What is “Smart Technology” from the perspective of the Global RESTORATION Project?

Author: Adeline Tolle

Introduction Into “Smart Technology”

The second main component of the Global RESTORATION Project is “Smart Technology”. Also referenced as “sustainable technology” or “suitable technology”, the underlying premise is an effort to preserve and restore the Earth as a living planet, including clear ideas of both the power and limits of such technology. This Working Paper grapples with the following question: what is the best level of sophistication in the technological aids we use in restoring the Earth’s ecosystems and allowing them to operate, in all of their complexity, to sustain life – including human life – for centuries to come? The Paper begins with an introduction of what “smart technology” is at its basic definitional level. Next, the Paper analyzes how “smart technology” has been described or contextualized in various settings, including both in agriculture and energy. The Paper also takes a philosophical perspective on “smart technology”, exploring the difference between “smart” and the “most complicated or advanced” technology. This distinction raises the point that the smartest technology is that which will often be the least complicated, or in other words, the least distant from the natural systems and processes of a particular ecosystem. Finally, we close with some observations about the precautionary principle and its role in deciding which “smart technology” is most suitable for a particular environment.

What is “Smart Technology?

Janet Lorenzen’s analysis of the distinction between “green technology” and “smart technology” provides the basic introduction of this Paper’s premise. Unlike “green technology” which is focused on large scale reduction and replacement of energy consumption and raw materials usage, “smart technology” is a system of observation and feedback that supports lower resource consumption across single and multiple scales of production and conservation. Smart technology calculates economic, social, and environmental effects as equal factors into each phase of research and application. The application of smart technology cannot be thought of as one single method, but instead any number of technologies applied for the purpose of a more efficient restoration of a particular environment.

“Smart Technology” is Contextual

Smart technology is the integration of technological advancements with tangible, accessible, and affordable modes of operation to bring environmentally progressive systems to the forefront of industry, agriculture, government, and every-day citizens. Pursuing the flashiest or most expensive technological advancement must be distinguished from “smart technology”, which instead is focused on efficiency, effectiveness, and accessibility across a particular sector of an economy. Smart technology also focuses on user practices and how monitoring of such practices can allow for quick, if not instant, feedback for industry and consumer alike.1 “Smart things were envisioned with the ability to explore their environment and to communicate with each other, thus enabling innovative products and totally new services to be developed”.2 Smart environments are able to acquire and apply knowledge about the species living there in order to improve their experience in that environment.3 Smart technology looks beyond the short-term advantage of a technological innovation and analyzes instead the externalities that can be accounted for at both the present and future. Understanding this balance between efficiency and effectiveness on both a monetary and environmental scale is at the heart of applying technology to our most basic as well as complex conservation issues.

“Smart Technology” in Agriculture

Agriculture is perhaps the most delicate environmental ‘problem’. How do we criticize, evaluate, and implement large scale changes across different ecosystems, regulatory structures, and cultures for products literally essential to human life? Smart technology provides some guidance in addressing this complex question. Smart technology in agriculture has developed over the past decade to now widely include a range of innovations with specific orientation to, or adaptations for, agricultural production. These includes technologies include: 3-D mapping, data monitoring with rapid response, climate and weather forecasting, irrigation sensors and monitoring, and many other technologies.4
Smart precision sprayers for pest management are one of many technologies developed to reduce herbicide and pesticide dispersal across farm fields and local environments.5 Such technology has been created with AI-based software that uses deep learning to detect specific target weeds and uses individual response nozzles for fast spraying in targeted areas.6 Traditional sprayers usually treat entire fields to fight pests, as opposed to targeted plants needing pesticide applications.7 The smart sprayer was built with accessibility and cost in mind – one prototype sprayer costing less than $1,500.8 While the farmer would have to purchase the sprayer and learn the technology, he or she would in turn require less herbicides and pesticides. A reduction in the quantity of pesticides required would then result in a financial savings in the short term, with the addition long term benefits of a cleaner crop and local environment. Precision spraying illustrates an important premise that targeted ‘smart’ technology in agriculture can have noticeably better results than large scale farming practices. Focusing on technology that addresses large scale agriculture issues through targeted treatments presents an exciting opportunity to produce food on a sustainable, yet attainable, scale.

“Smart Technology” and Responsible Energy

Studies have shown that individuals who believe technology will address environmental problems are more likely to carelessly and recklessly use resources. 9 Smart technology, while it has the ability to reduce the cause and effects of environmental issues, is not to be considered as an alternative to systematic change of consumption practices. Instead, smart technology is a piece of the larger pie to a more sustainable future. Another piece of this pie is ‘responsible energy’, which focuses on governmental and economic factors that shape industry and consumers alike. Theories surrounding governance and sustainability contend that a successful transition of technology is dependent on the “adaptive capacity” of the system of governance to adapt to changes and articulate the specific needs required to follow through with the transition.10 The ability of the governance system to debate, develop frameworks, provide necessary financial capital, and then apply the technology across the wide spectrum of a nation and international economy is essential to the scale of which smart technology can be implemented.11
Technology such as ‘smart meters’ record consumption and communicate the information in real time to the utility and consumer alike.12 Both parties have access to the information in speed unlike our current system.13 Studies of such ‘smart meters’ observed a water consumption reduction of between 2.5 – 28.6% in individual households.14 A key factor on the percentage to which the individual household reduced their consumption depended on the method the information was communicated to the consumer.15 When consumers were provided real time graphics about their consumption, in comparison to social consumption, as well as cost consumption data, households were shown to reduce their usage within the higher range.16 The study noted that the more detailed the feedback was, the more the consumer was likely to reduce their usage presently and ongoing. Responsible energy also encompasses multi-dimensional technological approaches to reach a desired outcome. Lorenzen provides a vignette from a solar forum she attended in which a panelist stated that before a homeowner installed solar panels, they should first seek to conserve energy within their household by weatherizing their home, considering purchasing more energy efficient appliances, and replacing old light bulbs.17 To skip this step and immediately invest in solar panels could be considered ‘waste’ by Lorenzen because by first implementing other energy saving techniques, in the end the homeowner would need fewer solar panels on their home.18 To have sustainable energy, there must be a linkage between government willingness to adopt, participate, and encourage responsible technology, and the individual’s desire to pursue a wide range of technology.

