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Digitalization, Sustainability, and Participation

The group's research focuses on the sustainable design of digital technologies, their application potentials for facilitating socio-ecological transformation processes, and the critical examination of conflicting goals in the area of tension between sustainability and digitalization.

Mankind is on the brink of a global and very unevenly distributed climate catastrophe. All sectors of society must take this fact into account and contribute analytically as well as constructively to averting this fatal development.

Against this backdrop, society today is facing two major transformations: The digital transformation and the transformation towards sustainability. In addition to the many benefits for economic and social interaction through the use of technology, the digital transformation also brings with it complex challenges for people, society and the environment. Among the most pressing are protecting individuals, democratic institutions and the environment as a livelihood, enabling participation in this transformation, and shaping inclusive and equitable social coexistence. The aim is to minimize the negative effects of human activity on the environment and on the living conditions of humankind itself, towards a prosperous social and sufficiency-oriented economic development, which is to be achieved through the socio-ecological transformation towards sustainability. This reduction of negative impacts, which is necessary for survival, must also be considered and implemented in the design and use of digital technologies. Both transformations are closely intertwined. From a sustainability perspective, digitalization is seen as both a savior and a threat to sustainable development. It can be a key to achieving certain sustainability goals and successfully implementing the socio-ecological transformation. It is also important that digital technologies themselves must be designed to be sustainable. Sustainability must be understood as a necessary condition for activities in the digitalization environment. This holistic perspective and an integrated understanding of sustainability are absolutely essential if we are to work toward a socio-ecological transformation with the help of digital technologies.

The aim of the activities of the research group “Digitalization, Sustainability and Participation“ is to conduct socially relevant research that adds direct scientific value and at the same time generates a benefit for society that goes beyond scientific knowledge gain and theory building. This desired resonance addresses economic, environmental, cultural and social aspects on an individual and overall societal level. The work of the research group combines basic research with a concrete application orientation. The aim is to achieve a high scientific and social impact, which is ensured by an interdisciplinary research approach and continuous exchange with stakeholders. On the one hand, this is necessary for conducting research. On the other hand, it ensures that the results are accessible to different scientific and societal communities.

In addition, inter- and transdisciplinary methodological approaches will be tested in order to scientifically establish innovative ways of researching the connection between social-ecological transformation phenomena. The findings are intended to be transferable to science and to lead to design options and recommendations for action for politics, business and civil society. Furthermore, the activities include the support and co-design of a socio-ecological and participatory transformation in practical projects.

The thematic focal points are structured as follows:

Group topic 1: Sustainable digitalization through sustainable digital technologies

We understand digital technologies as individual, societal as well as corporate tools and resources. Since tools always serve specific purposes and resources are made usable for specific purposes to which they are directed and for which they are designed, our focus is on sustainability-relevant design criteria, forms of use, and consequences of digital technologies. Thus, digital technologies should always be conducive to sustainability goals, or at least not detrimental to them, while serving different purposes of use. For this purpose, the facets of the concept of sustainability (ecological, social, economic and informational) must be outlined and their concrete applicability as well as their implications for digital technologies must be worked out. Based on this understanding, we move beyond a risks-opportunities-digitalization dichotomy and investigate conceptually, practically and constructively how digital technologies need to be designed and what framework conditions are required for a global sustainable digitalization. The interdependencies between the properties of the systems and the societal implications as well as the rebound effects in the sustainable design of digital technologies are in the foreground and are addressed by means of different focal points. Our investigations take technological, social and ecological perspectives, whereby digitalization is understood as a processual phenomenon and concrete digital technologies are also examined.

Specifically, the following sets of questions will be investigated: (1) What properties and characteristics must digital technologies have in order to be considered sustainable or convivial (life-friendly)? (2) How do, for example, data protection requirements, findings from technology impact assessments and economic framework conditions intertwine to make digital technologies sustainable - for example, in the sense of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? (3) What implications do the various forms of digitalization have for local social relations (redistribution of risk, effects on inequality, etc.) and what implications do they have for the global North-South challenge of sustainability transformation?

Group topic 2: Digital technologies for ecological sustainability

Digital technologies can be used as instruments for achieving ecologically sustainable development and as instruments for sustainable behavior on the part of users. For this purpose, it is important on an individual level to expand the awareness of the consequences of (non-) climate-friendly behavior and to rethink the ways of use, but also the framework conditions, of digital technologies. An essential aspect on the way to the maturity of individuals in digitalization is their digital sovereignty and the associated digital competence, so that the interactions between intention and sustainable behavior as well as digital sovereignty are also examined. One starting point for leveraging sustainability potentials can be the use of artificial intelligence approaches. For example, research will be conducted into where the limits of AI lie in order to contribute to the socio-ecological transformation, and where it even causes greater damage. The focus will also be on phenomena of socio-ecological transformation, activities to reduce the carbon footprint in the use phase of digital technologies, their resource consumption, and a transfer of principles of the circular economy into societal processes. In addition to the question of their utilization for sustainability, their unintended direct and indirect effects are addressed, since an isolated optimization of target values is usually too short-sighted. For a holistic view of the consequences of digitalization and digital technologies, the effects of, for example, energy savings on producer and consumer behavior will be examined with a focus on rebound effects.

The central guiding question in this topic area is: (1) How can digital technologies be used efficiently to contribute to the realization of ecological sustainability? Here, possibilities of using specific technologies to achieve sustainability goals will be considered. This also includes the activities of people, e.g. how can digital technologies be used to motivate users to behave more sustainably? Overall, the focus here will be primarily on the ecological but also the social sphere of sustainability.

Group topic 3: Sustainability through participation in the societal digital transformation

A key aspect of digitalization from a social sustainability perspective is the participation of people - whether employees in administrations, members in institutions, or engaged people from civil society - in the transformations that affect them. Our group will conduct participation research at two levels: Bottom-up initiatives and top-down transformation projects. We will study bottom-up initiatives through hands-on workshops; conducted with participants from the civic tech community and coordinated by an international team of researchers. We actively explore top-down design projects by accompanying, supporting and simultaneously researching the design of participatory formats in municipal transformation processes. This includes adapting tools from international partners in transformation projects in the Netherlands and Denmark for local contexts in Germany. A deliberate focus is on the socio-ecological transformation of rural areas in Germany, as a higher demand can be observed here than in urban areas. Success factors for successful participation in socio-ecological transformation processes are as much in the center of interest as are obstacles, intended and unintended, direct and indirect (side) effects. The projects to be researched are characterized by their local anchoring in selected cities and municipalities. Such case-based research aims to develop criteria and categories for participation that go beyond a theoretical understanding and are applicable to practice. This includes ensuring that local contexts and specificities are fully understood.

Central questions are: (1) How can civil society groups and organizations contribute to social-ecological transformation processes? (2) How can effective participation of people in transformation processes be realized in different local and regional contexts? Other questions that our work will consider relate to insufficient access (for example in public administrations), the analysis of inequalities in access to and use of digital technologies, but also with regard to the unequal impacts and affectedness by the environmental consequences of digitalization.