Measurement, poetry and pragmatism

Sergej Timofejev


A conversation with Ines Leonarduzzi, founder of the Digital for the Planet platform 

Spring 2020, when air traffic was suspended, when countless enterprises stopped working all over the world, when museums and theatres were closed, saw an incredible increase of the role played by digital communication and content. We moved our meetings and conversations to online space; we exchanged links to TV series and online learning courses. And it did a lot to help people deal with isolation and not feel completely cut off from everybody else. As a result, the role of the digital sphere, consistently increasing in importance as it was, jumped an order of magnitude.

We often think of it as something abstract, something like Wi-Fi somehow dispersed in the air. However, it does not simply appear around us all by itself. Every email we send, every video call we make presumes certain resources spent on it. How does it happen, what is its impact on the planet, what practices could be applied here to minimize the negative effect ‒ these are the questions that Inès Leonarduzzi, a Frenchwoman who has already worked in 11 countries and accumulated a huge amount of experience in the area of interaction between business and digital technologies, found herself pondering a few years ago.

In 2017, she became the initiator and president of the international project Digital for the Planet developing the themes of “digital ecology”. The website of the project states the following: “We are topflight researchers, expert engineers, technologists who can develop intelligent blockchain networks and create AI modules, with a minimum of AI (yes, we know how to resist fashions), passionate and experts in bio-inspiration, we are also creative people (without creativity, no innovation).

We believe in measurement, poetry and pragmatism. We think technology without direction cannot deliver inclusive nor durable results.” Inès and her like-minded colleagues see their mission in “developing the digital of tomorrow: reduced carbon impact, inclusive and benefiting as many people as possible.”

On invitation by the French Institute, Inès Leonarduzzi gave a talk in Riga in late February, 2020. We met at the Institute a day before her talk. It was snowing outside; Inès, a very beautiful and striking woman, was sitting opposite me in a chair, wrapped in a warm shawl, and spoke about things that have only grown in significance over the few months that have passed since then.

A few months ago, a friend of mine who lives in Berlin, but is originally from Riga, decided to visit her family here. She did not fly but came by train because she thought that it would be a more environmentally friendly way of travelling, and that by this action she can influence what’s going on with the planet. It did take a few days of travelling because there is no direct train from Berlin to Riga… Later, as I was reading about you and your ideas, I thought about my friend – well, wouldn’t she then also have to stop writing emails and reading the news online? Do you think that we should change our everyday habits of using electronic devices, computers, smartphones and things like that?

I think that we can’t treat problems in a binary way. We can’t say: “We’re going to keep on doing this”, or “We’re going to stop doing that”. We have to find a balance. And this is the whole point of the difficulty of ecological problems. The question to ask is: “How can I measure my impact so I can make the right final decision?” The idea is not to force a new way of life upon people and impose some rules, because this has never really worked.

People need freedom more than ever right now. But you have to give them the keys to understand what they’re doing so that they can be empowered to make slightly wiser decisions. And I truly believe in this. History shows that when you give knowledge to people, when you give them the way to understand a context, they get better by themselves. So, I have no judgment or opinion about your friend’s behaviour, or yours or mine, because this is not my job. My job is only to give keys to understanding the impact of our actions on the planet. In the 21st century, we are not able to easily measure our individual impact, so personal progress remains difficult, and it is the most unacceptable thing that could happen in our modern society.

But why does “digital ecology” sound like a new thing? Computers have been around for some time now, so the data about the emissions from using them is not something absolutely new. Yet is has not been widely spoken about. Why is that?

You’re right. It’s only been a few years since a handful of experts and researchers have been working on the notion of “digital pollution”, on the fact that “the digital” can have a nasty effect on the planet, the atmosphere and the human condition. But this information has only been disseminated among the experts; it has not gone out to a wider audience. And the notion of “digital ecology”, actually, was developed by myself. It was like an aberration. It was completely new when I said – we have to invent digital ecology. People said – doesn’t it already exist?, and I said – no, I don’t think so. We researched it and nothing was found, so we decided that if it doesn’t exist yet, then there is good reason to create it.

