Increased digitalization of services and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) can have both positive and negative effects on the environment and society. At NORSUS, we study these effects.

The use of digital services can make systems more resource-efficient, and thus contribute to reducing environmental impacts. For example, the use of digital meetings can reduce the need for travels, and the use of sensors and digital tools in waste collection systems can potentially increase sorting rates and reduce transport work. However, this requires the use of electronic products that have environmental impacts associated with production, use, and proper waste management. Research performed by NORSUS involves assessment of the environmental impacts from electronic products, using life cycle methodology.

The use of AI requires large amounts of data and computing power, both during model training and operation. Data centers require significant amounts of energy and water, and there is also a need for land. The establishment of data centers can therefore pose a risk of deterioration of untouched nature. The research at NORSUS enables weighing the potential burdens against the benefits that the use of AI systems can offer, based on the functionalities they can provide to the society.

Electronic products such as mobile phones, computers, and data servers consist of a large number of components and have a global supply chain with long transport distances. Inside the products, there are materials with very specific properties. Many of these materials are defined as critical raw materials (CRMs), which are scarce and have a high-risk associated with their supply. NORSUS’ research involves testing and implementing indicators related to material resource scarcity in life cycle assessment.

NORSUS also works in projects involving easier access to environmental information through digitization of environmental product declarations (EPDs). This can potentially help the building industry to take knowledge-based decisions which can reduce environmental impacts.