What “Smart Technology” is Not

Smart technology does not focus on the newest and most expensive device, system, or program. It does not focus on only the short-term impacts of its usage. Smart technology is not meant to merely make an individual’s life more efficient – it is meant to restore the ecosystem in which that individual is currently living. Smart technology is not ‘one size fit all’.

Do “Smart Technology” and the Precautionary Principle Conflict?

The precautionary principle encompasses many overlapping concepts and definitions over many fields. For our purposes in this Working Paper, the precautionary principle “ . . . reverses the burden of proof: absent consensus in the scientific community that an action or policy is not harmful, a party taking or permitting the action or implementing the policy carries the burden of proof as to its harmlessness.”19 In this context, the precautionary principle does not require complete distain for new technology until every externality has been addressed. Instead, the principle is focused on how specific harms can be separated from technology and addressed at the early development stages.20 If the precautionary principle’s intent to foster inclusive and thorough discussion cannot be met with dynamic regulatory processes however, the integration of smart technology into ecological and social systems will not be successful.21
There must a distinction between the precautionary principle as a theory to eliminate unpredicted environmental and social harm, and that which can ‘solve’ our current and future ecological crises without modification to social habit and lifestyle. Critics of the precautionary principle argue the theory has morphed into the latter. “The technology-as-savior attitude closely mimics the reliance on positive scientific knowledge as if future innovations will bear no relation to the history of modernization that precaution has responded to; they forget that technological innovation does not develop along a linear progress narrative directed toward problem-solving, but does generate social costs and new risks.”22 In other words, it is unlikely that smart technology can entirely avoid any type of externality. Considering smart technology as infallible because research and innovation has reduced the risks we have already identified, leaves us vulnerable to new and potentially even more dangerous externalities in the future.

Is “Smart Technology” Really Anti-Technology?

Smart technology is a cohesive, integrated, multi-disciplinary approach to addressing conservation and ecological issues with all externalities identified and built into the final ‘cost’. However, the up-front monetary costs of such technologies are often much higher than our market’s current short term and large-scale solutions. So, is technology really ‘smart’ if we have to pay more for it? Absolutely. If the technology you pay for upfront already accounted for its externalities, whether that be financial, ecological, or social, the strain to other parts of the system are lessened. As more of these technologies circulate, all focused on the up-front externalities, the system as a whole is less burdened and is able to prosper. Smart technology in the environmental context is premised on multi-level collaboration of addressing strains to the system and reducing those strains without creating other unintentional side effects. Smart technology requires being open to the idea that technology should mirror its environment, taking notes from the ecological systems in which we seek to restore.


In short, the kind of ‘smart technology’ at issue in the Global RESTORATION Project is restorative in character. The efforts to preserve and restore the Earth as a living planet must include a clear idea of both the power and the limits of technology. Accordingly, the research, development, and implementation of calculated “smart technology” must be met with the systematic willingness to achieve needed ecological restorative effects.

Photo by Lenhat Systems from StockSnap

  1. Lorenzen, Janet. Green and Smart: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology, Human Ecology Review, Vol. 19, No. 1 2012, page 25. 

  2. Development and Evaluation of a low-cost and smart technology for precision weed management utilizing artificial intelligence (Victor Partel), (citing F. Mattern, 2004, Ubiquitous computing: scenarios for an informatized world, 155). 

  3. Development and Evaluation of a low-cost and smart technology for precision weed management utilizing artificial intelligence (Victor Partel) (citing D.J. Cook and S.K. Das, 2007, How smart are out environments? An updated look at the state of the state, 54). 

  4. How smart technology is revolutionizing agriculture (https://iiot-world.com). 

  5. Development and Evaluation of a low-cost and smart technology for precision weed management utilizing artificial intelligence (Victor Partel). 

  6. Id. 

  7. Id. 

  8. Id. 

  9. Green and Smart: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology (Janet Lorenzen). 

  10. The governance of smart mobility (Iain Docherty). 

  11. Id. 

  12. Effectiveness of Smart Meter-Based Consumption Feedback in Curbing Household Water Use: Knowns and Unknowns (Sonderlund). 

  13. Id. 

  14. Id. 

  15. Id. 

  16. Id. 

  17. Green and Smart: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology (Janet Lorenzen). 

  18. Id. 

  19. Legal Aspects of Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis in Sustainable Urban Development (Joanna Diane Caytas), 85. 

  20. It Might Have Been: Risk, Precaution and Opportunity Costs (Douglas Kysar), 14. 

  21. Id at 42. 

  22. An Other History of Knowledge and Decision in Precautionary Approaches to Sustainability (Saptarishi Bandopadhyay), 614.