Big corporations have no interest in letting people know the reality of the field, the real cost of what they make sure we take for granted. They won’t say to people that their precious smartphone – the one we keep in our pocket every day, the one we sleep beside every night – has blood on it from Congolese children working in mines. They also won’t say that every time we like a photo on Instagram, or post a comment on LinkedIn, we’re actually sending an electrical impulse – and that this electricity comes from fossil energy that was taken from the planet.

They also won’t say that if we buy a new smartphone every year, we are also massively polluting because 75 percent of digital pollution comes from manufacturing. Obviously, we don’t have to be geniuses to understand that corporations have no interest in communicating this kind of information because today, digital is the most powerful industry, even compared to the oil industry.

At what moment did the notion of “digital ecology” become widely known? Why did the situation change?

When I started the global initiative Digital for the Planet, the reaction was quite positive. Before that I had spent eight years working for a big corporation. And I used to work in eleven countries. So, I know how a company thinks. The government and companies listen to you only if they are urged to do so. And incentives always come from the citizens. A Persian proverb that I find very beautiful and true says that if evolution does not come from the top, revolution will come from the bottom. So, this is what I did – I gave the information, very generally, to people through media, through conferences and lectures. And people started to talk about it; I saw the pressure grow higher and higher on social media, I received calls and emails saying: “Can you tell me more about this? I can’t find any literature about the topic”.

One day I got a call from a big French company: “Hey, we heard that you talk about this subject. Can you help us? Because we need it”. When I met with them, I could see that they were kind of happy to see me, but at the same time, very nervous because they didn’t know what to expect. The reaction from the government was the same.

At the beginning of the story, I didn’t have any kind of network. But now I can easily call ministers or elected people from parliament and speak with them directly because they are interested in having contact with us, they understood the relevance of, and their interests in, our topic. So, the first thing I came to understand is that if you want the leaders – both political and economical – to follow you, you have to give them pressure – the most positive you can, obviously – that comes from the citizens. The second thing I learned from this experience is that even big corporations and governments are completely lost on the topic. Plus, they have great pressure coming at them from all sides, so they can’t really act much. Actually, we may think they have the power to do something but they really don’t because someone will be coming from every side saying – don’t make a move, because I’m paying you for that.

So you really have to show them that they will earn something by doing that kind of thing. And maybe this is where I’m the strongest. I’m not a physicist either, or an engineer. But I do know how to create value with an idea. And how, by doing something nice, we can earn something. If you can manage to show that to governments and companies, they will work with you.

But how can digital ecology be profitable if it’s mostly about minimizing and not about getting more and consuming more?

The first action is to reduce, for example, your carbon impact as a company, as it is created by your digital activities. And typically you can prove – and this is exactly what we did – that you will end up paying less for electricity. At a corporate scale, that can be huge economic savings.

The company realizes that they have shown their employees that they are doing something for sustainability; you’re developing team-pride for your employees who now see that they’re working for a company that cares about this topic, plus, you’re saving money. This is our first action – very simple and quite affordable. And companies were quite eager to do it. The same goes for governments: they can save money, in their case – public money. This is a strong argument.

But if you want to go further – and this is what I do right now – it’s a little bit more difficult, of course. I developed the idea of two other kinds of digital pollution: intellectual pollution – the way the screen affects your mind and your cognitive capabilities; and societal-digital pollution – how digital, when it’s used in the wrong way, affects the notion of democracy and our well-being. Today, the big corporations in the digital field simply use your personal data to earn themselves a lot of money. And they do it by telling you that the internet is “free”. So, firstly, we have to let people know that, actually, data is the ‘gold’ of the digital era, and that they could get money from their own data because it’s improving the market and reaching the markets that exist.

