Environmental impacts of digital services for health and wellbeing in the home

The UK Government’s 25-year Environment Plan recognises the close links between environmental sustainability and improving people’s health and wellbeing, for example through green infrastructure in urban areas. Services and infrastructure to improve health and wellbeing are increasingly mediated through digital technologies and services but little is known about the environmental sustainability of such technologies in the way that they are designed, manufactured and used in people’s homes.  

With funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), this research project aims to understand the environmental impact of digital technologies and services for health and wellbeing in the home, such as video intercom systems and telecare, including in specialised housing for elderly people.

The team of researchers will quantify the environmental impacts of these technologies and services in the home, throughout their lifecycle, including their carbon and water footprints, and the extent to which they lead to resource depletion.

Working with users, healthcare and technology providers, and housing managers, the team will identify ways to reduce the environmental impacts through changes in the technologies, the built environment and practices of use and provision.

The Sustainable Digital Society project is being led by Dr Ralitsa Hiteva from SPRU, with colleagues Professor Tim Foxon and Professor Adrian Smith amongst the team of co-investigators.

Dr Ralitsa Hiteva explains “The pandemic has accelerated the use of digital technologies in the home for the delivery of an increasing number of health and digital services, and we urgently need a connected and comprehensive understanding of the multiple ways in which their environmental impact is shaped and could be changed”.

As Dr Alejandro Gallego Schmid, of Manchester University, explains “More digitalization does not always imply more sustainability.”

If we do not evaluate the environmental standards for health and wellbeing digital interventions in the home, while these are rapidly introduced, we could easily become locked into unsustainable technologies and practices of use, which might have an environmentally detrimental effect.

The project brings together several key partners: Orbit (housing association), Appello (a digital system developer), NHS Digital (health service provider) and UCL’s Tomorrow’s Home 2050 project, with a team of interdisciplinary researchers from the University of Sussex, the University of Manchester, University College London, Anglia Ruskin University and Imperial College London.

"Understanding the environmental impacts of digital healthcare has never been more important, and I look forward to working with the project team and sharing learnings about how to deliver our vital services in the most sustainable way." - Gillian Brown, Estates Sustainability Manager, Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

The project also has an ambitious agenda for actively and directly taking action to reduce the environmental impact of the research activities by analysing and monitoring the material consumption, energy use, transport and mobility associated with the project, and will serve as a pilot feeding into the sustainability strategy of the University of Sussex, seeking wider advocacy for change within the Higher Education sector.

Research Approach  

The researchers will examine how environmental sustainability and circular economy can be embedded in digital interventions for health and wellbeing in the home, in order to promote synergies between improving personal wellbeing and sustaining the natural environment.

By examining and mapping the digital encounters of these technologies from design to the home, the project aims to understand what constitutes meaningful digital encounters in the midst of digitalisation of healthcare and housing.

The team will create a platform for engagement and co-creation between key stakeholder groups which treats users as innovators and experts in their own lived experiences, to consider how the risks and benefits of these technologies are spread, and their effect on people’s sense of home and place.

The researchers will also take actions to reduce the environmental impact of the research project itself, implementing both small changes (such as using less or no paper) and substantial changes in terms of developing new ways to collect data and engage with key audiences.

Impact and outreach   

The research will provide insight into how environmental sustainability can be embedded responsibly in homes, through the built environment; through intermediary health providers and through the ways in which users encounter digital interventions. The aim is to co-create the first industry standards for environmental sustainability in the delivery of digital health intervention, in order to contribute to the larger goal of lowering global emissions.

This research will contribute to the development of UK research capacity in understanding the sustainability of the digital economy and society.  Developing this capacity is essential to ensure that the potential benefits and drawbacks of the use of digital technologies can be better understood and can feed into wider public debates on the direction of technological change so it leads to the widest possible social benefits, as well as into the development of particular technologies.

Although the project is UK-centered the findings will be applicable in a global context, and the project’s international Advisory Board will aid the dissemination of these findings beyond the UK.

Project Partners  

  • Anglia Ruskin University
  • Appello
  • Imperial College London
  • NHS Digital
  • Orbit
  • The University of Manchester
  • University College London