Technological myopia and sustainability podcast

Society often endows new technology with powers it does not possess, whether for good or ill.

It also tends to rely on future technological developments to solve emerging problems, while ignoring the potential of existing tools to bring solutions. This is rarely more true than in the field of sustainability.

In this podcast, we discuss our preparedness for natural and unnatural disasters, the unintended consequences of a regulatory drive toward green design in infrastructure, and what the role of corporates might be in shifting our focus for the benefit of future generations.

Speaker profile(s)

David Crowther is the Editor in Chief of Emerald’s Social Responsibility Journal, and Professor at the University of Bedfordshire, Luton, U.K. He has published more than 60 books and contributed several hundred articles to academic, business and professional journals and to edited book collections. He acts as a consultant to a wide range of government, professional and commercial organisations, and established the Social Responsibility Research Network and the Organisation Governance Network and conference series. His main area of research is in sustainability, governance and corporate social responsibility with a particular emphasis on the relationship between social, environmental and financial performance.

Dr Koorosh Gharehbaghi is a lecturer at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. His area of expertise is largely in sustainability and green construction. He has worked as an academic and professional engineer in both the public and private sectors. He is currently involved with the Transport for NSW and Department of Transport (Victoria) as a senior technical advisor to civil Infrastructure projects such as Sydney Metro and the Suburban Rail Loop.

Kristijan Krkač is Professor at the Zagreb School of Economics and Management, Croatia. He is also an associate editor of Emerald’s Social Responsibility Journal. His research interests are mainly in business ethics, CSR and sustainability, and in the philosophy of Wittgenstein. In these areas he has published 12 books, and has edited and co-edited 8 textbooks. He is the author and co-author of more than 120 original scientific, professional and review articles, book chapters, and encyclopaedia entries.

You can find key articles from all three guests in the Emerald Publishing journal Technological Sustainability.

The guest host is Charlie Swift from

In this episode:

  • What does sustainability mean from a technological, economic, social, and environmental point of view?
  • How can best practice in sustainable construction be better shared and supported globally?
  • What paradoxes arise when multiple disasters arise at once?
  • Who or what is capable of creating a more sustainable future?
  • What role might AI have in sustainability?

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Technological myopia and sustainability

Charlie Swift (CS): Hello, I'm Charlie Swift. Emerald’s Social Responsibility Journal and its sister journal Technological Sustainability are official journals of the Social Responsibility Research Network SRRNet. SRRNet brings together scholars who are concerned with the social contract between all stakeholders in global society, and consequently with the socially responsible behaviour of organisations. Today's guests have contributed to one or both journals, and are deeply invested in issues of sustainability and social responsibility. Taking a cue from David Crowder's recent article in Technological Sustainability, we'll be discussing the notion of technological myopia and we'll be looking in detail at the development, application and ethics of technology in the context of sustainability.

Our first guest is Professor David Crowder, who is speaking to us from the UK.

David Crowther (DC): Hello, I'm David Crowther. I am the founder and president of SRRnet. I'm the founder and editor in chief of Social Responsibility Journal. I'm on the editorial board of Technological Sustainability.

CS: We are also joined by Dr Koorosh Gharehbaghi in Australia.

Koorosh Gharehbaghi (KG): Hello everyone. Yes, my name is Koorosh Gharehbaghi. And I am an academic at Senior Technical Advisor Consultants. My background lies within the civil infrastructure, particularly green infrastructure, including green buildings and so on, done a bit of research in that area. And we have our clinical team going at the moment, both in academia as well as professionally, looking to different aspects of sustainability, green infrastructure, green buildings, and so on.

CS: And by Professor Christian Krkač in Croatia.

Kristijan Krkač (KK): Hello, my name is Kristijan Krkač. I'm a professor at Zagreb School of Economics and Management. I am a member of the same network. Also, I am an associate editor of Social Responsibility Journal and a member of editorial board of Technological Sustainability journal where fields are mostly in corporate social responsibility, or should I say irresponsibility as sustainability, and also being philosophy and ethics.

CS: So, I'm going to begin by putting the same question to each of you in turn, from your perspective, what does the term sustainability mean. David first.