What we are doing right now is to trying to sit everyone down around the table – big corporations, governments, and citizens – to show them that in the middle we have the data of people. The Internet giants earn money from them. In front of them there are people who, by the way, are becoming poorer and poorer because we are losing purchasing power everywhere. Money is missing. And then there is the government (the French government, for example), which wants to establish a retirement system. But we have no money to pay for it, which is a huge problem. Our role in this is to say : “You [the Internet giants] earn money thanks to the people’s data, but we don’t have any transparency on it. You could retribute them [the people] with a percentage of what you have earned thanks to their activities on your platforms; that would be more than legitimate.”

Why do I say that? Studies show that older people, together with the youngest people, are the ones that spend the most time on the Internet. Because most of the time they are alone, or have lost their job or have not yet begun to work. The most financially vulnerable do play casino games online and they talk to their friends on Facebook, and by doing this they’re giving a lot of points of data. The deal sounds more than fair to me, as well as to many economists I talk and work with. In addition, the people increase their purchasing power in this way. And this profit, fairly retributed, could be a contribution to the money senior people need for retirement.

Everyone is earning: the corporation is still earning money, just more ethically; the government has a solution to financing some public and social initiatives, and they are giving satisfaction to theirs electors.

What would be some key principles of digital ecology for just the ordinary person – for anybody, for me, for you? For people who work with computers every day, as well as use them at home?

First, we should try not to buy another smartphone every year or every 18 months, and keep the same one for three to four years. Four years is completely comfortable, and it will be a huge step ahead for the planet – we will force manufacturers to slow down their production. And then we have to be careful of the quantities of email that we send. One email with a 1MB attachment is equivalent to twenty grams of carbon emitted into the atmosphere. It’s the power to work one light bulb for one hour.

When you are trying to send an email with a big attached file to 50 people, it’s better to share the file on a collaborative platform, like Yubo, Slack or Workplace, because there you just share the file once and then it is downloaded individually. But when you send a copy via email, you’re sending 50 copies of the file, which people will download 50 times and make their own 50 copies.

Unplugging and turning off our TV and internet box every day. This can also be a very sustainable gesture and, as we calculated, it could save you around 80 euros per year.

And why not buy a refurbished smartphone instead of a new one. People are still afraid to buy refurbished smartphones. It is surprising because we are not afraid of buying a second-hand car and then driving it down the highway at 130 km/h, yet we are terrified to use a refurbished mobile. It’s just a matter of education and how we can we reprogram our mental software...

What I would like to make clear is that I’m not denying digital. I think it is a wonderful tool that creates incredible progress and opportunity. I’m from the digital generation. I use this technology every day. I’m connected on social media every day. But this does not prevent me from being aware that, nonetheless, we are democratizing a wrong way to use technology. My job is to initiate a future for digital in which we can use digital things in a smarter way and more sustainably. This is the whole point of Digital for the Planet. Plus, I have a young son; I want him to grow up in a world were technology means human progress and pride in being human, not digital addictions and algorithmic manipulation. He will never know what is a world with no technology. So if we don’t educate people about it now, the kids will be “the puppies of the Internet” and they won’t stand a chance at being completely free. This is not acceptable to me, both as a citizen and as a mother.

My job is to initiate a future for digital in which we can use digital things in a smarter way and more sustainably.

With my son, I sometimes think that maybe I’m not doing the right thing because I control his digital use every day – how much time he spends on his smartphone and computer. But I don’t see any other possibilities in terms of showing him the correct balance of real and virtual life.

I completely understand what you’re saying because I hear so much similar feedback from parents. I participate in a lot of conferences every month at schools – for parents and especially for families with little revenue and low levels of education – because they’re the most impacted by this. Sometimes some parents say: “We saved up money to buy an iPad for our kid so that he can learn and do homework by himself because we don’t have the skills to help him.” So they believe that screens can act like a super-nanny or a super-teacher that could substitute the parents. In these conditions, there is no security barrier anymore between children and algorithms, cyber-attacks, and data manipulation.

