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S2E02: Digital Journey to Sustainability with Dr Cathy Mulligan

How can digital technologies accelerate climate action? Or do they exacerbate climate change? Web3 technologies have long been paramount in achieving sustainable development but often criticised for their huge energy consumption. How can we ensure they are designed and used in a sustainable manner? What are the challenges when developing and deploying digital technologies to tackle climate change? How can we make Web3 more accessible to people in developing countries?

Join us in this episode as we interview Dr Cathy Mulligan, a Visiting Research Fellow and Co-Director at Imperial College London to gain a deeper insight into the role of digital transformation in building sustainable societies.

Listen to the episode here and see the transcript below!

Xiao Wei: Hello everyone, and welcome back to the season two of The GreenHouse. We are Xiao Wei and Cass, and we'll be your hosts for today's episode.

Cass: Today we've brought on Dr. Cathy Mulligan, who is a visiting research fellow and co-director at Imperial College London. Her work focuses on digital technologies' social and environmental implications, particularly the fields of AI, blockchain and 5G. Hello, Cathy. Can you introduce yourself and walk us through your journey to a career in sustainability?

Cathy: Sure, absolutely. So hi, everyone. I'm Cathy Mulligan and I am currently a visiting lecturer at Imperial College London Business School. How have I gotten involved in sustainability? Well, it's a bit of a long story. As you probably can hear from my voice, I'm an Australian. And I studied computer science and business as my undergraduate in Australia. And I was really, really, really wanting to do the most difficult technical problems I could find. I was very nerdy, very geeky. And I went off in search of the most complex technology problems I could find, in particular in networks. I ended up living and working in Sweden for a while.

And as a result of that, through a couple of different things, I was sent to the North Pole as technical support for climate change researchers. And through that, I was really inspired to think about what I could do with my technical skills as an engineer to preserve our beautiful world. I was suddenly struck by the work that these climate change researchers were doing and thinking, well what am I doing with my life? So, I went to study a master's in engineering for sustainable development. So, I did that one at Cambridge, and then I continued my PhD there as well. And ever since then, I've basically looked at my different opportunities and I split my time between academic research and the real world (I call it the real world, out there doing things), really trying to understand how digital technologies can help us achieve sustainability. And by that, I mean a world that is able to balance the environment, the economy, and society appropriately in a just and ethical manner, as well as ensuring that we have a planet we can live on.

Xiao Wei: Thanks for your introduction, I really liked how you want to use your own technical skills to address climate change, as it's a very big issue right now. So, given that the digital and net zero transitions are two of the biggest trends affecting society nowadays, how can we utilise these centralised battery technologies to help tackle climate change?

Cathy: It's a really good question. And also a really interesting one. So, I think we actually need to think about these types of things extremely carefully. Lots of different proposals have been put forward for decentralisation and web three to help us achieve sustainability. But I prefer to think about these kind of sustainable society, sustainable development solutions not really directly from a technology solution perspective. So, I think "how do we use web three to fix climate change?" is really focusing on the wrong end of the problem. And I think we need to think about it instead, from a boundary definition problem, which seems like a very fancy way to say something. But actually, all I'm trying to say there is we need to shift human society. We need to shift the way that we are making goods, buying goods, using goods, consuming goods, disposing of goods. And we need to look at the problem first, and then think about where digital technologies fit in. So, I don't think we should be focusing on the use of decentralised technologies, per se. And I also think we should look at decentralised or web three technologies from a much broader perspective. So together with communication technologies, together with things like AI, and machine learning, and data supply chains. But I have over the years, looked very much at how we can apply digital technologies, such as web three into that problem space, and I've realised that that's actually the wrong way around to look at things. So right now, I'm sort of trying to work out the best problems that we can apply digital technologies to solve, if that makes sense.

Cass: That's very interesting to hear how different perspectives could be used to tackle climate change as an issue as a whole and how technology fits into that big picture. So given that we're on the topic of digital technologies, we noticed that you've published a research paper on blockchain for sustainability, and that paper sparked a lot of discussion regarding the use of blockchain in achieving sustainable development, through means like enabling carbon credit trading, or peer to peer energy systems. But blockchain is often also criticised for its huge energy consumption, as well as its carbon emissions. So how do you think we would tackle or address this issue?