DC: Well, the interesting thing about sustainability is there's no agreed upon definition of what it does mean, we generally talk about things like making sure that decisions made in the present don't affect the ability to make decisions in the future, which if you think about it is complete nonsense, because every decision we make affects the future. And this has been going on for us 50,000 years when early man started killing off the megaphone that doubt affected the decisions that were available to us. Now. On the other hand, normally, I guess nobody really wants to kill megafauna. Now we're quite happy to go down the supermarket and buy our food instead. So, I think we need to redefine what we mean by sustainability. Essentially, it's a future oriented, or we need to make sure that the ability of people in the future to make decisions which are important to them, is maintained.

CS: Thank you. Koorosh, what's your view on this?

KG: While looking to civil infrastructure, you have the three pillars of sustainability, which are the environmental, economic and social benefits or looking at more complex nature of the infrastructure projects, including green infrastructure green buildings, we believe that the fourth dimension which includes the technical aspects, which traditionally is considered to be sort of other lapping within three areas, there could be something as a separate pillar itself, that's quite important to separate that engineering pillar engineering aspect because it will deal with sustainable constructability design, structural performance, particularly with the green innovative design processes, which are quite important in in the sort of today's climates. The emphasis on civil infrastructure, including Union Buildings is Taking a bit of a term.

CS: Okay, we'll find out more about the pillars of sustainability in a moment. But Kristian, meanwhile, what does sustainability mean, from your perspective?

KK:  Thank you. Well, since I was engaged in not so much in corporate social responsibility, but in a negative term in corporate social irresponsibility, I continue to do that, concerning sustainability. So, I'm trying to research what is not sustainable. And in effect, went when I researched mostly, mostly not, not all, but mostly the natural and unnatural disasters that occur, at least in the last, let's say, 30 or 40 years. I noticed that, besides the fact that number, magnitude, whatever feature, it may be considered irrelevant. It's such disasters. They are there, there are, let's say four times more natural disasters of all types, relevant types, in last 40 years, and are concerning most of them are humorous, were perhaps not completely, but let's say almost completely unprepared for them. So that our solutions that to take care for people and environment before such disasters, especially in cases in which we can predict them with certain level on proper probability that during the disasters, and especially after them, shows that we are in this aspect, completely unsustainable. So, we are not prepared, for example, are our procedures concerning humans, concerning societies clustering cultures, because ascending economies, political systems, I don't know, if our computer or not, or commercial said, I believe more about that, about dark architectural designs are completely unprepared for disasters of the current magnitude, they occurred globally. So, I'm not talking about some local small disasters, I'm talking about disasters, which reflect on global social, political, economic, and other aspects of our, of our societies.

CS: Okay, thank you, David, we've heard quick references that are the pillars of sustainability, could you just define those for us clearly, and, and explain why they need to be considered equally.

DC: The three pillars of sustainability are the environmental, the economic, and the social. And the reason they need to be considered equal, and everybody agrees it is an equalist, that they balance each other. If we take action that affects the social, there's going to be an effect upon economic and environmental, if we take action about the environment, there's going to be an effect upon the social and economic they're not independent, each affects the other will what's important and why it's why I think it's important to keep stressing the equal that equality of these pillars is that everybody accepts that these pillars are equal, and then proceeds to ignore that and just deal with one pillar or at most two pillars, and ignore the effects upon other pillars. And that's one of the problems we have when we start dealing with sustainability issues.

CS:  Can you give an example of one pillar being attended to the neglect of another?

DC: We started building downs as a way to produce electricity in an environmentally friendly way. And yeah, it does that the effects the social because power is more available effects the economic because it's an effective way of doing this. But what we ignored was the effect upon the environment. So, some years later, what we've discovered is that these dams damage the environment, the hinterland below the dam, and as a serious effect upon nature, and therefore damages the environment. We can’t think of one pillar without the others.

CS: Okay, now you've coined the term technological myopia. What exactly is that? And why is it a problem in the context of sustainability, then?

