Make it better or don't make it

March 2, 2001

To survive in the new economy, businesses must show how they enhance our lives, argues James Wilsdon.

It was like a carefully planned military operation. At strategic locations across the United States, a fleet of 9,000 trucks revved their engines and 100 planes rolled down runways. Their mission: to deliver Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to a nation hungry for instant fulfilment.

It sounds crazy, but it happened. In July, teamed up with Federal Express to deliver 250,000 copies of the Harry Potter book to eager US fans. True to the spirit of one-click shopping, no effort was spared in ensuring the book hit people's doormats on publication day.

Over the past year, we have heard a lot about the wizardry of e-commerce. But remarkably little has been said about the wider impacts on society of the e-revolution. How will it affect jobs and local communities? What will it mean for the environment -for energy use, transport and the future shape of our cities? How do we ensure that we all enjoy the benefits of digital technologies?

Take Harry Potter. Individually wrapping 250,000 books and express freighting them overnight is about the most environmentally unfriendly method of distribution imaginable. It seems likely that it not only set a new record for e-commerce delivery, but also for the quantity of greenhouse gases and packaging waste generated by a single novel.

Change is happening so fast in the digital economy that it is increasingly hard for researchers and policy-makers to keep pace. Our Digital Futures project has tried to stand aside from the herd tendency of internet oversell to take a hard look at the impacts and opportunities of the digital economy. A consortium of three government departments, eight think-tanks and 14 companies has spent a year exploring particular pieces of the internet and sustainability jigsaw -from local communities and social exclusion, through to energy use, planning and transport.

This month, we publish a book that outlines an agenda for a sustainable digital economy aimed at government, business and the research community.

The most important conclusions to emerge from our research are that the worst thing we can do is to worship unthinkingly at the altar of the digital god, and that there is a lot more work and research needed if we are to make the economy cleaner, greener and more socially inclusive.

But there are real opportunities. Unlike sectors such as oil and chemicals, which have had to retro-fit social and environmental concerns in response to stakeholder pressure, e-business is uniquely placed to incorporate them at the design stage. Young, fast-changing companies can adapt more easily than those trapped in established mindsets.

As Tim Jackson, the founder of QXL, has said: "Now that we realise e-commerce is not a passport to untold riches, it is time we gave some thought to something other than money."

He is right. If internet businesses are to be with us in ten to 15 years, they are going to have to prove their worth. There is no better way for them to do this than to embrace the social and environmental agenda. If companies can demonstrate that they contribute to improvements in our quality of life, they stand a much better chance of survival.

Taking up this challenge requires creativity, innovation and alliance-building. It requires us to think differently. But this is what e-businesses are good at. We need to channel their dynamism and creativity for the benefit of all -to turn the new economy into a force not just for economic good, but for social and environmental good, too.

James Wilsdon is senior policy adviser at the think-tank Forum for the Future and editor of Digital Futures: Living in a Dot-com World , published by Earthscan this week.

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