Etla: Digitalization is testing the sufficiency of resources

It is predicted that in 2030, energy consumption in the ICT sector will be 21% of the world’s energy consumption, but will resources be enough to carry out all digital technology development trends simultaneously? Developments in digitalization, such as switching to fifth-generation network, online gaming and the rise of electric cars, increase the need for both storage and computing power and energy. The ecological effects of digitalization should be investigated. Etla brings a new term, digital ecology, into the field to examine the effects of digitalization.

Digitalization has proceeded promptly in the society: brick and mortar have moved to ecommerce, companies are using algorithms in their operations, and machine vision and learning are applied more. In addition, next technological breakthrough, transition from the fourth-generation network towards the fifth-generation network, is coming.  On the consumer side, the use of various streaming services is increasing, and the aim is to transmit image with increasingly accurate resolution.

– All of these changes require more storage and computing capacity and energy. The capacity that is currently under construction is specifically targeted at video streaming and online gaming. It is predicted that even 80‒90% of online data traffic will soon be related to streaming video and online gaming, says Researcher Timo Seppälä from Etla.

The need for more storage and computing capacity as well as for energy will also increase in other ways. E.g. as electric cars become more widespread, they require a share of electricity production, when before cars have mostly operated on fossil fuels. The developing autonomous functions of cars also increase the need of storage and computing capacity, which is again reflected in the growing need for energy.

As digitalization progresses, no attention has been paid to what digital resources cost and who will eventually pay the expenses. Do Finnish industries and services pay 80‒90% too much of the fixed costs associated with maintaining storage and computing capacity? The increase in capacity and energy consumption does not serve the industry: most of the streaming and online gaming services are free, and therefore the economy is not benefiting from any kind of production of these services. The digital future is said to be on a sustainable basis, but its ecological effects are still to be clarified. To explore these effects, digital ecology was developed.

– Digital ecology is an evolving framework that examines the impact of digital technologies on the biophysical environment. The effects of digitality have not been investigated in the existing industrial ecology, but digital ecology focuses specifically on them, says Seppälä.

The questions are also aroused by organizing Finland’s security of supply on a sustainable basis. At present, 1.54 percent of the storage and counting capacity at European level volume data centers are located in Finland. When the capacity is currently coming outside Finland’s borders and at the same time the core functions of society become more digitalized, we need to consider how to ensure that we have capacity at our disposal in case of disturbance. Should capacity be built here to ensure security of supply for critical digital infrastructures? The location and ownership of software in digital infrastructure, among other things, are also important factors in security of supply, and it might be worth considering to locate them inside the borders of Finland.

 

More information: Researcher Timo Seppälä, ETLA, +358 46 8510500, timo.seppala@etla.fi

Digibarometer 2019

Seppälä, Timo – Mattila, Juri – Rajala, Risto: Is the Digital Future Sustainable? ETLA Brief 80