DC: Yeah, I see it as a problem that we assume everybody assumes that technology and technological development is going to get us out of the problems we face and we're going to address the issue Use of sustainability? Well, technology is a tool, nothing more than a tool, how we use it or don't use it, or make best use of it will impact sustainability. It's our actions that affect sustainability. Technology is nothing more than a tool. And it's not necessarily the best approach to invention more technology to deal with one problem of any nor in its effect on one of the other pillars, like I've just tried to explain, we are myopic about technology, we see it as a solution. It's not a solution. It's a tool. The only solutions come from OSHA, what we do, or don't do,

CS:  Thank you. That's really clear. I was also reminded of, I think it's the UK government's Net Zero strategy, which they unveiled a few weeks ago, it was very reliant on future tech that they were assuming, would come along in time, for example, to deal with nuclear waste processing, or carbon capture and so on. It's kind of hopeful, but not very realistic.

DC: I used to declare its laziness, we think the next generation will solve the problems we create just at worst, it was solving the problems created by our parents and grandparents. And that's not just lazy. It's irresponsible, isn't it?

CS:  Koorosh, you have spoken about some infrastructure stays with us for a long time. So, the skyscrapers we build now, future generations are either going to curse us for all thanks for your both an academic and practitioner in engineering. And you and your paper recently has been reduced with your practitioner colleagues. And you've combined these worlds, in your work around green design, how do the three pillars of sustainability and the concepts of technological myopia play out for you?

KG:  Yes, in the context of green buildings, and particularly, it's a bit difficult because we find that the construction industry is continuously on the move, to have a better design, better green building design, more energy efficiency, the structures and so on. And one thing that we have noticed from industry perspective organisation is that, for example, to put things in, in a context where we have six-star energy rating at the moment, all raised, I think about the seven- and eight-star energy ratings, which again, it could be sort of a small increments in terms of making the buildings more energy efficient. But nonetheless, it's the complicated in terms of applicate, applying those specific processes. To put it in perspective things, for example, we have structural performance, which obviously needs to be solid, calculate established total for the year and designed a building design. So, you would have all these policies that the site is saying that you got to use more lighter, more greener materials, but how are those lighter green, your materials will impact the structural capability of the structures. So that's where the actual practitioners themselves need to have a considerable thinking about the application of green buildings, and greener materials and resources. And there's also the economic side of it, that is, how costly these sort of new world processes are, to sort of upheld in these design aspects. So, all of that comes in under the additional cost additional manpower. Yeah, you need to consider.

CS: So, there's, there would be a barrier to improving green design, just from how complex it is, and how it demands people to think in a different way.

KG: Definitely. Yeah. So, people are only getting over that because they have to. Exactly. There’s a lot of these architects or you know, the Building Surveyors also need to have sort of a re-educated in a higher certification programs so that they are aware of their requirements that they need to be you know, to be mindful during the design stage of the of the green buildings. And all of that creates a bit of unwillingness if that's the right word from the industry perspective is may not be straightforward to be to apply.

CS:  Very interesting. Kristian, you think of a lost in your with your philosophical perspective about paradoxes, I believe. Can you talk about that a little: paradoxes in sustainability?

