Smart technologies can enable cities to tackle their sustainability challenges. However, technology itself can also be a threat to global sustainability if its impacts are not managed well. It impacts on the environment across the life cycle of a product or service – in manufacturing, distribution, consumer use and disposal. Technology is a large consumer of natural resources, including precious metals and fossil fuels.
Energy use is the single largest contributor to the carbon footprint of the ICT sector. In 2012, around 5% of the world’s total electricity demand was consumed by ICT (Gelenbe and Caseau, 2015). Some of the electricity is used when the ICT equipment is in standby, which means when it is not fully closed down or performing its main function.
Electrical or electronic goods are a significant source of hazardous waste as they can contain lead, cadmium and brominated flame retardants. Informal processing of such waste in developing countries can cause serious health problems and pollution, because regulation of these processes is limited.
There is a huge opportunity to ensure that smart technologies are designed to minimise their impact on the environment and on wider sustainability. The key is to ensure that the benefits of smart technology as an enabler outweigh technology’s own sustainability impacts. An example would be to ensure that a smart energy meter is well designed so that its impacts on the environment during its production, use and disposal are minimised.