of the common good, it is important to understand the opportunities and risks of information and communications technology (ICT) for a sustainable transformation of society. In this article, we systematically review 215 publications from the ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) conference corpus in order to investigate the state of debate. We analyze to what extent research covers sustainability implications of ICT, 1. regarding different levels of actions and effects, as well as 2. regarding the three different strategies of sustainability ‐ efficiency, consistency, and sufficiency. We find that ICT4S research has a one-sided focus on digital efficiency improvements and on life-cycle impacts of ICT devices and applications. There is far less research on digitalization’s potential to advance sufficiency-oriented practices, and questions of how to foster digital sustainability transformations at macro- and structural level are only marginally treated. We draw conclusions for funding and science politics.

Keywords: ICT for sustainability; consistency; digitalization for sustainability; efficiency; enabling effects; knowledge transfer; life-cycle effects; literature review; structural effects; sufficiency; sustainability strategies

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 13, 2023

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  • GAIA is a peer-reviewed inter- and transdisciplinary journal for scientists and other interested parties concerned with the causes and analyses of environmental and sustainability problems and their solutions.

    Environmental problems cannot be solved by one academic discipline. The complex natures of these problems require cooperation across disciplinary boundaries. Since 1991, GAIA has offered a well-balanced and practice-oriented forum for transdisciplinary research. GAIA offers first-hand information on state of the art environmental research and on current solutions to environmental problems. Well-known editors, advisors, and authors work to ensure the high quality of the contributions found in GAIA and a unique transdisciplinary dialogue – in a comprehensible style.

    GAIA is an ISI-journal, listed in the Science Citation Index Expanded, Social Science Citation Index and in Current Contents/Social and Behavioral Sciences.

    All contributions undergo a double-blind peer review.

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