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Converging technologies for Sustainability?

Is technology our last desperate hope to avoid radical climate change, resource depletion and environmental degradation?

Current developments in nanotechnology, life sciences, and other so-called convergent technologies (AI, VR, AR, 3D printing, IoT, Robotics, Blockchain) are fueling hope that long-term technological, environmental, and economic sustainability can be achieved through responsible research and innovation in these areas.

The first major program on converging technologies promoted the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science (NBIC) to improve human performance (Roco et al., 2002). The concept of convergence thus provides a framework for developing a strategy that aligns many partners around a social problem to be solved.

The most common sustainability definition is: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. With this definition, the 1987 Brundtland Report leaves open various possibilities as to how sustainable development could be achieved. In a sense, this definition of sustainable development could be a license to do whatever it takes to meet our own needs while investing in technologies that will enable future generations to meet their own needs as we do. If we are to keep our economic promise to future generations without compromising consumption and economic growth, technology (with its ever-accelerating convergences) could be the wild card that keeps us from conserving or living within certain limits.

In the vision of a finite world in which resources must be conserved, restored, recycled or replenished, it is often said that there can be nothing really new, but (as in the conservation of matter) only redistributions and distributions of what already exists. We have inherited the planet Earth and all of nature and we must pass them “as is” on to the next generation. The convergence of technical-scientific promises, on the other hand, is the regime of innovation, of the search for renewable energies and of the systematic exploration of new properties.

These scientific promises might encourage us, skeptical of technology as a solution to all our problems, to pin our hopes on this wild card in a somewhat desperate attempt to achieve sustainability.

Or should we remain skeptical? The future will tell.