Tech for Good — does the narrative still hold true in 2023?

Purpose
11 min readJan 11, 2023

By: Corina Kwami, PhD, Director of Strategy, Purpose

The role of tech in fighting climate change and other major sustainability challenges has long been accepted as a fundamental part of the toolkit. Examples abound of tech as an enabler of climate solutions, from smart cities to agriculture to decarbonizing hard-to-abate sectors such as cement and aviation. And as the window of opportunity for the global community to stay within 1.5 degrees shrinks ever smaller, so the appetite for drastic action and radical solutions increases — including riskier options for negative emissions and carbon removal technologies. However, increasing evidence suggests that the world’s growing reliance on tech is in itself becoming a major climate and environmental problem, and that it may be time for a rethink. While we can all agree on the tech sector’s innate abilities to solve problems and innovate new solutions, this paper argues that bold leadership and a new narrative are needed. And that in order for the sector to deliver its full, game-changing potential in the fight against climate, one vital and increasingly urgent step is missing — addressing the sector’s own growing emissions and designing its future footprint before the sector itself becomes just one more problem to solve.

Section 1: The prevailing narrative

Described by some as the “fourth industrial revolution,” the advent of the internet and the rise of digital technology have profoundly reshaped almost every aspect of life in this new millennium. Innovation, disruption and a rapidly accelerating pace of change have become the new norms, both socially and commercially.

The question of whether this new technological revolution is taking society to a utopian or a dystopian future has been much debated (including through fiction such as the TV series “Black Mirror”). However, when it comes to the global response to climate change, (and related environmental challenges such as biodiversity and habitat loss), it is more generally accepted that technology is an essential part of the toolkit. This influences the prevailing ways in which we think and talk about tech’s role in our future. From the explosion of new plant-based meat alternatives, to redefining the future of work, to the ability to match supply and demand in the internet of things, evidence (and stories!) abound of where technological innovation is removing waste, de-materializing services and creating greener products, which further support a broader narrative of its crucial role in combating climate change. Under the narrative of “Tech for Good’’ or “Tech for the Planet,” the tech sector itself (with its inherent capabilities for innovation and problem-solving) is at the epicenter of efforts to address some of the most intractable problems we face such as how to de-carbonize aviation, agriculture, or construction.

Section 2 Why is this becoming a problem?

Undoubtedly, tech has already demonstrated its potential to scale up solutions to the climate crisis and unlock new solutions in the years ahead. However, the obvious risk when any narrative becomes entrenched is that it can blind us to the downsides. In our drive to solve the world’s problems by using ever more sophisticated technological solutions, are we overlooking the footprint of technology itself? Tellingly, there are many global initiatives and associated narratives currently that are focused on “greening by technology,” but very few on “greening of technology.”

More worryingly, could this blindspot end up undermining the full potential that the world clearly needs technology to deliver? As we all strive to solve the climate crisis, how do we ensure that tech does not become its own worst enemy?

Research suggests that in order for the sector to adopt a science-based approach to meeting the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement, it will need to achieve absolute reductions in emissions (compared to 2020) of 21% by 2025, and 42% by 2030¹. No sector decarbonization plan to achieve this has as yet been adopted by the industry (let alone the ultimate goal of a 90% reduction by 2050).

This is especially critical when rapid growth of emerging and converging technologies could lead to a significant increase in emissions, unless urgent sector-wide action is taken now (eg. AI, blockchain, IoT, extended reality).

Furthermore, a paper from Lancaster University published in 2021 states that “a new regulatory framework is required to keep the ICT sector’s footprint aligned with the Paris Agreement.”² The latest IPCC report (April 2022) also notes that “digital technology supports decarbonization only if appropriately governed.” And as the window of opportunity for meeting the Paris Agreement begins to reduce and the stakes rise still further, the global consensus reaches for ever more experimental and energy-intensive technologies such as Direct Air Capture and geoengineering.

Against this backdrop, WEF has identified a clear opportunity to broaden engagement in the “greening of technology”, yet in order to begin this at the systems level, leadership and stewardship will be needed to tackle the current narratives and build issue salience.

