The Technology-Environmental Policy Nexus — Tech with a Green Conscience

By Delon Omrow

March 28, 2023

The Technology-Environmental Policy Nexus — Tech with a Green Conscience

In what ways do new and emerging technologies – even when labelled as ‘green’ – intensify the environmental degradation that is typical of the Anthropocene? In what ways could these technologies be used to mitigate the environmental impacts of human activity? In keeping with the ethos of Ontario Tech University’s commitment to the discovery and ethical application of knowledge and social innovation in a tech-focused world, The Faculty of Social Science and Humanities, and the Digital Life Institute’s Sustainability, Equity, and Digital Culture research cluster hosted a SSHRC-funded symposium to explore such questions.

Entitled, Tech With a Green Governance Conscience: Exploring the Technology-Environmental Policy Nexus, the symposium addressed broad issues such as illegal and legal animal trade, invasive species, climate change, smart cities, smart homes, tech-inspired economic expansion and Indigenous environmental knowledge among other things.

Adopting an interdisciplinary and intersectional approach, the symposium was a community-of-inquiry event, and it set out to build expert capacity for undertaking policy research and analysis on the role of advanced technologies in addressing environmental governance challenges such as biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution, epidemiology and ecosystem health, and resource depletion. Experts were invited from several locations (including Australia, France, California, Boston, Ottawa, and other locations) to join several Ontario Tech University faculty members to engage in rich discussions of the implications of advanced tech in environmental governance issues in hopes to galvanize action, improve resilience and inform policy.

This event focused on the next generation of technology and its interaction with the human environment, encouraging innovative solutions for the most pressing problems that society faces, leading to discussions surrounding both the positive and potentially negative impacts of implementing this technology on human communities and nature. Various themes of the tech-society-ecology interface were explored, chief among them the authoritarian intensification of digitalized environmental governance, “technocratisation” and the ethical implications of sacrificing democratic legitimacy in the face of imminent environmental destruction. While technology is seen as a solution to the prevailing problems characterizing the anthropocene, the ‘Anthropocene Gap’ – that is, society’s failure to address the most profound environmental challenges of our time – is growing and Earth system complexity and technology often seem irreconcilable. However, presenters at the symposium offered nuanced explanations of the role of technology in global environmental governance through wildlife forensics; web scrapers and the governance of online illicit markets in endangered species; technoscience, biosecurity and biological conservation; and even the role of the metaverse in the fight against climate change. Participants also explored how institutionalized spaces for dialogue, reflection and deliberation lead to adaptive environmental governance in the face of power and politics – both of which challenge or undermine the functioning and performance of any environmental governance system.

By building a community of practice (CoP), attendees reflected on how technology advances the identification and understanding of environmental problems and sustainability concerns, drawing upon lessons learned from the COVID-19, epidemiology, and biosecurity interface. Questions around the role Indigenous and local communities play in the process of technological governance were also addressed, emphasizing multi-stakeholder collaborations in digitized environmental governance.

Combining theory development and case studies of the tech-society-ecology interface, the symposium offered new vistas of inquiry in the interplay between politics, technology, and global environmental change. Although analyses and discussions were broad in scope, some important insights were generated by symposium participants. Important among this was an assertion that our green technology toolbox for managing environmental impacts must include traditional ecological knowledge. Another important insight was that although autonomous AI systems and other advanced digital technologies could assist in environmental crime prevention, increase efficiency in cities and supply chains, assist biodiversity monitoring, and help forecast environmental risk and security, the same technologies can be used to exacerbate environmental damage in all these same areas. Great promise must be matched with great caution and an awareness that technology offers no panacea on its own. Participants asserted that tech may even worsen such problems if ‘left to its own’ without purposeful and thoughtful evidence-based environmental innovation, digital tech policy guidance and its use, along with resources directed at enforcement, monitoring, and broad citizen buy-in to policies that mediate the technology-environment nexus.

The symposium opened deep and rich areas of research for which Ontario Tech University and the Digital Life Institute’s Sustainability, Equity, and Digital Culture, along with their global and local community partners, seem well-positioned to explore. Participants discussed multiple trajectories of new research, including publication and funded research projects in multiple areas. The symposium served as a great example of the need to engage in technology research simultaneously from the social sciences and applied technology vantage points while being meaningfully guided by the knowledge of Indigenous communities and practitioners in the environment and community development spheres.