Can hi-tech ever be sustainable?

Can Hi-tech ever be sustainable? In a lecture I gave for the IET in Cambridge in April 2019, I suggested that there are fundamental reasons why it will never be. This is attached.

Do you agree? If hi-tech can never be sustainable in its present form, is there anything we can do about it?

IET Lecture on Sustainability 2019-04-18.pdf (1.9 MB)


This is good, robust logic. Shout from the rooftops :slight_smile:

Thanks - that’s really interesting. I shared that with my colleagues at Zero Waste Scotland who were really interested. One of them also sent me this link in response;

Hi Chris

Yes that’s a really good presentation of the issues, except you don’t appear to refer to the responsibility/motivation of our governments/politicians to legislate or nudge to, err, ‘encourage’ high tech manufacturers (and their accountants/financiers) to evolve their products in more long-term socially-desirable ways - was that because of the audience of the presentation, or do you think governments are unwilling/impotent so it’s not worth considering?


Loved a lot of the provocation but we had the same questions. Not only in relation to “Right to Repair” as it’s been fairly narrowly defined…

But David Li talks about one of the major hurdles to reuse of ICs being the intellectual property regime itself.

Mariana Mazzucato calls this “value extraction” as opposed to “value creation”.

And on the topic, we’ve recently revisited Low Tech Magazine and loved it.

I absolutely agree, Ian. However, the IET specifically forbade me to be at all political!

I would have liked to have said that (all) Governments’ objective since time immemorial has been to maximise economic growth, which is nearly equivalent to maximising consumption. So much has to change in the way our society operates in order to change this, that I’m in awe of the task, and in my blacker moments, I wonder whether we can achieve it in time.

I also worry that we are blindly building dependency on hi-tech. A generation ago with the advent of calculators, we forgot how to do mental arithmetic, and now we’re forgetting how to read maps translate foreign languages etc etc.

If anything ever happens to disrupt hi-tech, I hope I’m in the village in Ghana where we go frequently, as they never assume that hi-tech is going to work!

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not a Luddite about hi-tech - I love gadgets as much as anyone - but I also make sure that I can still do things the old way - just in case…


:smile: — so talking about policy is “political”?

Me too

LA haute technologie peut être durable. En effet, la technologie ne vaut que par la portée et le sens que l’homme lui Donne. Si l’homme veut qu’elle le soit, elle le sera.


You are of course right, @GUIVI_ELIAS_OPPORTUN_C that we can make things sustainable. Unfortunately, every aspect of our financial system discourages it. By 2050, everything will need to be endlessly repairable, needing nothing more than some energy (ie no endless supply of spare parts). A blacksmith could achieve this, but the hi-tech industry cannot.

Earlier in this thread, David Li talked about Intellectual Property preventing re-use. To achieve sustainability, a law would have to be passed that said that as soon as some spare part became unavailable for any reason, all the knowledge about how to make it would automatically become public, so that anyone could make a replacement for themself. (I’m not sure how this would work if there was only one machine capable of making it, and that no longer existed.)

So much about the way we do things today is going to have to change for sustainability to be achieved, I wonder whether we’re going to manage it…