KK: Well, just thank you. Again, I can summarise a series or a variety of various paradoxes that occur. Some of them are they can be divided in various ways. Some of them are theoretical or if I may say conceptual, then this is not conceptual in terms only of I mean, logical, whatever formal, but conceptual in terms of making a conception of something. So, understanding the situation in which one find himself or herself, before example, before, during, or after a disaster, the practical or empirical paradoxes occur, concerning, again, variety of features, which define particular disasters, in terms of the type of their magnitude and similar. And, of course, we have a serious series of paradoxes, which are related to human actions, which is extremely interesting, because, in cases in multiple, simultaneous, natural and unnatural disasters combined, sometimes, the people found themselves extremely confused in last few years, we had a series of examples with some relevant human loss, then, because humans, the people didn't understood what they should do in practical situations during such disasters, for example, paradoxes or contradictions arose, because they didn't understand what they should do concerning the, for example, a flood in which they found themselves. And at the same time, there was a high risk because these people were bold, they could get infected by the source of two or COVID-19 disease, and they didn't know what to do. Or, for example, here are some traditional ways of dealing with such multiple simultaneous natural and unnatural disasters, but only in globally known hotspots. For example, in Asia, we have a habits developed, even in the children, they are trained to act reasonably. And according to standard procedures, now, they're better experienced, they know what to do, they're prepared, but a given that is such disasters or hotspots, in fact, are getting larger, and they pop up on different on new regions globally. And most of the people or there is a rise of percentage of people who found themselves in such paradoxes, practical, conceptual, whatever, and they do not know what to do, how to act. So, these are the types of paradoxes or contradictions that I'm trying to deal concerning the unsustainability. In fact, as I said previously, because people are not prepared or as mentioned before, by others, I am not sure so sure that our infrastructure, urban zones, whatever big cities are prepared, we can we may talk about, for example, big cities in Europe, in Northern America, whatever, even in Japan, or in Asia, but we have 1000s of cities, which are few, I mean, much bigger than average city in Europe, in South America, in Africa, in Southeast Asia, which are completely unprepared for the magnitude of natural and unnatural disaster that could occur or there is some kind of probability that they will occur in next, for example, the case. So, we should think, in these terms, if we want to minimise this level of assist as a centre mobility or not only of our actions, but also of our environment. This is extremely important. So it is it is it is myopia, as David says, but I'm also pointing just to another positive feature of myopia, because you just see clearly objects which are close and objects which are far away from USC blurred, this is the fundamental indicate now, by kept sometimes it is good to see far away objects blurred because then you see the whole picture you see the big form, you're seeing the morphology of the situation is not far away and quite big region. You see the problem.

CS: So interesting. So, you, you don't get bogged down in the detail. You see the overall shape. If I could go back to you Kirsch of CO talking from Australia, you're talking about ever increasing highest standards of building designed that people must meet and Christians pointed out but so much of the world is way behind on this front. Do you have a sense of how the profession of engineering or how the certificating bodies around the world are sharing this knowledge to help those who are less prepared?

KG: Well, there are specific bodies for individual nations that actually oversees these standards in place. And they do share ideas. We did a research a while back, that we undertook the examination that Australia was lacking in terms of keeping up to UK particularly, and this is, again, could be just something that we picked up based on those case studies. But what we found was because Australia is caught large country in science, and he has a different climate Zeis. And when he is talking about having a green building design, it doesn't mean that, you know, maybe actually suited for one zone. But in may not be very, very suited for different zones like for it might be called good for sort of a more top with climate, but not so good for and dry sort of areas, we do have a half hour instrumentation such as luck, passive design, things like that, that's looking to local climate and maintaining a comfortable conditions or temperature within the home. But nonetheless, I also think that these type of regulation needs to be more flexible. And they need to have more sort of a leniency in terms of allowing the states at a lower level, have more inputs, rather than federal federally having a significant input. And these are the difficulty that we're finding in here in Australia with death, and particularly in capital reduction policies that federal governments have in place, making sure that the cities are at reducing less and less sound carbon oxide, and that sort of thing. But the condition of his city is also quite important to take note of. So just because a particular group structure works very well, for example, say in Melbourne, it doesn't necessarily mean that it works very well the same way, say in Perth. But nonetheless, we found that within Australia, particularly the federal government has not had a lot to say, in terms of setting these are green new policies in place that that the country has Australia needs to follow.

CS: And I might ask this question, actually, of all of you from your different perspectives now, David from yours, what role would you say corporations have to play in terms of sustainability and technology, as opposed to governments?

DC: I think every person, every organisation, which includes all corporations, and all governments have to address sustainability and have a role to play in addressing that sustainability. In terms of corporations, which in the technological development will come from these corporations. The question everybody needs to ask is, do we need new technology? Is that the way to address the problem? Or what is the best solution to the problems we're facing? And we develop technology if we need to do so but it's not an automatic, less go to technology to provide answers with cooperation certainly have a big role to play here, just as governments and individual people that Kristian, what's your view?