Section 3 What happens if we don’t address this?

Left unchecked and with the rapid adoption of next-generation technologies such as virtual and augmented reality in the metaverse, could the net effect of global tech switch from solution to problem - from being an enabler of decarbonization to an accelerator of climate change?

Evidence of rapidly increasing emissions within the sector is relatively easy to find. A recent article in The Verge³ states that “Microsoft’s emissions, for example, rose from about 11.6 million metric tons of CO2 in the 2020 fiscal year to about 14 million metric tons in its 2021 fiscal year. As its business grew, so too did pollution from the use of Microsoft’s devices and cloud services. Salesforces’ planet-heating pollution has similarly grown along with its business in its 2022 fiscal year to the equivalent of over 1 million metric tons of CO2.” Meanwhile, according to Imperial College London⁴, the energy costs of Artificial Intelligence are doubling globally every 3.5 months.

While Microsoft and Salesforce deserve some credit for their detailed and transparent carbon reporting, there is nevertheless a clear risk that the rapid growth in emerging and converging technologies could lead to a significant increase in emissions, unless urgent sector-wide action is taken now. Far from helping us stay within 1.5 degrees of average global warming, could tech blow the budget?

However, the emergence of new evidence alone is often insufficient to reverse an established view, especially if that narrative is deeply entrenched. More broadly, levels of public trust in big tech remain at stubbornly low levels, driven in large part by concerns over data privacy and the treatment of workers. A failure to address, collectively and transparently, the environmental footprint of the tech sector will only add to existing levels of mistrust, ultimately eroding the sector’s ability to act as a much-needed force for good.

Section 4 How should we tackle this? Why Now?

What we have is a narrative that could potentially be a Trojan horse — lauded as the solution and embraced by many, but maybe concealing a danger ahead. In order to tackle this, we have to start with the accepted narrative, and identify entry points. The challenge is not simply how to clean up or ‘green’ existing technology, but also to catalyze sector-wide change towards designing out emissions before new technologies enter the mainstream — using the inherent strengths of tech to do so. To do this requires a shift in mindset that departs from the current narrative (focusing on technology’s role as an enabler) by putting the responsibility to design out emissions on the sector itself. This will only be possible at the industry level through coordinated and focused collective action — “broadening engagement in the greening of technology” as WEF has put it. But the change has to begin with the current stakeholders in the ecosystem, both industry and customers.

As we noted above, however, the emergence of new facts is often insufficient to shift a prevailing narrative. The good news is there is already a great deal that is known about narrative change.

Changing narratives requires challenging dominant narratives that are in wide circulation and fostering alternative ways of talking, thinking and making sense of our experiences in order to recognize what needs to change.⁵

Narratives, according to Frameworks, are ‘patterns of meaning that cut across and tie together specific stories. Narratives are common patterns that both emerge from a set of stories and provide templates for specific stories. If we understand narratives as patterns in discourse, or plainly, how we talk about tech, we can better understand patterns in thinking’. For example, one of the dominant narratives we’re observing is ‘Tech as the Solution to the Climate Crisis’: As the climate crisis worsens, tech is the key to overcoming this obstacle and will succeed if we give it unchecked access to transform our industries, as it is currently in food, transport and financial services.

However, this narrative may be reinforcing mindsets that shun attempts to manage or ‘control’ tech as it solves critical issues. There is significant scholarship around the effect of narratives on a particular audience (e.g. how it resonates with them emotionally, how it catalyzes imagination). In stories about tech, we see the argument framed as the ‘good’ vs. the ‘bad’ or the ‘old vs. ‘new’ dichotomy with tech as the ‘saviour’, forward-thinking and policy, regulation as the ‘bad’ holding us back. This may create polarization and reduce the pressure for the tech sector to design out its own emissions.. More investigation is needed to explore the stories that may reinforce this kind of discourse and thinking, however, recent news surrounding smart cities, transport decarbonization, and agribusiness are showing evidence that within particular sectors, this is something to watch for.

Section 5 What does the new narrative look like?