Cathy: Yeah, it's another extremely good question. And, we're seeing the same questions arise around the use of AI models, for example. They are consuming huge amounts of water. So, we've seen some of that in the press recently, as well. And so, I think when we're thinking about the application of technology, you know, any technology but also specifically around digital technologies, we need to start thinking about how to balance all aspects of the solution. So currently, when we build solutions, we're thinking very much from a cost benefit perspective, if you know what I mean, we're implementing a technology reassessing how much it costs and working out how much money we're going to make from it. And I think that we also need to think about ways to measure and balance the three prongs of sustainability, if you will, which is society, economy and environment. So, we need to work out a way to balance all of those things, when we're building and implementing solutions.

We're entering a period, quite frankly, of climate instability. We actually don't know how the climate around us is going to react in the face of all of the different tipping points and boundaries that we've crossed recently. And so, I think, as a society, we're actually starting to enter a period where we're going to need to make really tough decisions about our resources. We're going to have to start making decisions about what resources can be used, where they can be used and why. And you've got to think about that much earlier in the development of a particular solution. So, is the economic impact provided by a solution worth the environmental impact it's causing? And we can think about that in terms of web3 for carbon markets. So, a simple balance there, could be to say, well, we're helping the world reduce carbon through this creation of a new carbon market. But how much environmental damage are we doing as a result of applying blockchain technologies to do that? And I currently don't think we have developed the methods properly to do that.

In addition, I mean, I think I remember the paper you're talking about; we suggest that policymakers need to do more to assess how to ensure we're building digital technologies, and in particular blockchain, that are actually aimed more properly at solving the net zero targets. So obviously, we're doing all of this digital technology work within the scope of a lot of other work that is going on in the world. There's a massive policy shift and regulatory change coming through, we're seeing a lot come through from the European Union, but it's also happening globally, a big interest in what we classify as ESG, or environment, social and governance issues. And policymakers have a role to play here I think, in helping us aim at the technical work, the technical developments, and also the research that we're doing in order to achieve those net zero targets. And I think there needs to be a greater work now between policymakers and those implementing the digital technologies to make sure that we're actually directing, what are very large efforts now, there's lots of people trying to do this, but we need to make sure they're helping direct it in the right direction.

Xiao Wei: Yeah, I definitely agree with what you say. Seems like technology right now is early stage. And we need like more concrete groundwork for the technology to have direct impact to achieve net zero strategies. So, given that, what are the other hurdles when developing and deploying digital technologies to tackle climate change?

Cathy: Yeah, so another excellent question. So, when you're thinking about achieving climate change, quite often we have an issue. Well, it's not a dissimilar issue to any entrepreneurial activity, actually, in a digital space. How do you scale it? We've seen lots of different, really quite innovative, fantastic ideas that have been built using digital technologies. But the issue is how do you scale it so that you can actually have a dramatic effect on the climate? And I think that's a key issue, not just for digital technologies actually, but for a lot of the other solutions out there for climate change. How do we get the entire planet, basically, to adopt these kinds of technologies or their interpretation of those technologies? Right, to see how we can do that. Again, I think climate change is really about a societal transformation. And digital technologies can be applied to enable it to be a less dramatic or less traumatic, shall we say, transition? But yeah, I think the biggest one is scale. We've got great ideas, but how do we scale them?

Cass: Yeah, that's very interesting to hear. I don't think scaling is one of the factors that we thought about previously. So, it's really good to know that that's one of the biggest challenges that technologies are facing when it comes to solving this problem. One question that we also had when we were looking into this was that, because digital infrastructure may not be as well developed in certain parts of the world as compared to the UK, for instance, how can we implement sustainable solutions using web three or digital technologies globally, especially since climate change is such a global problem?

