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A Conference for Digitalization and Sustainability? Reflections on Bits & Bäume

By: Nina Treu, Nicolas Guenot, Nick von Andrian



What could an alliance of techies and greens bring for a social, democratic and ecological future? The conference "Bits and Trees" ("Bits & Bäume" in German), which took place in Berlin on November 17th and 18th of this year, tried to shed light on this question. It brought together around 1.700 people interested and organized around digitalization and sustainability. Merely the name of the conference says a lot about the organizers' intention to foster mutual debate and new alliances. The idea came from the observation that despite a widespread interest in both digitalisation and sustainability, there are very few occasions to discuss what these two concepts have to do with each other. The conference was an attempt to address this issue, by setting up a first gathering between communities which share many goals but are not yet working together on a regular basis. The program was organised around seven topical tracks: * "Alternative Economics" in which sustainable and local alternatives were discussed, including Open Source and Free Software, Cooperatives and other economic models, * "Data and Environment" in which the contradictions between data privacy and digital solutions for environmental problems were discussed, in particular concerning digital solutions for the energy transformation, * "Fundamental Issues" in which broad questions were treated, such as the politics of digitalization, its social and economic consequences, or the deep belief or disbelief in technology, * "The Material Basis of Digitalization" in which the environmental impact of hardware production and use was addressed, as well as means to make the conditions of production more sustainable, * "Digital Capitalism" in which the critique of giant data companies and platforms were discussed, along with the debate around automation and the future of labour, * "Smart City, smart Land" in which the dissemination of "smart" devices in cities, houses or farms was analyzed, as well as the impact of digital technologies on mobility, * "Civil Society and Communities" in which the grassroot movements working around digitalization or using digital tools had a place to discuss various projects. Moreover, there was a "Forum" were various organizations and projects could present their work, giving a space for exchange and discussion to all participants. This included NGOs but also local projects, educational films, art exhibitions, and a "chatroom" to allow everyone to network. Ten organisations were involved in the project, representing various aspects of the discussions around digitalisation and sustainability. Among them Chaos Computer Club Germany, Open Knowledge Foundation, Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IÖW) and Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie (Laboratory for New Economic Ideas / Degrowth Hub Germany). For a complete list see the website. Bits and trees - the tech community and the environmental scene - clearly have their differences. However, a broader understanding of sustainability including social justice and individual rights makes for a frame in which many questions are shared among the actors.

Discovering common ground

Even on topics that seem very context-specific, there were surprisingly many connections to be made. For instance, the massive environmental impact of the current digitalisation driven by large corporations is often underestimated, just as the existence of a strong resistance within the tech community against digital capitalism is easily overlooked. On a broader level, both sides in this encounter struggle with half-hearted attempts to integrate a watered-down version of their criticism in a supposedly social and green capitalism. To see this, consider the many corporations trying to greenwash their industrial activities and global tech-players trying to avoid criticism of the working conditions they impose on workers (see Apple and its contractor Foxconn) or the use they make of their users' private lives (see Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal). Such denials provide common grounds for the tech and sustainability communities to fight together. In addition to showing the connections between the overarching goals and struggles, the conference also helped to identify cases where ecology and technology are already fruitfully combined. For example, environmentalists where happy to learn about open-source solutions to help communal decision makers with the transition to an efficient renewable-energy-mix. Techies were interested in the way environmentalists organized successful campaigns. Civil rights activists from both sides united in their struggles for digital sovereignty.

Towards a shared imaginary

The aim of the conference was not just to discuss the urgent problems raised by digitalisation and the social and environmental crisis, but also to share ideas about what an alternative, sustainable digitalisation could look like. This discussion will continue. It can build on the manifold existing movements that are pushing for a better society, such as the Degrowth or Free Software communities. At the same time, the event showed clearly that much more common ground needs to be built. One of the biggest challenges will be to find a language that engages both communities: since both have their particular topics and backgrounds, it was difficult at times for non-specialists to engage and become aware of ways in which they can contribute. This became apparent during discussions at the conference, leaving non-specialists overwhelmed with information and experts disappointed by the lack of depth. Many events were first steps to the connection of the topics and had an introductory character, which can be seen in titles such as "How much weighs one bit?" (as in: what is the environmental impact of one bit?) or "Mobility and Digitalization". The conference concluded by voicing with 10 demands for another digitization, which can be found below this text (note: translation by the authors of this text, an official translation on the website is in preparation). Make sure to also check out the huge variety of talks and panel discussions, all of which can be accessed on CCC’s very own media platform. Note: a bunch of the videos had simultaneous translation into English (those on the big stage), so don't be discouraged by German titles! The English voice-over can be accessed directly in the video player.

