At a large ceremony at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen last week, the Israeli software firm TaKaDu was celebrated as the winner of the Sustainia Award for green innovation. Among more than 500 candidates, TaKaDu won the sustainability prize for its novel approach for using big data to prevent leaks in water networks and utilities.

The work of the Sustainia project is very promising as it helps bring focus to important new green technologies across the globe. However, amid the joyful atmosphere at the Royal Theatre last week I also felt that something was lacking.

We seem to forget that sustainable development is more than just technology. New inventions might help us on the road towards sustainability but we need to do a lot more if we are to address our current global challenges of climate change and the depletion of natural resources.

In fact, it has often been shown that new technology does not fix our environmental concerns. For example, as television sets have become more energy efficient over the past ten years, it has lead to lower prices and hence increased sales and in the end, larger environmental impact. Many Europeans now have a TV in each room instead of just one per family. A phenomenon that researchers at the Wuppertal Institute call ‘the dilemma of resource efficiency’ – i.e. saving more means using more.

GOING BEYOND TECHNOLOGY

I’m not saying that we should not use new technologies but in true sustainability other parameters are equally or more important. And let’s be honest with ourselves, today, we’re further from sustainability than we were 20 years ago, when it was coined for the first time: Living decently in the present without undermining the capacity of future generations to live just as decently.

True sustainability is about taking responsibility by politicians, interest groups, business leaders, and you and me. With the State of the World 2013 report, Worldwatch Institute asks: Is sustainability still possible? And if it is, how do we identify it, define it, measure it, move toward it and someday soon actually achieve it? It’s not enough to simply claim that things are sustainable. What city, what design, what product can really be sustainable in a civilization that in its entirety is anything but? There’re no simple answers to these questions but chapters in the report provide some evidence for what can be done in different sectors of society.

Among my own favourite responses to the current challenges are green taxes – taxing fossil fuels and other polluting activities – and using the revenue to alleviate poverty and provide useful jobs. Also, a simple thing as banning advertising to children would support some of the changes that would be needed to make a transition from a consumer society to more sustainable lifestyles.

The real challenge there is how to get people, as well as politicians, to care about future generations, non-human life, and the poor in far-away places. That won’t be easy, but that may be the most important task ahead of us.

A project such as Sustainia can engage a range of people in the green transition and yet I believe that most of the sustainability work that lies ahead isn’t going to occur in the tech-sphere but in the social sphere, where change can occur with surprising speed. The abolition of slavery was the work of several generations, but we don’t have that kind of time. Civil rights, women’s rights, the demise of social smoking—these things saw more sudden positive shifts. And if you need a more contemporary example, look how rapidly public opinion has changed on same-sex marriage.

More than anything we need to learn—and to engage others on the point—that the earth is finite, and in fact pretty full. And that we are many. And that none of us has the right to claim more of the planet’s ecological space than any other. In order to survive what’s heading our way we’re going to need to learn to make the most of natural resources that are no longer as abundant they once were.