Sustainability and digitization – a complex ‘planetary nervous system’

Peter Seele and Irina Lock draw a line between two megatrends – sustainability and digitization – in their feature editorial for Sustainability Science, ‘‘The game-changing potential of digitalization for sustainability: possibilities, perils, and pathways’.

In 2015, 193 members of the United Nations agreed to secure the world for the future. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for countries to mobilize for change in the next fifteen years, while the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) span a range of issues from poverty to climate change to overconsumption and requires stakeholders to come together on interconnected issues. Equally, Seele and Lock identify that digital technology has increasingly, and in parallel, come to dominate many aspects of human life. sustainability and digitization

Given this, Seele and Lock describe a global network connected by both technology and critical issues – a complex ‘planetary nervous system’ prone to ‘cascading’ effects from common threats. They suggest that big data and digitalization can help nations improve services and reduce threats to sustainability. Algorithms play a central role in these technologies, In particular, digital algorithms and data can help map and predict patterns and these capabilities can be harnessed to help achieve the SDGs.

Outlining the themes in the journal’s special issue, Seele and Lock identify the governance of sustainability remains a key interest for policy makers. While researchers have suggested a global digitally-enabled participatory platform, the SDGs include ‘base-of-pyramid’ development problems. But Seele and Lock question, how can digitalization address these goals? While the use of data and algorithms raise fears of surveillance, digitalization for sustainability will have to address questions of privacy and security. The relationship between technology and sustainability is just beginning, write the authors.    

About the researchers: Peter Seele is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Communication Sciences, Università della Svizzera italiana, Lugano, Switzerland. Irina Lock is Assistant Professor of Corporate Communication in the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam.

Sally Hussey is a Melbourne-based writer and Bang the Table’s Senior Managing Editor of Content and Research. She has an extensive background in the publishing, academic and cultural sectors.

Photo: Marisol Grandon/Department for International Development/Flickr/cc

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