New economy: online shopping or shared knowledge?

OECD Observer

OECD Forum, 15th May, 2001– Sustainable Development Round Table: Sustainable Development in the New Economy; moderator Lionel Fontagné

The digital revolution will not automatically bring benefits for the environment, said H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University. “The jury is still out on the question of net benefits from e-shopping”, he told a round table on sustainable development in the new economy at the OECD’s Forum 2001. In any case so far it accounts for no more than 1% of total US consumption, Mr. Mellon said. He noted that often e-mail order book purchases led to negative environmental effects, with, for example, popular books being individually shipped to customers using high polluting modes of transport instead of more ecologically-friendly modes such as bulk shipment. Often, too, consumers did not travel less because they were e-shopping but rather used online purchasing to free them up for traffic-augmenting expeditions elsewhere.

Moderator Lionel Fontagné, Director of the French Centre d’Etudes Prospectives et d’Informations Internationales (CEPll), said that new technology is not always an advantage because increased use of green products will weaken gains. Governments do not have a clear picture of the right institutional architecture, or of where the debates should take place.

Svend Auken, the Danish environment minister, asked “What’s so new about the new economy?” He said information technology (IT) was a tool that could not alone change the nature of the economy. IT facilitated research and development, innovation, but also new forms of organisation, increase of labour force and import of capital.

“The flip side of this has been a certain instability, since many people have invested their pension funds in this unstable capital”, said Auken. He also warned of the danger of intellectual life being “impaired, because of being commercialised”.

However, the IT revolution also provided some positive changes, according to the Danish minister – such as abundance of data, and the possibility of better managing systems for energy consumption. He gave the example of water pumps that can now be operated through digital systems that have decreased power use by 70%.

Joanne Kauffman of MIT said notions of sustainable development and the new economy were not givens. The process needed to be managed, because there were many interconnected aspects, and things often did not work out as generally foreseen. She quoted the example of the “paperless office”, a widely expected benefit of increased computerisation, which had in fact not come about. On the contrary, in the US, for instance, there had been a substantial increase in the amount of office paper generated.

Ms Kauffman stressed also that knowledge was not information. It was more accurately a knowledge chain, a new way of thinking with wide ramifications into such areas as the environment. It would notably help in identifying the drivers of the economy.

Cecilia Brighi of Italy’s CISL union federation thought the question of definition was important. “The knowledge society must be socially-based”, she said, emphasising the importance of bridging the digital divide that had opened up between advanced societies and the developing world. She recalled a South African court decision aimed at making widely available cheaper AIDS treatment as a reminder that intellectual property issues were really key democratic questions.

In a short intervention from the floor, Christine Maxwell of the Internet Society warned of the danger of publishers going into “fortress mode”, while Mr. Auken emphasised that the current major problem was to avoid creating new impediments to the free circulation of knowledge and information. “Maybe we need a new index, something that measures the increase in the number of lawyers,” he joked, to the amusement of a full auditorium.

Other comments from the floor included a call from a North American participant to ensure that the new economy produce ‘only winners with no losers’ while Norwegian trade unionist Bjorn Erikson called for a return to the situation where governments ensured wide diffusion in the public domain of research that increasingly was being held in private hands.

James Wilsdon, of the UK’s Forum for the Future, said the important thing was to build a bridge between information technology and sustainable development. He produced a list of “Ten Dot commandments” but the point that aroused most interest was the final commandment: a plea for time to think in a digital age where people work harder and harder, yet often lack the time to think about what they are doing.

Shalini Venturelli, of the American University and Internet Society, stressed the importance of knowledge access and underscored the key link of sustainable development to civil society. “We need to think about ideas more than technology,”she said. “What we are really talking about today is the ídeas economy, and the balance between short term and long term concerns is vital.”

©OECD Observer May 2001

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