The cyber-consciousness of environmental assessment: how environmental assessments evaluate the impacts of smart, connected, and digital technology

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Journal Article

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Environmental Research Letters




John Mulrow
Manasi Gali
Emily Grubert

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Digitally enabled technologies are increasingly cyber-physical systems (CPSs). They are networked in nature and made up of geographically dispersed components that manage and control data received from humans, equipment, and the environment. Researchers evaluating such technologies are thus challenged to include CPS subsystems and dynamics that might not be obvious components of a product system. Although analysts might assume CPS have negligible or purely beneficial impact on environmental outcomes, such assumptions require justification. As the physical environmental impacts of digital processes (e.g. cryptocurrency mining) gain attention, the need for explicit attention to CPS in environmental assessment becomes more salient. This review investigates how the peer-reviewed environmental assessment literature treats environmental implications of CPS, with a focus on journal articles published in English between 2010 and 2020. We identify nine CPS subsystems and dynamics addressed in this literature: energy system, digital equipment, non-digital equipment, automation and management, network infrastructure, direct costs, social and health effects, feedbacks, and cybersecurity. Based on these categories, we develop a ‘cyber-consciousness score’ reflecting the extent to which the 115 studies that met our evaluation criteria address CPS, then summarize analytical methods and modeling techniques drawn from reviewed literature to facilitate routine inclusion of CPS in environmental assessment. We find that, given challenges in establishing system boundaries, limited standardization of how to evaluate CPS dynamics, and failure to recognize the role of CPS in a product system under evaluation, the extant environmental assessment literature in peer-reviewed journals largely ignores CPS subsystems and dynamics when evaluating digital or digitally-enabled technologies.