The promise and peril of a digital ecosystem for the planet

Key decisions are needed in the next 12 months to set in motion a robust architecture and governance framework

David Jensen
25 min readSep 11, 2019

Authors: Jillian Campbell and David E Jensen, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Reviewers and case study contributors: Brian Sullivan (Google), Lucas Joppa (Microsoft), Anne Bowser (Wilson Center), Steven Ramage (Group on Earth Observations), Gavin Starks (IceBreakerOne), Laurent Durieux (French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development), Andrew Zolli (Planet), Alison Lowndes (Nvidia), Annie Virnig (UNDP) and Gary Lewis (UNEP).

A range of frontier and digital technologies have dramatically boosted the ways in which we can monitor the health of our planet. And sustain our future on it (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A range of frontier an digital technologies can be combined to monitor our planet and the sustainable use of natural resources (1)

If we can leverage this technology effectively, we will be able to assess and predict risks, increase transparency and accountability in the management of natural resources and inform markets as well as consumer choice. These actions are all required if we are to stand a better chance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

However, for this vision to become a reality, public and private sector actors must take deliberate action and collaborate to build a global digital ecosystem for the planet — one consisting of data, infrastructure, rapid analytics, and real-time insights. We are now at a pivotal moment in the history of our stewardship of this planet. A “tipping point” of sorts. And in order to guide the political action which is required to counter the speed, scope and severity of the environmental and climate crises, we must acquire and deploy these data sets and frontier technologies. Doing so can fundamentally change our economic trajectory and underpin a sustainable future.

This article shows how such a global digital ecosystem for the planet can be achieved — as well as what we risk if we do not take decisive action within the next 12 months. This is an extended version of the Foresight Brief issued by the UN…



David Jensen

Working for UN on digital governance & mapping environment, security & peace dynamics using frontier technology. Co-founder MapX. Alumni: TedX, Oxford and Uvic.