Breaking free

Jorma Ollila outlines the environmental opportunities in connecting people through mobile technology

The future is arriving fast. New communications technologies are evolving around us and the power of mobility is transforming lives. As we move forward, the borders between telecommunications and information technology will become increasingly blurred. Nokia’s future handsets, for example, will not be mobile phones, they will be more like personal trusted devices with multiple applications, combining our keys, credit cards, passport and complete communicator needs.

There is no doubt that the advent of these kinds of high speed products and services will minimize our dependency on time and place as we each develop our own virtual identities in the digital space. In short, we are living in a world where the virtual is becoming the actual.

But technology as such will not decide the course of development. Much will depend on individual lifestyle choices. How will we use the new freedom that advanced technology brings? Will we achieve energy and resource savings in one area, then squander them through other means – borrowing from Peter to pay Paul?

The major environmental opportunities presented by the mobile information age stem from two phenomena which environmentalists have called ‘dematerialization of production’ and ‘immaterialization of consumption’.

‘Dematerialization’ refers to the decline over time in the energy use and weight of materials in industrial products. In our business, the trend towards weightlessness is manifest in the shift away from building fixed-line phone networks and in the ever smaller and lighter base stations and phones that Nokia produces. One of our early mobile phone models from the beginning of the 1980s, for example, was so heavy and clunky that one needed a car to take it around. The phone I now use weighs less than 100 grams and fits comfortably in my pocket.

Thanks to information technology, dematerialization is also occurring in the amount of physical resources used in product manufacture. Production processes and material streams are being better controlled, enabling the increased use of process by-products. Even at the level of logistics, better control and greater gains are possible if production and distribution is done in an electronic environment.

‘Immaterialization of consumption’ on the other hand refers to replacing material goods with ‘immaterial’ services. Our family no longer uses an answering machine at home, as we each have our own personalized service provided through our mobile phones. In the future, we will no longer buy CDs or rent videos, we will be able to purchase the rights to various entertainments through electronic means. A visit to a bank will be replaced by on-line financial services, a simple postcard will be substituted by real-time multimedia messaging, and more and more hardware will become software. Essentially, we will be paying for the experience in future, not the product.

Unexpected outcomes
But, like everything else, this shift brings some environmental uncertainties. One such is the rebound effect which actually increases the overall scale of production and consumption, so that the net environmental effect comes out negative. An example of this is the much-touted move towards an electronic paperless world, which has in fact seen total paper consumption soar. Similarly no communications technology has so far actually resulted in a net reduction in transport and travel: rather than being set free from travel, people are, ironically, made free to travel more.

We need to ask ourselves how the resources, time and money saved from advanced telecom services should be used. If we have more free time, will we increase our consumption and travel more? It will be up to us whether we act in sustainable or unsustainable ways. This is not, of course, to ignore the fact that many people in the world still wake up in the morning with no choices, aside from finding ways to stay alive.

Isolated issue
In the past, big businesses typically treated the environment as an isolated issue assigned to a division of experts who were then duly exiled to remote corners of the firm. They also saw pollution and waste issues as a matter of just doing the minimum to keep the authorities at bay.

Environmental work today is driven by a range of new stakeholders. Trade customers looking downstream to their product users put pressure on manufacturers to operate in environmentally responsible ways, while government legislators create laws to allay the effects of industry on the environment.
I imagine a world where we include sustainable development in all our personal decisions...
Then there are the high-profile non-governmental organizations who help keep corporations on their toes in the public arena, and the growing number of green funds that now include ecological issues in their investment criteria.

Spurred by these new incentives and a greater understanding of the possibilities involved, concern for the environment has now become fully present in the mainstream policies of most industry players. Big corporations are no longer satisfied with simply not being the bad guy. They understand the larger responsibility attached to environmental awareness and are demanding more from themselves. They are even looking for ways to make a difference through leadership.

The transformation of the corporate giant from despot to deliverer is one thing. But I would come back to the role of the individual and personal accountability. The situation has become steadily more complex. There are no longer clear villains and victims. There is not even a clear distinction between producer and customer, particularly with the explosion of on-line communications.

Customers, or so-called ‘prosumers’, provide information on what they want – and goods are produced accordingly. On-line bookstores let customers recommend and write reviews. And, if a customer discovers a flaw in a product and does not get an appropriate response from the manufacturer, the next course of action is to go on-line and effectively tell the world. Selling satisfaction, not just products, has now become the key.

But how does this relate to sustainability? In this consumer-driven market companies cannot afford to ignore the central issues, like concern for the environment, that guide people’s thinking. We need an ongoing open dialogue and the opportunity to learn from each other.

Learning curve
Alvin Toffler, the futurist, said a few years ago that ‘the illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn’.

There are still many unknowns, but it is important to acknowledge that we are all on the learning curve together. Technology as such does not decide the course of the future, but it does empower us to facilitate change. I imagine a world where we include sustainable development in all our personal decisions and where we no longer passively distance ourselves from our decisions and our actions. In the end, what we do is all the world has left

Jorma Ollila is Chairman and CEO of Nokia.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Driving change | Clearing the bottlenecks | Commuting sustainably (Singapore) | Transported to the future (Curitiba, Brazil) | Bucking the trend (Freiburg, Germany) | Message from the UN Secretary-General | Message from Cuba | Message from Turin | Competition | Breaking free | Calling for change | Reaching the unreached | Greening the screen | Taking the lead | Wanted: more good reporters | On the dot | The city century

Complementary articles in other issues:
Mark Hickey: No wires attached (The Environment Millenium) 2000
Tom Burke: The greening of Goliath (Beyond 2000) 2000
Terrell J. Minger and Meredith Miller: From hydrocarbons to bits and bytes (Looking Forward) 1999