With more than 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions around the world, and more than 100 million (and rapidly growing) machine-to-machine communications, wireless technology is ubiquitous, convenient, and increasingly integrated into our daily lives. Nonetheless, it is not clear how wireless technology has been deployed to enable solutions to longstanding environmental and social problems.
After consulting with more than 20 wireless industry experts and analyzing data from a wide range of sources, we developed two substantive reports focused on the wireless impacts on the environment and society. In “Wireless and the Environment,” we reviewed the role wireless can play in reducing the environmental footprint of the transportation, utilities, agriculture, and public services sectors. “Socioeconomic Impacts of Wireless Technology” explored the development of wireless technology in society through four lenses: health care, finance, education, and community empowerment.
Both reports noted the growing potential for innovative wireless solutions to improve the environment and societies around the world, such as “smart” wireless traffic-control devices that could reduce emissions by 20 percent, or wireless health care initiatives that dramatically improve access to health care information and could save up to US$2.1 billion annually in the United States alone.
At the same time, the reports call attention to ongoing challenges resulting from the manufacture and use of wireless technology, including the environmental costs of the manufacturing and disposal of products, as well as concerns about privacy, freedom of expression, and supply chain labor rights.
Through discussions among professionals in various fields and presentations of these reports at industry forums, our work has demonstrated some of the possibilities for wireless technology to address human and environmental needs. It has also encouraged a deeper debate about the role of wireless technology in a sustainable society, and it called attention to the need for solutions to ongoing environmental and human rights challenges associated with the production and use of wireless technology.
This project highlighted three lessons about the use of technology to support progress in sustainability:
- Since wireless technology can monitor data at any time and any place, important information can be communicated instantly, enabling more sophisticated resource allocation and providing data-driven evidence to encourage behavior change and operational efficiencies.
- Collaboration leads to innovation. Combining experts in urban planning with wireless-application developers, for example, can lead to new ideas about using wireless technology to manage and improve traffic flow.
- New solutions can result in new sustainability risks. Whether it’s protecting the privacy of wirelessly available personal health data or managing the environmental impact of distributed microsensors, the industry should identify and address emerging concerns to ensure that opportunities are not derailed by concerns about impacts.