Technology and sustainability optimism

Innovative sustainable technology is considered to be positively contributing to sustainability. For example where new technologies are able to solve climate change problems providing clean energy solutions. Gonella et al. (2019) show in their article that we often have a too optimistic view on technology and sustainability. The question can be raised if it is true that new sustainable technology always have the purpose to serve the cause of sustainability? 

In order to answer this question it is necessary to first define technology and sustainability. Both terms are actually quite complex to describe and have different dimensions.

Technology includes techniques, skills, methods, instruments and processes used in the production of goods or services. Technology is a broad concept that goes beyond the activity of engineers, aimed at inventing and doing something good or useful. The meaning good and useful require also philosophical, ethical, economical and social perspectives.


Although it is true that technology can help us in finding new solutions for all sorts of problems in business, society and the environment. It is not always clear what additional resources are needed to develop these new technologies. Economic considerations are mostly leading in the discussion, because companies are investing in the new technologies to  improve business.

Sustainability is defined by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development as: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainable practices support ecological, human, and economic health and vitality.

In order to determine if new sustainable technologies increase sustainable development, we need to ask questions like:

  • Sustainable technology for what?
  • Sustainable technology for whom?

In reality sustainable technologies often only deliver partial solutions for specific problems and are there also side effects. Gonella et al. (2019) demonstrate this in the case of biorefinery, where technology made it possible to transform biomass into bio-based products (food, feed, chemicals, materials) and bioenergy (biofuels, power and/or heat). The expected advantages of bio-based production consist in significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel use. Technology makes it clear that advantages can be defined in terms of “for what” and “for whom”. 

However we should also look at the side effects. Biomass should not compete with  foodproduction and certainly not when biomass is being subsidized. There is also a transportation issue to deliver the biomass to the refinery. In fact the technology should be evaluated on all aspects, upstream and downstream, including the production to understand what positive impact is created and what negative impacts “for what” and “for whom”.  


In another case, the case of smart cities, the narrative of technology is often linked to wordings such as enhancing livability, workability and sustainability.  The European Union mention in their report The making of a smart city: best practices across Europe, the word mobility” 114 times, and the word business67. None of the words child/children, welfare, poverty, violence, disabilityinequality, gender, happiness, vegetation, animal(s), are present. Interestingly, the word greenappears 31 times, but only five of them are related to green spaces or areas. In the report only partial answers are formulated on the question if new technology will serve the cause of sustainability? For what? For whom?

Gonella et al. (2019) make a fair point that we should be careful with our narratives on technology and sustainability. We should not create false perceptions of a new sustainable technology which is always good for solving global problems and for everyone.

Norbert Bol


Gonella, F., Almeida, C. M. V. B., Fiorentino, G., Handayani, K., Spanò, F., Testoni, R., & Zucaro, A. (2019). Is technology optimism justified? A discussion towards a comprehensive narrativeJournal of Cleaner Production.

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