Higher-order sustainability impacts of information
and communication technologies
Karel F. Mulder & Dirk-Jan Peet
Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are considered to be clean technologies.
But underneath the surface of free flowing bits and bytes there are quite a number of issues which
accelerate or oppose sustainable development (SD).
“Normal” innovation is aimed at increasing efficiency of products and processes. However, the
ICT sector still has revolutionary characteristics: it creates new systems that provide new functions
and services that do not merely make existing systems more efficient. Such new systems co-evolve
with new types of behavior that might have both positive and negative sustainability effects.
These indirect effects of new ICTs are often more important than the direct effects and have
bigger effects on SD. For example ICTs not only accelerate trends such as globalization of compa-
nies but also facilitate the easier and free spread of knowledge to educate people. They might not
only diminish cultural diversity but also create opportunities for developing countries to access
In this chapter, we describe several indirect effects of the ICT sector that are relevant for SD.
ICTs, like all other technologies, are far from being “neutral tools”. ICTs will lead to different
impacts in the industrialized world than in developing countries. This chapter will reflect on those
impacts and the options to assess these impacts before introducing them.
Over the past decades, ICTs have achieved a high speed of innovation. We have witnessed the
emergence of a huge mobile applications industry in connection with the wide use of smart
phones for professional and private purposes. It has changed our way of life and led to cultural
changes, not only among youngsters and teenagers, but also among adults and professionals.
Furthermore, computers, computer networks, electronic mail, and the Internet have resulted
in new e-commercial industries and pervaded virtually every professional organization and our
personal lives. Both IT and telecom have resulted in new infrastructures such as glass fiber
networks and GSM transmission systems.
New products, services, and infrastructures do carry with them the promise that they are very
beneficial in economic and social terms and have a low environmental impact, especially in
comparison with traditional sectors and industries. However, the ICT industry requires a growing
amount of energy, mainly in the form of electricity from the grid and from batteries. Data centers
require megawatts of power and are often limited in their choice of location by the availability of
grid capacity. E-commerce requires services of data centers and the fast handling, distribution,
and delivery of small orders and may lead to a strong increase in transportation compared to
traditional shop distribution.
The attentive reader might conclude that Jevons’paradox or the rebound effect is a second-order
effect, which is absolutely true. These so-called second-order effects are very common, to give
an example, energy use of data centers has been reduced dramatically, but the use of services has
grown even more impressively, facilitated by the reduced energy costs. The second-order effect,
growth of services, is in this example environmentally negative. Despite big strides in energy
efficiency, the total growth outstrips the savings reached.