What might such a narrative look like?

“In order for tech to deliver benefits for the rest of the world, the sector has to design out its own emissions before they occur.”

If we change hearts and minds with this narrative, we can inspire action now that enables the tech sector to thrive as part of a flourishing net-zero economy in the future (essentially, super-charging the movement for sustainable tech), while also helping to address the industry’s current trust deficit. If it fails to do so, however, tech may become more of a problem than a solution. Success will depend on CEO-level engagement and leadership, collaborating in new ways across the sector. Success will also depend on a strong counter-narrative — a narrative that provides a divergent way of talking and thinking about an issue — this becomes critical in bringing about change.

As a strategic approach, we must understand the narratives in tech that we’d like to change (‘Tech as the solution to the climate crisis) and offer the new narrative or nuanced perspective (Tech is a part of the solution, but only if it designs out its own emissions and super-charge the movement for sustainable tech with a number of co-benefits in terms of the wider sustainability agenda) that should be at the center. This new narrative should help catalyze action and design out emissions before they escalate. This clear understanding can help us and identify an entry point to develop and deploy a strategy. The table below includes descriptions of narratives we see (some of which are part of the same spectrum and by no means mutually exclusive?) as well as potential counter-narratives.

Section 6 How might we get there?

When we have an understanding of the dominant narrative and the narrative that should replace it, we can work with stories, or tales about particular events and people, to help carry that narrative forward. For the tech sector in the fight against climate change, we need to be intentional in the selection of our audiences (industry leaders, enterprise customers and individual consumers), and create greater issue salience for them.

You might assume that in narrative change work, the more people we reach the better, however, it may be most effective to focus intensively on a smaller group of people if it means that you can sway or mobilize them more successfully. At Purpose, we use audience segmentation and insights from our canon of work across different sectors to inform these decisions with evidence. Within our audiences in the tech sector (and based on our knowledge of coalition-building in other sectors), we have evidence to suggest that if we can engage the imagination (and the “enlightened self-interest”) of today’s generation of tech CEOs, we may then be able to encourage further commitments and actions for the benefit of people and planet.

At Purpose, we work extensively with storytellers to present stories that are aligned with the narrative change goal and that can best engage with our audience. Content mapping can help to understand the journey of your audience and can be extremely helpful in applying carefully crafted narratives across all assets that reflect the values and language of the intended audience. A clear distribution plan for reaching the audience will help ensure efficient use of resources, with appropriate measurement and evaluation to support further refinement.

Key issue checklist:

1. Does the long-established “Tech for Good” / “Tech for Green” narrative really still hold true? Is it now so entrenched that we struggle to imagine the alternative? Is it time to rethink?

2. What other narratives about the role of tech in sustainability are you seeing out there? Are they still helpful, or are they limiting our ability to understand the whole picture (and the industry’s willingness to design out its own emissions)?

3. Given tech’s growing importance, why doesn’t the carbon footprint of the tech sector (and its projected footprint in the future) receive more public attention?

4. If the public struggles to trust the tech sector on data, privacy, or workers rights, what would it take for the sector to be trusted on climate?

5. Given that tech has the innate capabilities of problem-solving and innovation that are needed to help other sectors of the economy reduce their footprints, how might the tech sector leverage that capability to ensure it does not become its own enemy?

6. What sort of new narratives, industry leadership and governance frameworks do we now urgently need to make sure that tech can play its biggest possible role in fighting climate change?

Section 7 Conclusions

There is a strong prevailing narrative about the critical role that technology must continue to play in addressing climate change. Yet, alongside this is a growing risk of the sector becoming more of a climate problem than a climate solution. However, evidence of this risk may not be enough. It’s also time for a compelling new narrative (engaging the industry, enterprise users and individual consumers) to galvanize new forms of industry leadership, governance and collaboration. It is only by doing this that we can ensure the tech sector avoids becoming just another problem to solve, and instead plays its fullest part in enabling the rest of the world to address the climate challenge.

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Purpose

Purpose builds and supports movements to advance the fight for an open, just, and habitable world: www.purpose.com