Moving forward

A relatively small group had organized the conference over the last year. Beyond representatives of the ten organisations, a small conference team worked hard for several months on all practical matters, making it possible to host a conference with way more events and participants than initially planned for, with over 100 events.  The preparation itself was an experience in its own right, providing the parties involved with different backgrounds a lot of learnings about differences in culture and common grounds. This process was indeed intended as a collaboration that would set an example for more organisations to connect and work together. The conference was an excellent starting point for the exchange of and collaboration between the different movements. However, creating political pressure will demand a lot more. That means that a lot of work remains to be done. As one of the organizers put it: "This was a nice first date, but now we have to work on making this relationship work." ____________________________ Demands (note: translation by the authors of this text, an official translation on the website is in preparation). Another Digitization is possible! The jointly organized conference "Bits & Bäume” allowed us to initiate a broad and much needed discussion on technology design which serves the common good and peace, takes data protection seriously and promotes social and ecological goals in equal measure. This event, which was a collaborative effort by ten organizations from the fields of digital rights, environmentalism and development policy, hosted over 1,700 visitors, countless sessions, ideas and outstanding use cases. This shows: civil society and a critical scientific community have the skills and the strength to help shape digitization in the long term. We cannot merely leave digitization to business and politics. From now on, we will be even more present and united in both public discourse and practical implementation. Together we make the following demands: Social-ecological objectives in the design of digitization
  1. The design of digitization must serve the common good. It shall not pursue only the promotion of an economic growth agenda, but must aim to promote social, environmental and development policies as well as peace objectives. Digitization must contribute to a sustainable transformation of energy, transport, agriculture and resource policy. Moreover, digitization shall foster human rights, climate protection goals as well as the end of hunger and poverty. A sustainable digitalization in our definition relies on meaningful, decent work, social justice and sufficient lifestyles.
  1. Digitization must be made more democratic in itself and at the same time support democratic processes instead of counteracting them. To this end, it must be consistently geared to promoting emancipatory potential, decentralized participation, open innovation and civil society commitment.
Data protection and control of monopolies
  1. Data protection, freedom from manipulation and informational self-determination shall be promoted both nationally and globally as essential prerequisites for free, democratic, peaceful and sovereign societies.
  2. We need to create basic conditions for controlling digital monopolies in order to enable a self-determined digital economy in the North and the global South. Existing monopolies of operators of commercial platforms must be broken, for example by imposing a mandatory predefined interface for exchange between social media services.
  1. Political regulation must begin to see knowledge and education about technology and its consequences as part of the public good; this has to become an elementary component of public knowledge. A critical and emancipatory handling of digital technology should be part of digital education, including the competent handling of false information and hate speech in digital media.
Aspects of development and trade policy 
  1. Countries of the global South must have the opportunity to develop their own digitization according to local and national needs. The costs and benefits of digitization shall be shared equally between all societies. Negative aspects, such as inhumane working conditions, environmental pollution, damage to health and electronic waste must not be unilaterally passed on to the global South.
  2. Bilateral and multilateral trade agreements must not contain any prohibitions or restrictions regarding taxation, open source disclosure or localization.
  3. The technology sector must be obliged to respect human rights and ecological due diligence in the mining and production countries when faced with issues of resource conservation and sustainability.
IT security
  1. Deficient software has negative consequences for its users, the security of their data and the digital infrastructure as a whole. Software liability is needed so that software developers bear the responsibility for the risks that arise (e.g. security gaps) instead of subjecting the quality of their software to profit. IT security is the foundation of a sustainable digital society.
Longevity of software and hardware
  1. Software must be adaptable to individual use, repairable and fit for long-term use, as is the case with open source software. For example, manufacturers must provide security updates throughout the lifetime of hardware-devices and make a variant of the source code open source at the end of support instead of installing "software locks".
  2. Electronic devices must be repairable and recyclable – we have to eradicate planned obsolescence or built-in obsolescence of electronic devices. To this end, warranty periods must be massively extended; manufacturers must offer spare parts, repair tools and know-how for everyone and keep it permanently available. This must go hand in hand with greater financial support for open workshops or repair cafés as well as for Research & Development projects geared to the common good. Public funding must be granted to open source products exclusively.

About the authors

Nina Treu

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Nicolas Guenot

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Nick von Andrian

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