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Can your senses guide you to a sustainable future?

In our 10 Hot Consumer Trends 2030, we predict a future where all our senses are connected to the internet. This will create a new world of possibilities for the consumer. It could even make it easier for us to become more environmentally sustainable in our daily lives. How? Ericsson’s Michael Björn finds out below.

Head of Research Agenda and Quality at Consumer & IndustryLab

UN Child convention is law in Sweden

Head of Research Agenda and Quality at Consumer & IndustryLab

Head of Research Agenda and Quality at Consumer & IndustryLab

Imagine virtual reality beyond visuals, sound and some irritatingly vibrating hand controllers. Imagine a virtual experience with objects that feel perfectly real, including weighing as much as you would expect, forests that smell from trees and mildew, and online grocery stores where you can taste samples before buying.

Imagine working or socializing in a virtual realm without ever leaving the house or going on a digital vacation without stepping foot on a plane. Now imagine what that would mean for our sustainable future.

As physical reality gradually merges with the digital realm and become one and the same, the takeaway for a lot of people seems to be that our physical life will simultaneously merge with the cocoon existence that humanity has been degraded to in sci-fi classics such as The Matrix. As a result, and to my surprise, many people tend to overlook the potential upsides.

My personal concerns relate instead to the climate crisis, and it would appear that many consumers share these concerns. In fact, according to our latest 2030 consumer trends report, sustainability is noted as being one of the top three drivers behind the internet of senses.

A house on fire

Of course, not everyone says they are outright scared. Another type of reaction is one of disbelief. Surely, the next decade will not see any drastic change to how we use the internet! One journalist referred to the report as “wacko”. Well maybe it is. But then it might be just a sign of the times. Because as far as I am concerned, the whole world is out of whack.

As Greta Thunberg pointed out in her speech at Davos last year, our house is on fire. But the rest of us seem to be too busy playing in the garden to listen. Now that is really wacko. Or, scary, if you prefer.

The point is, our house is quite literally on fire. 2019 saw more wild fires globally than ever before, and the pace of increase was sharp. The European Space Agency said they have never seen this kind of increase since they started monitoring back in 1995. I don’t think the fires come as a surprise though. After all, last July was the hottest month globally ever recorded, amid a record breaking number of record breaking heat records during the year.

Still, things would even hotter if it wasn’t for the global ocean. Did you know it takes up more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system, and, as a result has been constantly getting warmer since the 1970s? Good for us, maybe, but disaster for our children, and their children, since we are literally storing an unimaginable amount of heat energy in the ocean.

That is why authors like David Wallace-Wells writes books with titles like The Uninhabitable Earth with opening sentences such as: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”

In comparison, an internet of senses isn’t scary at all. The internet of senses is just an evolution of the digitalization process that is already happening all around us, nothing more. And there is no deterministic principle with it to lock us into cocoons. On the contrary, if consumers think this type of digitalization can help us live more sustainable lives, then I think that is a sign of great hope.

Consumer sustainability trends

The trend Connected Sustainability in our report is exactly about using digitalization to make it easier for us to live more sustainably. In fact, six of every ten early consumer tech adopters we interviewed believe that internet of senses-based services will help to make society more environmentally sustainable.

The recently published Exponential Climate Action Roadmap identifies 36 solutions to halve global emissions by 2030 and, according to the report, digital solutions are estimated to enable one-third of that target. But that won’t happen by itself. In fact, that same report points to digital technology as a “wild card” – meaning that it can be used to either rapidly transform our economic systems, or to drive emissions even higher. But if our indications that consumers now start adopting technologies that limit greenhouse gas emissions and discard those that increase them are right, then there is indeed hope. Every person counts; every daily decision counts. It is up to us, as humans.

Obviously, an internet of senses doesn’t save the planet just by happening either. But what if that cocoon in the Matrix was not a prison but a haven that you use through choice? 57 percent of those seeing sustainability as a main driver for an internet of senses believe working and socializing totally in virtual realms without ever physically leaving home will be quite common a decade from now. Come to think of it, the people in cocoons were used to power the Matrix itself, maybe we could become carbon neutral that way! Just kidding…

But imagine being able to go to work without the commute! In 2018, the average American driver lost 97 hours in congested traffic alone. Although that is only half as bad as drivers in Moscow who lost 210 hours, you could still take a couple of weeks extra vacation and still work as much as you do today. As a side effect, you would also reduce your personal carbon footprint immensely! Having spent more than 2,000 hours (or a full working year) myself in Steam VR over the last three years, I would love to be able to work like that and get extra holiday to boot!

But we would have to spend the extra holiday at home as well, in order to not push our greenhouse gas emissions even beyond the daily commute. Luckily, 43 percent of consumers in our study say they would like to go on a digital adventure vacation that engages all their senses, immersing them fully in other places and time periods. Picture yourself on a virtual charter trip to the ancient Roman city of Pompeii; after you have walked its narrow alleys and tasted ancient food in a street market, you go to one of the many bath houses to soak in hot spring water. Afterwards, you relax drowsily in the adjoining garden, munching on exotic fruits. Suddenly Vesuvius erupts and you can even feel the scorching heat as lava flows into the city and volcanic fumes sting your throat. You react with panic; the house is on fire!

But then you realize that while you may experience the pain of digital fire as if it were real, it won’t scorch the earth, and you enjoy the last minutes in the garden before the vacation experience ends.

You can be the difference

So, I would like to urge you to join ranks with the early adopters we interviewed and demand sustainable technology, rather than turning your back and allowing others to decide your fate. Companies as well as political parties must feel the support from all of us to do the right thing, or else chances are they won’t. For example, the Dutch government recently lost a climate lawsuit and is now forced to reduce carbon emissions by 25% compared to 1999 levels this decade in order to protect the human rights of its citizens.

Given that my own country, Sweden, finally has adopted the UN Convention of the Right of the Child into law as of the first day of this new decade, I expect that young people will drive similar demands here. And that they will demand technology to serve that purpose!

Instead of being afraid of continued digitalization, we should engage with it to the point where we demand technology to help enable a sustainable future.

More reading

Explore our 10 Hot Consumer Trends 2030 report to find out how the internet of senses is shaping consumer expectations.

Read more about the 36 solutions for climate action in the Exponential Roadmap.

Networking trends: A platform for next-level digitalization - Ericsson

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