Social Sustainability Requires Digitalization: The Key to a Successful Future Energy System

To speak simply of an energy transition belittles the scope of the process. Significant changes are affecting not only the energy system, but also the whole of society.


Societal transformation requires one thing above all else – a general willingness among people to shape the required changes themselves. New technical possibilities in and of themselves are not enough to facilitate change, and top-down political steering is even less effective.
It would be negligent of us to just sit back and hope that the threat of global climate change will stimulate enough social change to drive a successful transition to renewable energy. On the contrary, the state of the discourse surrounding climate change is so negative that it discourages people from making changes. Even the threat of global climate change is simply not enough to ignite the social change needed for a successful switch to a new energy system. So, then, how can we explain the energy transition’s continued high approval ratings? Are they related to widespread distrust in the problem-solving capabilities of political decision makers? Do people actually trust the powers that be to solve the societal challenges associated with this large infrastructural change?
Initially, this appears to be problematic. In reality, reticent policies are actually not a bad starting point for facilitating a successful energy transition. However, to make this possible, the role of politics should be limited to making social change as easy as possible.
Politicians cannot force social change.


The emancipatory potential of renewable energy sources


A glance in the history books shows us that technological change drives social change if people perceive it as a gateway to freedom:


  • The printing press ended the church’s monopoly over knowledge.
  • The steam engine freed people from manual labour in production processes.

Renewable energy sources could achieve this, too. They have the potential to free us from centralized structures. They can create space for new communities, more personal responsibility, and greater participation and transparency. This would constitute dynamic social change.


Bad policies would be disastrous right now


The question is whether this emancipatory potential is actually being included in policy decisions. In fact, there is objective proof that energy policy is predominantly top-down and follows neo-paternalistic attitudes towards regulation.
As part of dynamis’ work, colleagues from IASS designed and carried out a questionnaire which has given us some illuminating insights into this issue. The detailed results of the ‘Social Sustainability Barometer for the Energiewende’ were presented in November.
One thing was quite clear: An over-regulated and top-down energy policy will fail. Furthermore, this would even prevent the desired shift towards a decarbonized society.
In light of the most deep-seated mega-trend of all time – namely, the digitalization of just about all areas of life – this would be a disaster for two reasons:


  • Firstly, because the only way to transform the energy system is through algorithms and big data.
  • Secondly, and even more importantly, we can only tap into the energy transition’s emancipatory potential if we understand and shape the digitalization process in the right way.

An effective energy transition will generate prosperity


The challenge of achieving a socially sustainable transformation can be separated into two different aspects. Firstly, the digitalization process cannot just be thought of as a technological paradigm shift.

It is much more important to recognise the opportunities and risks of digitalization and to transform lessons learnt into social action. This is the only way to build a socially sustainable, decarbonised and decentralised energy system. Secondly, this type of energy system represents the only way we will be able to create an affluent and participative digitalized society which benefits as many people as possible. This is the only way social sustainability can work.

Finding the solution to this problem is the task of dynamis, which was formed by three partners, innogy Stiftung, 100 prozent erneuerbar Stiftung and IASS, to shine a light on these previously overlooked facets of sustainability. We have launched various projects to this end, including funding the acquisition of knowledge about energy in the region, this blog and the digital ‘Power to Idea’ award. We and our partners want to use this blog to share regular updates about our projects and any pressing issues. Feedback and discussion are highly welcome!


Digital society follows a different set of rules


Digitalization is based on data. Data feeds and sustains our digital infrastructure. At the same time, the infrastructure constantly produces new data, which can be fed back into the system. Data are produced in real time in vast quantities, and the ever-increasing speed of technology allows us to work with these data. Data are read and correlated with the infrastructure from which they are generated, and with the users and producers. What’s more, it is making the future easier to predict.
Digitalization is changing up the game in terms of social structures and processes, value creation mechanisms and consumer behaviour. It is also changing the way we communicate with one another, and how we plan and shape our lives.
It is even changing the idea of what it means to be human; machine learning and artificial intelligence increasingly blur the boundaries between human and machine.


Those who do not get on board will lose out


Everything is still human-made (for now). Society is formed by people acting and communicating with one another. It is important to remember that power structures are also human-made constructs. Both the way in which people interact with one another and the power of data need to be kept in mind as we move forward.
Denial and avoidance will not help. Although rejecting data might create an individual sense of well-being, those who do so will ultimately become pawns in the game played by those who use data to control societal processes. Avoiding digitalized data would be as absurd as refusing money or the printed word. Data are the medium of social communication of our time.


The future will be negotiated in new arenas


How will we design the arenas and processes within and with which we shape and negotiate the model for our digital society? The future energy system, in its capacity as a social transformation, will play a key role here. The way in which it is shaped can provide a blueprint for the digital society of the future. The energy system needs to integrate the electricity, heat and mobility sectors. It also needs to keep an eye on developments in other sectors. You only have to take a quick look at the mass media and music industries to see that they have undergone great change together with customers, intermediaries and producers.
This is where dynamis comes in. dynamis does not just take new technologies in the energy system into account, nor just the details of political regulation. dynamis does not claim to have drafted a new energy market design which the world will be forced to adapt, in keeping with the concept ‘if it doesn’t fit, we’ll make it fit.’
dynamis maintains a holistic perspective across all human interaction, keeping all of society in mind. So, to return to where we started, even the best technology in the world will only achieve its emancipatory potential if it takes human behaviour and social interactions into consideration.


This is the only way we can make a future energy system socially sustainable.


Blog post by Stephan Muschick, dynamis



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