Cathy: Well, I will say one thing, I did a four-year project once which was looking at rural India and rural UK, and the digital infrastructure in rural India was far in advance of the digital infrastructure in rural UK. So, let's not assume that everywhere else in the world doesn't have as good technology as we do. Sometimes they have better, however, you've made a good point. So, I think in terms of access to digital infrastructure, I think that's not just a problem in the Global South or certain countries.

We have a big problem with access to digital infrastructure within the United Kingdom. We saw this actually with COVID, that there were entire parts of the British school population that didn't have the digital technologies to attend school during COVID. So digital infrastructure could be excellent but if nobody can afford to use it, or doesn't have the skills to access it, it's not a very useful infrastructure. So, I think there's a couple of things we can do in that space. Firstly, we should work with the end user communities. We should talk to them and again, focus on the problem that's trying to be solved. Maybe digital technologies aren't the right solution for that particular group of people, maybe there could be other solutions. We should also always consider accessibility and connectivity as a fundamental part of any solution that we design.

And then finally, I think that we can also take some slightly different perspective here, which is, if we look at climate justice, which is that the West have, in fact, caused most of the environmental damage globally, and it falls to them, you know, this is a probably a personal opinion, not everybody will agree with me on this, but it falls to them to reduce and remove and fix the damage that's been done. So, I think within the global north, for want of a better phrase, the digital infrastructure is probably good enough to help them reduce the environmental impact. And then we need to talk about different issues though, which is around accessibility, applicability, scalability. And indeed directing the technology at the right problem, not the wrong problem and pretending it's the right problem, if that make sense.

Xiao Wei: Yeah, I really echo your idea of the climate justice thing, because definitely Global North has more power to actually like change the whole accessibility of the digital infrastructure. So outside of your research work, you also founded the sustainable society digital collective. What inspired you to start it? And what was the most interesting topic you had to discuss in the group?

Cathy: Yeah, so the Sustainable Society Digital Collective actually came out of a research grant that I was principal investigator for quite a few years ago. It was called Sustainable Society Network Plus and, of course, when the funding ended, the network ended. It's a very common problem in academic research. But I found that I really missed the interdisciplinary activities and the exchange of ideas and the approach that you can get from bringing very, diverse and very different types of people together. So, they may have very different skills. We've got some people who are working in telecommunications infrastructure, other people are working in agriculture. So, I also realise that at a certain point in time, the technologies and platforms are available which enable you to put these kinds of communities together much more easily.

I basically decided to restart it as a form of experiment to see how we can catalyse those working on digital technologies to help them disperse their knowledge, their ideas, to create some of the scale that we were talking about in one of your previous questions. How can we help scale great ideas rapidly and quickly? And how can we solve some problems by putting different perspectives together, different people together in the same room? So, some of the interesting topics have been the use of digital technologies in agriculture, something I'm extremely interested in and always been sort of very focused on looking at. The other one is also around this issue of AI and how we can create a new approach to AI which has more care and concern in it for humans, rather than just thinking about AI from the perspective of robots. But we've got a lot of different discussions that are starting to emerge at the moment. So, I'm really excited to see where it goes, and what ideas come out from those discussions. And you're very welcome to join if you want to.

Cass: That sounds really great. And really fun, actually, I really appreciate how it really brings people from so many different disciplines and industries into like discussing this problem of sustainability, especially since climate change is such an interdisciplinary problem. Other than the physical sciences, social sciences are also looking at the same problem from different perspectives. So, I think that's really interesting. So, this is a bit of a jump from where we were talking about, more on like the future of the sustainability landscape. Given the rising role of digital technologies, how do you think its role will involve in the sustainability landscape in the next five to 10 years?

Cathy: Well, that's a challenging question. And anyone who makes predictions is usually proved wrong very quickly, but I will, I'll do my best for you. So, I think that, like I said before, we're entering a period of instability, both in climate but also a little bit geopolitically.

