Interview: “Digitisation Urgently Needs to Be Used for Justice and Environmental Protection – The Bits & Bäume Conference Is More Important Than Ever”


From 30 September to 2 October 2022, the second Bits and Bäume (Bits & Trees) Conference will take place at Technische Universität Berlin. We talked to Friederike Hildebrandt about the role of digitalisation at German environmental NGO BUND, as well as the importance of the conference.

Author Sarah-Indra Jungblut:

Translation Mark Newton, 07.27.22

RESET: Friederike, you are BUND’s first research assistant on digitalisation and environmental policy. Why was this position created?

Freiderike: As the name suggests, BUND – Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation Germany – works on environmental policy and nature conservation. Of course, this happens a lot in nature conservation projects – for example, we look for and protect the garden dormouse, a very cute relative of the dormouse.

But environmental protection is not only about protecting species, it is also about preserving the future in a sensitive manner. Many current environmental crises result from our growth-driven economic model. The biggest challenges here are the climate and resource crisis and species extinction. These are triggered and driven by the way we produce and consume. If we want a just, liveable future on this planet, we must therefore look at industries and societal changes. Digitalisation is one of the biggest social trends of recent years and a rapidly growing industry. It is my task to keep this in mind.

Friederike Hildebrandt, economist and activist, has been working at the Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz (BUND) as a research assistant on digitalisation and environmental policy since the beginning of 2021.

Part of the Friends of the Earth network, BUND was founded in 1975 and has since become Germany’s biggest single environmental organisation. Due to this, BUND has been recognised by the German government for its contribution to conservation and must be consulted on certain issues within the framework of the Federal Nature Conservation Act.

How does BUND position itself in the field of sustainability and digitalisation?

Of course, there is no such thing as digitalisation, but the new introduction and development of digital technology has an effect on social trends that were already there before. If we look at environmental crises, they were not triggered by the digital industry. The climate and resource crises have been a problem for a long time, but with the power consumption of data centres or the resource requirements for digital devices, new problem areas have been added. And unfortunately, studies also show that digitalised processes are not necessarily more energy and resource efficient.

At the same time, digitalisation offers new opportunities for communicating and processing knowledge. Fridays for Future was one of the first big movements that could become strong through messenger services and social networks. At BUND, we use the ToxFox app to make environmental data as easily accessible as possible for consumers. Users scan the barcode on cosmetic products, for example, and ToxFox provides information about harmful ingredients. These are possibilities of communication that would not have been possible with simple press work and brochures before.

What do you want to tackle in the near future?

We are currently focusing on the digital industry, i.e. the large platform companies, manufacturers of digital devices and operators of data centres. Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Netflix alone have a higher carbon footprint than Portugal and Greece – we want to focus more on that.

And then, of course, there’s the Bits and Bäume Conference, where we’ll be offering very different workshops. We will present ToxFox, discuss with politicians and researchers what the digitalisation of municipalities should look like in order to support environmental protection and sustainability, and will discuss the importance of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies in the socio-ecological transformation on a large panel.

BUND is also one of the sponsors of the Bits and Bäume Conference, which will take place at the beginning of October. Why is this cooperation between Bits & Bäume so important to you?

In order to work politically effectively on sustainable digitalisation, it is very important to network the environmental movement and the tech community. At first glance, the focus of net activists and environmental activists is different – we fight against the destruction of the environment and for data protection and digital freedom rights. But these interests are inseparable for a sustainable and just world – there are no freedoms on a destroyed planet and you can’t save a planet with surveillance and the destruction of democracy.

Bits and Trees Conference, 30.09. to 02.10.22, Berlin

All information about the conference and ticket sales can be found here.

RESET is media partner of the Bits and Trees Conference. We are looking forward to being there!

What does it mean to be a member of the supporting group?

The supporting group of the Bits and Bäume Conference consists of 13 organisations from the environmental, social and digitisation sectors. What unites all of these organisations is the conviction that we need an ecologically and socially just transformation of society. We want a social-ecological future for all, in which digitalisation plays a positive role and supports people, livelihoods and the environment.

We officially organise the conference and take care of the framework funding, for example, but actually the movements and communities carry the event. None of our structures would work without the volunteers and the conference office.

How has the response been so far; have you received many applications for the call for participation?

We have almost 400 submissions, from movements, small startups, academia, and net policy movements and from all over Europe, from which we are currently selecting the best.

The Pitch & Thrive format is also special this year, where sustainable business models can be presented.

In 2018, the first conference took place, which was very broadly based. This time there are focus topics. What has changed in the last four years in the Bits & Bäume community – and also in the discourse on sustainability and digitalisation in general?

At the last Bits & Bäume, the question of whether digitisation is an opportunity or a risk for sustainability was still very much in the air. Since then it has become clear: Both are true, but both need to be addressed quickly.

As already mentioned, digitalisation is not just a theoretical risk, but is exacerbating ecological and social crises in real terms and every day. Be it cobalt mining in Congo, human rights violations along supply chains or the destruction of nature by new data centres and chip factories.

At the same time, there are more and more ways to use it positively: Smart heating systems help save energy, properly used and privacy-sensitive, smart city approaches offer opportunities for better planning of transport and improving quality of life, and knowledge for sustainable development is more accessible than ever.

If we want a smart-friendly future, we need to limit the risks and expand the opportunities. This must happen simultaneously and, above all, quickly. That is why we have a special focus on global justice, economic structures, democracy and climate protection. Digitalisation urgently needs to be used for justice and environmental protection – that’s why Bits & Bäume is more important than ever for networking, knowledge exchange and discussions.

And that’s how the event is meant to be: it’s not about organisations presenting themselves, but about exchange, inspiration between activists and scientists, networking of movements and learning from each other.

This is the basis for creating sustainable digitalisation and for digital technology to support climate and environmental protection.

Thank you for the interview, Friederike.

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