Sustainability 2.0? Why technology isn't a panacea

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About one billion cellphones are thrown away every nine months. I can't imagine Nitin Kawale thinks much about that most days.

The president of Cisco Canada is too busy preaching his brand of techno-evangelism.

"We all use smart devices," he told a gathering inside a large hall at Caesars Windsor at a Federation of Canadian Municipalities' (FCM) Sustainable Communities Conference last February. I was an observer and member of the CAW Windsor Regional Environment Council (CAWWREC) -- and one of the dumb invisible minority apparently.

Sitting among all those people chatting on their cellphones, texting, scrolling, tweeting and browsing on their iPads and laptops, I felt like a tech holdout from the past century with my notebook and pen. Especially as Kawale, whose company's motto is "tomorrow starts here," delivered Dale Carnegie-style one-liners whose purpose was to inspire or startle his congregation.

"The future is going to come a lot faster than it is," he said. Also, we are living in "the Internet of everything" -- whatever that means.

Kawale spoke of how enveloping technology has become with people attached to their Blackberries and other mobile devices. He claimed that the concept of "work-life balance" no longer exists.

"It's really work-life blending," he said adding the 9-5 workday is over. "It's been over for a while. It's really about doing work and not about going to work."

Which is fine if you're a tech-savvy youngster or six-figure executive who can afford vacations and other diversions. No so much for the blue-collar worker or single mom holding down two or three part-time jobs and her sanity.

Kawale chastised Canada for what he said is our record of poor innovation and productivity outputs. The country is becoming a global mid-level player in those two areas which are key in boosting economic productivity, he said, and Canada needs to build a culture of innovation.

"You have to decide when is your when," he added in that cryptic, pseudo-intellectual manner.

In Kawale's view, Canadians probably aren't throwing away their cellphones fast enough.

I am not anti-cellphone, or anti-technology for that matter. I just inherited my own such phone recently, having taking over a plan for my son who is teaching in South Korea. At the same time, I was given an iPad Mini as a gift.

I just challenge those who preach the need for all this technology, even in as incongruous a setting as a FCM conference on sustainability that suggested grassroots, low-tech solutions to many urban problems as lower speed limits and hopscotch. Kawale's lecturing aside, I suppose I should take some solace that Canadians are a little more sensible when it comes to our attachment to cellphones. But doesn't all this gadgetry fly in the face of sustainability?

Richard Florida -- dubbed an "intellectual rock star" academic and writer by Fast Company magazine -- was keynote speaker at the FCM conference. We learned he would be appearing via "telepresence" courtesy of Cisco.

His "live" keynote speech would be delivered through a screen. Save for a few questions and answers at the end of the speech, we may as well have watched it on TV.

All this technology and energy in networking -- is this what we mean by sustainability?

Ignoring the likely reason that organizers opted for Florida's telepresence (from, of all places, Florida) was because he comes cheaper that way, I tried to see the environmental wisdom in this practice. A major speaker like Florida does a lot of traveling, after all, and burns a lot of carbon in the process, I reasoned. Indeed, David Suzuki suggests video conferencing as one way to achieve a sustainable, carbon neutral conference.

But what really rankled about Florida's remote keynote speech is the technology used to deliver it and how pervasive it has become in our society. I found the almost religious repetition of technology as messiah a mixed message in a conference that strove to build "sustainable communities."

One plastics industry shill actually claimed we could feed a greater number of people in the world if more food was packaged in plastic.

Still, the conference presented simple sustainability solutions such as the Canadian non-profit group 8-80 Cities' proposal to limit speed limits in residential areas to 30 km/hr. A pedestrian's chances of dying are 80 per cent if she is hit by a car at 55 km/hr, and that decreases to just five per cent when the speed limit is 30. Lowering speeds means fewer accidents and it will raise property values and encourage people to walk and bike as well as shop at local businesses, the group argues.

Another speaker cited Detroit, Michigan building the world's longest hopscotch course. It re-introduced hopscotch to youngsters and found a way to involve seniors by reaching out to them to teach them the game, said Dr. Catherine O’Brien of Cape Breton University.

There was the example of Ciclovia, a growing movement that means "bike path" in Spanish. Cities are closing down portions of their streets to automobiles for the enjoyment of cyclists and the public.

It's another example of "sustainable happiness," the concept developed by O'Brien who defines it as "the happiness that contributes to individual, community and/or global well-being and does not exploit other people, the environment, or future generations."

So where does technology fit into all this? I recalled a newspaper report that found digital data centres use about 30 billion watts of electricity, the equivalent of 30 nuclear power plants. A single data centre can use more power than a medium-size town, said Peter Gross, who designed hundreds of them.

Florida, to his credit, recognized that there are other things rotten in the state of Canada that have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with people and our economic and political system. The director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management who writes and lectures about the "creative class" ended his telespeech by warning about the class divides that are "tearing us apart."

Florida said 40 per cent of Canadians make six figures while 45 per cent are stuck in low-wage, service jobs. He called that divide unacceptable and said it will haunt us.

After his speech, one delegate from the Fort McMurray area of Alberta praised Florida, particularly his exploration of the shift from, as he put it, "the working class to the not-so-working class."

Another delegate from Prince Edward Island told me over breakfast that he thought Florida has become a one-trick intellectual pony, repeating the same message about the rise of creative class over the last 20 years.

In a tech-crazed world that seems to be spinning out of control, there may be comfort that at least that much is sustainable.


Claudio D'Andrea has written for newspapers and magazines both in Ontario and B.C. for more than 25 years. He is based in Windsor, Ontario and is recording secretary of the CAW Windsor Regional Environment Council.

Photo: Mark Bartlett

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