Reasons for the Success of the Second Bits & Bäume Conference in 2022
The first ‹Bits & Bäume› Conference in November 2018 was a remarkable success. No wonder the conference caused a stir in politics and the public sphere: It was the first public civil society event – indeed in Germany, but probably worldwide – to address today’s global environmental and social challenges in the face of rapidly advancing socio-technological change. After all, digitalisation does bring about nothing less than a restructuring of areas of social life, including economic production and consumption. Who would have thought that the success of second Bits & Bäume Conference in 2022 would surpass that of the first? Wasn’t it a bit daring to set up a follow-up event and risk that it would all too easily turn into a boring rip-off? Yet despite all the obstacles that confront those preparing another large public event, over and above those
How can digitalisation
be designed and controlled
in such a way that it contributes
to a social and ecological
transformation of society?
due to the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to do it again. And we have been rewarded with an even bigger response. This time, more than 2,500 people participated in the conference. The programme covered close to 300 events over 18 stages and rooms. And the audience at the 2022 conference came from significantly more heterogenous communities: ones beyond Bits (i.e., ICT communities) and Bäume (‹trees› i.e., sustainability-minded communities). In fact, variety of backgrounds and approaches was one of the important goals of the diverse organisations that jointly hosted the conference, a diversity that clearly contributed to the conference’s success. This extended circle of speakers and participants allowed us to spread the key question even further throughout society: «How can digitalisation be designed and controlled in such a way that it contributes to a social and ecological transformation of society?»
Three goals guided the 2022 conference
To diversify and increase the conference’s breadth, the group of hosting organisations grew to 13 organisations in 2022. Yet more importantly, an open organisational model was chosen, allowing other individuals and additional organisations to participate in various working groups over the conference’s two-year preparatory process. To help the movement to expand and flourish, the hosting organisations had set themselves three goals. First, the cooperation between ‹Bits› and ‹Bäume› representatives should not only be consolidated but also broadened. In the aftermath of the 2018 conference, there were a number of follow-up activities, such as the ‹Forum Bits & Bäume› series of talks, two local groups and Bits & Bäume meet-up groups, and a local conference in Dresden in 2019. Nevertheless, for many actors, the exchange on issues relevant to everyday life and work remained relatively limited. Above all, there was still little coordination on addressing political processes, for example, with regard to the ongoing legislative processes around digital policy in the European Union (EU) or at national levels.
There is an urgent need
for a strong civil society and
telling the story
of a different digitalisation,
one proposing concrete solutions
towards the common good.
Accordingly, and thanks to a more general interest in sustainability and the 2022 conference’s wider appeal and larger audience, a second goal of the conference was to explore the specifically sustainability-oriented design of digitalisation as a social and political process more closely. Unfortunately, it currently seems as if sustainability policy and digital policy are being negotiated on two different planets. There is an urgent need for a strong civil society and academic discourse telling the story of a different digitalisation, one proposing concrete solutions democratically oriented towards the common good. To fulfil this second goal, the Bits & Bäume Conference in 2022 hosted a number of forums trying to bridge the gap between socio-ecological demands and realpolitik. For example, two state secretaries from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and the Ministry of the Environment, several parliamentarians from different parties, various employees from public authorities, and other decision-makers at the municipal level had an active exchange with academics and NGOs. At the same time, specific guidelines and control instruments were discussed at other events in order to push for a more sustainability-oriented digital governance. Third, the Bits & Bäume 2022 Conference wanted to achieve not only political orientation but also networking between civil society and academia and representatives and founders of small and medium-sized companies. The focus was on companies developing cooperative and collaborative business models as alternatives to the dominant approach of digital capitalism. The conference offered room for a constructive and critical dialogue with such actors. Business models, applications and good practices were presented, which, as concrete success stories, help start a solution-oriented dialogue. Finally, a small competition was organised where new ideas and approaches were presented to a jury and awarded prizes.
A comprehensive catalogue of political demands
Even at the first Bits & Bäume Conference, common demands for a sustainable digitalisation were presented. Building on these relatively general demands, the 13 hosting organisations of the 2022 conference had developed much more specific and comprehensive proposals. These demands are based on an integrative understanding of the various sustainability dimensions – ecological, social, technical, political, economic – and are guided by the ambition to shape a future in which digital technology plays a positive role to support and protect human rights, livelihoods, and the environment. The political demands of the Bits & Bäume Conference 2022 are presented in more detail in Chapter 5. Their bottom line is: Technological development must fit within planetary boundaries and ensure that it supports a globally fair and sustainable society (and economic system), including dimensions of both inter-national and intra-national justice.
must fit within
planetary boundaries and
ensure that it supports
a globally fair and
(and economic system).
When creating this catalogue of demands, the Bits & Bäume hosting organisations were aware it would not cover all political changes necessary to shape a truly transformative, sustainable form of digitalisation. But it was not about completeness. The demands reflect the variety of organisations’ backgrounds, interests, and approaches. Their diverse fields of expertise were useful in addressing the challenges arising at the interface of ecology, social justice, and economic transformation. In this respect, these demands offer a comprehensive normative framework of values, providing actors in but also beyond the Bits & Bäume movement with orientation for their actions. At the same time, they help in assessing current political and economic developments and in checking the implications of legislation’s technological developments against a view of what the ‹common good› could be in a sustainable society.
From a conference through a movement to an established coalition
Compared to the Bits & Bäume Conference in 2018, the emphasis on the link between digitalisation and sustainability was no longer new in 2022. In civil society, but also in business and politics, a number of actors had already started dealing with it. For example, the 36th congress of the Chaos Computer Club (36C3) in December 2019 followed the motto ‹Resource Exhaustion›, and the re:publica conference in 2020 offered a stage for urgent challenges such as climate change and migration under the motto ‹As soon as possible›. Even the 2020 digital summit of the German Federal Ministry of Economics was devoted to sustainability. However, the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily marginalised the topic again, and amid social distancing and lockdowns, the digitalisation process was accelerated. This process has often followed unreflected and largely uncontrolled economic interests instead of democratic ones. As a result, the digital divide between Global North and Global South, as well as that within the Global North, has continued to grow. Energy and resource consumption in the ICT sector have also steadily increased despite significant efficiency improvements. Finally, economic power has become even more concentrated through platforms and digital services in the hands of just a few corporations, which often act opaquely and are difficult to regulate but have a relevant impact on public opinion and political discourse. Given some highly risky and socially problematic developments in digital markets, one publication at the Bits & Bäume conference called for a fundamental digital reset to redirect technological progress towards a deep social sustainability transformation (see Digitalization for Sustainability (D4S), 2022).
The voice of civil society
is more important than ever
a sustainable future.
Against this background, the voice of civil society is more important than ever in re-orientating digitalisation towards a sustainable future. The Bits & Bäume 2022 Conference managed to bring together a lot of momentum, creativity, and passion from many volunteers from the Bits & Bäume communities, who work together to shape a socially and environmentally just future. The conference released a lot of positive energy and motivation for taking on this challenge! It also strengthened the interest in establishing a solid network of organisations continuously pushing for a sustainable form of digitalisation. The Bits & Bäume movement is now building a more permanent structure, as a result of the success of this second conference, thus creating the basis for this struggle to be consolidated and intensified in the coming years. This journal presents a look back at the conference’s topics, speakers, and discussions – but it also provides a treasure trove with proposals and concepts that propel the Bits & Bäume movement beyond 2022 and serve as a compass to fight the social and political challenges ahead. Another digitalisation is possible! The following chapters present mosaic pieces of a fair future in which technology serves the people, not the other way around.Next page