KK: I would like to say I would like to agree with David that corporations are among major drivers and governments ministries, but they were because they have resources to find practical solutions for various sustainability issues problems, in fact, but here again, I haven't seen I saw that a few days ago it is published, the book is published about the relation of sustainability, development goals and artificial intelligence. So nice is this is some kind of buzzword these days, okay. Jen GPD visa debt and UN Human Rights, something about it's how it is important, and it entered the system sustainability topic as well. So, I own I here again, I see a kind of a kind of paradox, I mean, we had such a historical examples, we tend to, to give our technology some features to address to describe it, as it has some kind of features, which actually, it cannot have, for example, it is almost a century ago, when there was a huge debate about, for example, the uses of radio, we use of radio, it was a discussion in the United States, and everybody was engaged in this are politicians, engineers, scientists, business people, general population, scientists, whatever. And it's it was said that it is a big revolution, it will bring, I don't know what peace on earth that it will have, it will bring cultures and civilisations either no nations together and the peace will be achieved, etc, etc. However, nothing happens, okay. Nietzsche had some advantages and disadvantages, and that was it again, in I think around 50s, mid 50s, perhaps it was the same, the same thing repeated concerning good television, because, I mean, there was a major use among general populations of TVs in households, something around 85 91% ahead of the TV, and that during the 70s, and the 80s, the same discussion repeated concerning, I don't know, personal computers, then later on, about internet about this or that and now, it repeats with artificial intelligence, I mean, we have to be realistic here. Or even if I may say, pragmatic, okay, there is nothing, nothing spiritual whatever in technology in solutions, okay. This is me says simply a tool, which could help to a certain degree. And that's it, we shouldn't be giving the other no powers to such technology, which it cannot have, by its nature by its essence. Okay, this is it. But we tend to do that, we simply tend to do that. And this creates a false kind of misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the possibilities of use of such new technologies, or, for example, on the other hand of the misuse, as well, as well. So, we shouldn't do that. This is also a kind of paradox, if not some kind of irony.

CS: Yes, it's almost a sort of passive expectation that this magical device or software will do something of its own accord. That is good, all the fear, what it might do that we don't want it to do. The Internet. Similarly, I think when people were creating social media, and the internet, they were thinking, free access to all knowledge and making connections that some people see actually more negative active players behind all of these creations, where somebody all along had a negative intention.

KK: Yeah, I mean, to be on the safe side, if I may add some technology really killed. For example, during the COVID, 19 pandemic, there are some social networks who are used by medical doctors or all around the world, in order to communicate in a fast way. So they have some closed groups, and they communicate to each other concerning the various symptoms, procedures decided what they should do with certain types of patients, because it was too slow to publish their results in scientific papers, it would take too, too long to read to everything I mean, this has to be published it has to be structured is that the real know how it is the procedure of publishing the results, and they have these close groups, also various social networks that I want to mention them, and they communicate very fast. And this technology, in fact, help to save 1000s of lives during the pandemic. So there are positive sides and but also their negative sighs as you said, I mean, I don't know it is fun, that to use social networks for example, but or okay it can help economy can help this or that, but we must admit that there is some kind of SOS I mean, psychologist told us this, that there is some kind of social isolation of criminology still us there is a huge amount of cybercriminal, etc. So, there are a series of negative effects, but all things comes with positives, pluses and minuses.

CS:  David, this may be too big a question. But what is your opinion of AI in the context of sustainability?

DC:  Oh, just listening to that last conversation, or Kristina does say it seems to me, we're back to people again, all technology has the potential for good and for bad, according to how we use it. It's not the technology is what we do with the technology that's important. And that's a bit we're not actually addressing. And certainly, in terms of AI, people think, yeah, we dichotomize it's either God that is going to solve all our problems or if Bernie shouldn't be banned. It's not it's a bit of according to what we do. There is a place for AI But although, personally, I think we need to re redefine what we mean by intelligence because What machines do is not intelligence? It's extrapolation from previous examples, not inventing anything new. But there's a role, but we choose how we use that in our lives. And that's a bit we're not actually willing to do make the choice ourselves. It's our responsibility, not technology and responsibility.


CS: And when you say ourselves, does that include the individual? You? Absolutely. What sorts of choices might we be able to make?

DC:  Sometimes we fear, we don't have the choice, as a cop out, basically, isn't it, we've all got a choice in it, because we all passively accept what's happening, and choose not to do anything about it. But here you've seen, we've all seen the power of protest how it can bring about change. Now, if we're not happy, but weird, too passive about it.

CS:  About green design that we've said, governments are leading the way with tighter regulations and encouraging higher standards. Are there grass roots demands for this, as well?

