Andrew Bibby



Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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New ways of working
and sustainable development

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first written for a Danish client in 2001 .

Properly implemented and with adequate regulatory controls, new ways of working — such as telework - offer the potential of benefits for both individuals and firms. But can they also benefit society more generally?

Advocates like to point to the savings in energy use which teleworking can achieve, caused by fewer commuting journeys and business travel — though it is also the case that teleworkers sometimes reduce the benefit of this by using their cars more for non-work purposes. But some of the participants at the Telework 2001 conference in Helsinki tried to take the debate a stage further: what is the role of new forms of work organisation in the quest for a more sustainable global economy, they asked?

Sustainability is generally defined as the sort of development which satisfies the needs of the present without risking the ability of future generations to meet their own needs . The issue is increasingly — and rightly — making its way up the international agenda, with preparations under way for the summit in Johannesburg next year which will review progress ten years on from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. But the way forward to sustainability is by no means obvious.

Superficially, greater use of information and communication technologies does appear a promising development, if it means a switch away from material to immaterial ways of living and working — digitised documents rather than paper reports, for example, or videoconferencing rather than air travel to international business meetings. Robert Pestel of the European Commission indeed suggested at Telework 2001 that without ICT global sustainable development would be impossible.

But he went on to stress just as firmly that the rapid rollout of ICT does not automatically lead to sustainable development. The problem is that that the greater economic growth potential which the use of ICT can offer can itself lead to greater prosperity and greater consumption of raw materials — the so-called rebound effect.

Pestel’s view was that the route to sustainability lay not in curtailing economic growth but in stimulating accelerated economic growth and linking it to accelerated structural change in the way in which societies operate, including reductions in overall global inequalities. He called for research to model the possible transitions from the industrial to knowledge-based society, and the role of new ways of working in this process.

Another telework specialist, British consultant Stephen Simmons, was also concerned about the rebound effect. Simmons maintained that the growth in consumption brought about by greater efficiency and by an increasing world-wide middle class would be greater than the savings which would be achieved by dematerialisation. "This is a race which can’t be won," he told his Telework 2001 audience. His solution, he said, would be to look for approaches in which material consumption was reduced but where the overall quality of life remained high - a new low-impact consumer society that was as satisfying but vastly less environmentally damaging than today’s material-based world. "The problem is that we are following the wrong trajectory. The solution is a new trajectory," he said.

This sort of debate can too easily be labelled as utopian or irrelevant. In any case, as Ursula Huws pointed out a day later at Telework 2001, any talk of dematerialisation should be tempered by the knowledge that western societies are producing (and throwing away into landfill sites) ever increasing quantities of all too tangible material goods. Nevertheless, the issue of sustainability is likely to become increasingly important in debates about new working methods. Perhaps Auli Keskinen from the Finnish Ministry of Environment should have the last word: we should move to a position where the ‘e’ in e-work and e-commerce — and eEurope - stands not just for ‘electronic’ but also for ‘ecological’, she suggested.

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