Generation Z and the environmental impact of digital 

R/GA London experience design director Joe Hearty on how Generation Z will reconcile their digital diet with concern for the environment

Gen Z are changing the way people build businesses, manufacture products and communicate with their customers.

Environmentally conscious and politically savvy, they crave positive change, buying into brands that put people and planet first.

Gen Z are also famed for their insatiable appetite for technology: invasive hook models, personalised content feeds and a thirst for near-constant validation has them at the behest of push notifications – without sparing a thought for the real-world impact of their interactions. But what exactly do we mean by real-world impact?

Among the many undesirable by-products of digital experience, one of the more difficult to quantify and rarely discussed, is its environmental impact.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the complex infrastructures supporting many of the apps and digital services we use have a very negative impact on our planet – an impact actively obscured by distance. The world’s largest data centres (warehouses of air-conditioned servers) are often built in very remote locations, out of sight and out of mind.

But what does this mean for Gen Z and how might they balance their penchant for social media and entertainment with the prospect of an uninhabitable planet?

Snapchat announced that in 2018 an average of 3 billion snaps were sent every day. A single snap produces 0.1g of CO2 meaning that in just 24 hours Snapchat generates the carbon equivalent of 1 car driving for 54 years. This is, of course, microscopic in comparison to carbon emissions generated by the aviation industry or agriculture – but it’s not nothing.

The problem is that digital product companies like Snapchat, focused solely on their bottom line or designing only for future states of technology, are failing to consider the needs of future users. If Gen Z’s proclivities are anything to go by, soon enough we’ll all demand the same degree of transparency afforded to the manufacture of physical products. Under what conditions was the digital product designed and built? Does it encourage unhealthy usage habits? How much CO2 am I unwittingly contributing to the earth’s atmosphere?

It is fair to say that quantifying environmental impact is a game of estimates and that calculating it on a feature-by-feature basis is, well, complex. However, if we are unable to determine a digital product’s impact, or at least provide regulatory guidelines for specific by-products, what hope is there for the environmentally conscious user? How might product companies begin to make better informed decisions, regarding the experiences they shape and the ways in which they build and distribute them, without the right intel?

Though seemingly inconsequential, our growing reliance on digital and the emergence of energy-heavy technologies like machine learning and crypto-mining will soon see its impact garner front page headlines. Society at large is waking up, no longer afforded the luxury of ignorance. Frustratingly, however, we are not yet equipped with the knowledge or the tools to think and act differently.

In an industry of exponentially higher resolutions, faster connections and smarter devices, how can we refocus our target and start innovating in the right ways? We, the product makers, must simplify the complexity of digital’s impact to a degree with which users can engage & act – if not for the sake of our clients, for the sake of our planet.

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