I don’t think that by telling kids: “don’t do that”, “try to do it like this”, “maybe try a book”, we’ll get any results; people won’t do things just because we asked them to do it. They do it because it has been explained to them why it could be interesting or meaningful. I spoke with a group of parents and asked them to talk about these ideas to their children and then send me feedback – if they’re seeing any changes in their kids’ usual behavior. And it worked with almost 60 percent of the kids. One mother told me that her daughter usually plays her game on her (the mother’s) smartphone. After speaking to her daughter about sustainable digital use, her daughter gave the smartphone back to her mother after a much shorter than usual period of playing with it; the daughter had spent less time on the app. The mother asked her daughter why, and she answered – I’m using a lot of energy to play. I’d rather play together with another little girl in the building who wants to play, so that we can share and save energy.

Children are more intelligent then we think; we should just give them the information, and they will use their own minds to find ways to do the right and good thing. Children are people of tomorrow. They need to be empowered. They need to think that they are doing things because they decided to do it, not because someone told them to do it.

As I understand, you are also thinking about new directions connected to art and visual culture.

My background is literature, classic and modern literature, which I studied at university in France. Then I studied Chinese civilization and language for four years. After that I went to New York, where I studied economy and art market management in night class.

The organization Digital for the Planet is running by itself right now. There are more and more people involved in it, and in my personal professional life, the art market is calling me – and it’s getting louder and louder! I admit it. I am thinking about finding a way to help people of my generation, and even younger, to invest in art and to make it easier for them. The younger generations don’t recognize themselves in art. Which is a shame as it is a window on beauty, inspiration as a business, and a vector of financial empowerment. We also have a terrible lack in diversity in the arts. And for good reason – please find me an artwork from the 18th or 19th centuries, or even from the beginning of the 20th, made by a person of colour who is not a slave or poor. Art does not reflect diversity, neither in artworks nor in the market, which is essentially represented by white and rich people. It is time to help my generation and the younger ones to understand artworks, how to evaluate the potential of an artist and judge if they will become better so that you can invest in them and follow them.

Today, I do believe that an art investment is as good as gold when done wisely. But for this, you need advice and skills; skills that you can develop, advice that you can obtain by talking to the right people.

I do believe art is a key value for many reasons. But of course, at first you have to learn how to identify the potential of tomorrow in terms of art. What will touch people? What kind of art will people want to have in their home? What kind of sculpture, which kind of photography, which kind of painting? And you have to understand the language of art, the language of artists. This is a kind of specificity you have to study from the experts, or it will completely be closed off to you. If you’re a regular person, you just don’t have any clue about how to invest in art. But people still need beauty, they need aesthetics. They need to have another source of inspiration. More than ever with what we are going through right now (the COVID-19 crisis), we need hope, a place to relax your mind. Art provides this and it can’t be a place just for the fortunate and older people.

But the perception of beauty is so different among people. And in the end, most contemporary art is not all that much about beauty.

Of course. Beauty is completely relative to people. It’s not a fixed notion, obviously. And hopefully it will stay that way.

I do think that the future of contemporary art is the kind of art that speaks about inequalities, about the situation of the world; the kind of art that gives you a message – a transcendent message and a metaphorical one. But we don’t want to live in a world where bananas scotch-taped to the wall cost millions of dollars. Let’s try to invest in something tangible that will take on value in the future. Just like many other people do, I need aesthetics in my life every day. I can’t get up and live my life without any optimism. I just can’t. And I just know that I am not the only one to think this way.

Anyone can have a part of beauty, of art, of meaning and, of course, money, no matter what you do for a living, whether it’s baking, programming, or running a gallery.

What can I say… You have a dream!

I have many dreams! (Laughs).


*This interview with Ines Leonarduzzi was conducted for the publication Arterritory Conversations: Detox and Healing for the Planet, which has been published in June, 2020.