The Financial Express

Key issues in sustainable digital revolution

| Updated: November 04, 2019 22:22:34

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The Digital Revolution, including technologies such as artificial intelligence, 3D-printing, virtual reality, and the Internet of Things, has received renewed attention for its entirely new and enhanced capacities. Digital technologies have emerged as a significant force for transformative change and future solutions. This digital revolution is not only a fresh "impetus" to lead disruptive change, but it is also an essential driver of achieving the SDGs.

However, in the context of climate change, pervasive poverty, population explosion, social inequality, and the digital divide, the digital revolution poses daunting challenges (e.g., cyber security) for the government and other stakeholders. This write-up presents some key issues in building a sustainable digital revolution.

First, digital technologies must address the primary concern of climate change. Research shows digital technologies can, at a much faster rate than ever before, help decarbonisation across all sectors such as agriculture, industry, and mobility. They promote, for instance, circular economies, energy efficiency, monitoring of ecological systems. These tasks have substantial positive consequences for climate change mitigation. Technologies like smart sensors can measure GHGs emissions from the energy sector. Blockchain is an emerging digital technology platform that offers a promising contribution to decarbonisation.

Although the digital revolution has the potential to provide substantial climate benefits, there is also a potential downside. For example, with more than 25 billion connected devices in 2019, it is growing to an estimated 75 billion by 2025, studies predict. Hence, the increasing energy demands of digitalisation are evident. The digital economy is estimated to account for about 7 per cent of the world's electricity consumption, and this is predicted to rise to 12 per cent by 2020.

Although some Western scientists have argued that since increasing digitalisation may be unsustainable from energy, they have emphasised that energy efficiencies and low energy demand resulting from digitalisation can help achieve the Paris Climate targets. However, this is not an automatic process and will not happen by itself. The opposite has generally been the case. A radical reversal of current trends is, therefore, needed to reduce the disruptive potentials of digitalisation and create pathways toward sustainability, a Science study indicates.

Second, the digital revolution must be aligned with the 2030 Agenda as it is regarded as "universal" goals. Digital technologies might build equal societies in which "no one is left behind"-a guiding principle of this agenda.

According to the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), if the digital revolution is not harmonised appropriately, it could magnify already existing social problems: inequalities, concentration of economic power (consider the significance of the "big five" - Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft for digital transformation), restriction of data sovereignty and civil rights, and eroding governance capacities.

It is said that if the digital revolution is not adjusted with the SDGs properly, we can face several digital tipping points such as undermining of democracy, data-based power concentration, and disruptions of labour markets. To address these challenges as well as to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, and minimise the digital divide, we need substantial investment in (transformative) policies and governance and their practical implementation.

Third, the digital revolution is arguably the single most significant "enabler" of sustainable development. However, there is a crying need for "corresponding and commensurate structural change." "The World in 2050" project devises structural changes that can address the "missing links" between digitalisation and sustainability, e.g., systematically integrating sustainability requirements into country's digitalisation research and innovation processes; enacting and implementing renewable energy policy instruments (e.g., green levies and tariffs); and promoting collaboration and integration between the sustainability and digitalisation researchers.

Nature journal's article titled "Policy design for the Anthropocene" provides seven guiding principles for making structural changes, including interdisciplinary collaboration, emphasising efficiency rather than effectiveness, and contextualisation of "political" criteria. Policymakers, researchers, companies, and civil society actors must intensify their efforts to understand and explain the multiple effects of digital change and to anticipate farreaching structural changes. These efforts can create a basis for shaping the digitalisation process and gearing it toward a sustainable digital revolution.

Fourth, the breakthrough in digital technologies is underway. It is often experienced and described as an unstoppable, accelerating process. The digital revolution is a development driven by humans, not a force of nature. Therefore, it can and should be shaped by reorienting the "processes" and "effects" of this revolution. However, technological breakthroughs raise a plethora of questions such as how can we exploit the potential of digitalisation to tackle the significant challenges facing humanity in the 21st century?

Critical efforts include a significant breakthrough in education, research, and extension in artificial intelligence, deep learning, and big data and privacy. The government should create conducive environments that enable cultural, institutional, and behavioural innovations for a sustainable digital revolution. For the digital revolution to play a decisive role in constructively supporting the SDGs, it, too, must operate within the preconditions and aims of prosperity, social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and inclusive governance, a Nature study on "An Internet for, and from, us all" illustrates.

Fifth, building resilient, adaptive, creative, knowledgeable, and inclusive "responsibility societies" are indispensable to seize the opportunities of digitalisation, virtual realities, and artificial intelligence, and curb their potential risks, IIASA reports. We need immediate investment in future-oriented science, education and research. The sustainable digital revolution, to stabilise the planet and enable a good life for billions of peoples in the 21st century, essentially requires tremendous efforts to develop skills and strengthen institutional scaffoldings.

In sum, setting an action agenda for digital science is crucial. Global evidence deduces three-point action agenda: strengthening institutional capacity, developing time-bound benchmarks (like the energy sector), and policy tracking, monitoring, and evaluation of the digital transformation. Besides, the digital revolution must pay due attention to the global concern-"climate change: an existential threat to humanity" as the UN Chief António Guterres warns.

Ranjan Roy, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural Extension and Information System, Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, Dhaka.

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