So, I think that digital technologies can help us maintain supply chains. I think they can help us maintain connectivity across the globe, even though we're probably going to be facing some really, really difficult challenges in the next few years. In particular, I'm really interested in creating what I call short supply chains for food or micro supply chains for food. We've done some research on that previously, that was really quite exciting. So how can you create local supply chains for food within, you know, sort of a city, for example? So how can you help them cope with problems in supply that will probably emerge. We're seeing a lot of crops fail across the entire globe, not just in different areas of the world that we're used to. So, we've seen the crops of olives, have pretty much failed in Spain this year. How are we going to actually ensure and manage that we can feed people? I think it's really interesting challenge. I think, also, it will be really interesting to see how we can use digital technologies to take environmental damage out of the markets. So, for example, is there an effective way to use some of these technologies to improve carbon markets, make them more robust, make them more reliable? I think there's also some really interesting ways to think about digital technologies to prove that people have done things, to make sure that the environmental impact that they said they have had, they are actually having, and more effectively track different issues around biodiversity loss, and also potentially, hopefully, regeneration.

The other thing that we have to remember is that we never know what's around the corner in digital technologies. I always think, oh, no, that was the last piece of technical advance I'll see in my lifetime. And then all of a sudden, you'll get something like Chat GPT just explode out, but people were saying for a long time, "AI is nowhere near ready, it's nowhere near, you know, going to have an impact in our lifetimes". And we can already see, even though they're very, very basic models, and they're very, very, you know, basic, really, they're already having a pretty dramatic impact and causing a lot of different types of ethical and social problems as well. So, I do hope as well, that digital technologies will ultimately evolve out of silicon. And what do I mean by that? Well, I would hope that we move beyond in our material science. I hope that we move to more natural sort of materials for building, what we would classify today as silicon. We're seeing some interesting work being done, for example, in storing data in DNA or in plants or in trees; could be a very interesting way for us to think about evolving digital technologies. So, I'll be proven wrong tomorrow, don't worry, but that's what making predictions is about.

Xiao Wei: Yeah, I think it's crazy to see how like technology advanced so quickly for the past 10 years. And even you're talking about storing data in like trees and DNA, like, that's so cool. And I really hope that technology will actually play a very important role in like solving climate change or even like, sustainability issues more concretely. So, for the last question, based on your experience, what advice would you give students who are looking to have a career in sustainability?

Cathy: Well, firstly, great career choice. I think it's going to be a growth industry and it's desperately needed. I think my advice to someone who's looking for a career in sustainability is the same advice I'd give to any student who's about to start out, right. Your generation really is uniquely challenged, in the sense that it looks like all of the problems that our generation and previous generations before me created, are falling on your shoulders to solve. So don't be shy in telling us that we're doing the wrong thing. I think quite often, when you start off out in your career, you can be a little bit shy and a little bit quiet. Well, as an Australian, I didn't really have that problem. But I would advise speaking up, because it's the first step to getting heard to be honest.

The other thing is, I think, there are a number of different ways to pursue a career in sustainability, you can probably go into a corporate job, and many people do try and take that route. My personal reflections upon trying to do sustainability within the corporate setting is that it’s actually very difficult. So, I think it could be also very cool, if you're a little bit more, you know, wanting to really challenge the status quo, it could be really interesting to create your own startup, or create a more advisory role for yourself. And some of my friends, straight up after university, went to create their own consultancy, which a lot of us were going, "Oh, that's insane", but they built a fantastic company. It's really successful and doing really well now. So don't be afraid to try something a little bit different as well, because we need different for sustainability. We can't do what everyone else has done.

Finally, if you think I can help, feel free to reach out, I'm always happy to help students.

Cass: It's very inspiring to know, like the example that you mentioned, your friend building their own company. And sustainability is always about pushing the status quo, because without challenging it, we can never push our society closer to the goal that we have, that we envision. So, I think that's all the questions we have for this episode. Thank you so much, Cathy, for sharing your research and your experience in the digital technology industry.

We really appreciate your time and your sharing. And we will definitely look into the Sustainable Society Digital Collective and will inform our society members about it as well. Unfortunately, we have come to the end of this episode, but I hope all of our listeners have learned a bit more about the role of digital transformation and building sustainable societies. This has been Cass and Xiao Wei from The GreenHouse, and we hope you visit again.

Cathy: Wonderful, thank you. Thank you very much for asking me to join. I had a great time.

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