KG: Do you see? Well, it is I mean, we try to make our lives easier. And going back to what are called was just talking about in terms of AI, artificial intelligence, the aim of such these tools is to make things more straightforward, and less labour intensive. So going back to the construction industry, for me, we are using some artificial intelligence, all that sort of small scale. But the whole of the idea of using artificial intelligence or technology, technology, and sort of a focus in construction is to make productivity higher, so improve the productivity level. So going back to your question that he was asking about these standards that are set aside by the covenants, that's the whole idea behind these standards and regulations to make the construction industry more sort of a responsive to the ever chance to hear the changing demands of the occupants of the uses of these buildings. Now, in saying that, then obviously, you know, it's good to put these policies in place. But then you also need to provide support for these organisations. Otherwise, it's going to be very difficult to monitor on the besought certification, sort of approval process. But if you really want to be successful, in applying green building and green design, and this sort of thing, is going to be taken up by the industry construction industry, sort of, if you could look at it the more voluntary basis rather than enforced. That's what we are finding the sort of Ground Zero, if you want to call it that, that, you know, when things are reinforced, it's more, we just do it because we have to do it. So therefore, there won't be much of a long-term motivation, they just do it in terms of, you know, getting the next ball size and finally handing over to building. But it's got to be more done in creative way. And that is, and I mean, they do to some extent, they involve some big organisations to be part of these standards, establishment of these standards, and always seen the standard, but nonetheless, enclosed of actually monitoring how the construction industry sees these tight, restrictive regulations, I think it's going to be more of a sort of balanced approach rather than just this is it and you just do what you told it to do.

CS:  It's great. Finally, if I just ask for a short answer from you, each five start with Christian when you look to the future, are you optimistic or pessimistic about what you see?

KK:  Well, it depends how well do I see Well, for example, I am wearing glasses, so I don't see very well, that there are some estimations about I know some preliminary data concerning natural and probably unnatural disasters as well as the by the end of the 2020s that the rise of natural and unnatural disasters will be higher than last 40 years. The second the second point, the hotspots of such disasters will spread around the world in some new areas, unknown before for such events, relevantly, high probability, and of course, the last thing that the magnitude of such disasters will be much bigger. So, it's not about optimism, in my opinion or pessimism. We should think about what we can do as individuals as small groups as I don't know, group of friends or family, whatever a local community to contribute to make this region in which we live in which we act daily, to leave it as at least a bit better than we found it.


CS:  David, I'll give you the final word in a sec garage, if I could just ask your description of things almost grinding to a halt of development in, in green design. Because it's, it's so expensive, and it's so demanding, and your sense that people are feeling coerced rather than enthusiastic about meeting these standards? How optimistic are you about us getting over that hump?

KG: I think that I am optimistic in the sense that there I can see why this is taking place. And there's definitely the need for that these green buildings are so on. I mean, we are need, we do need to reduce our carbon dioxide footprint. And we do need to reduce that. But it's got to be done at a more smaller increments, and involving more additional stakeholders, not just key stakeholders, the more stakeholders you'll use, the better the public will realise the advantages of these additional hurdles that they need to go over, for example, in constructing these buildings, right, in the long term,

CS: David, a final word from you anything you would like to add?

DC: Okay. Oh, wasn't it Einstein, who said that he didn't know how the next war would be fought, where the one after would be fought with bows and arrows are what he is suggesting is what we do affects what the future will look like. Now I'm not suggesting that is going to be our is not going to be any wars. But I am suggesting Nam Wallen should yesterday I'm stating that the future will not be a continuation of the present, it will be different. And will we be happy with the near future? Well, I think those are those who are optimistic, will be happy and those of us who are pessimistic will be unhappy. Your reality is, of course, it's a mixture of good and bad the future. The present is a mixture of good and bad, the future will be a mixture of good and bad, but it will definitely be different to a continuation of the present.

CS: And you've all emphasised that we all have a part to play in that feature. Our mission is to find it, I guess. On that note, thank you very much.

Thank you for listening to today's episode. For more information about our guests, and for links to their most recent publications with emerald publishing, as well as a transcript of today's conversation, please see our show notes on our website. I'd like to thank Daniel Ridge and the studio, This is Distorted. Thank you.