Cover image created by Kristen Murrell (UBC)

Are these the 20 top priorities in 2020 for a digital ecosystem for Earth?

What are concrete targets in 2020 for realizing a robust and equitable digital ecosystem for the planet?

David Jensen
Jan 17 · 29 min read

Authors [1]: David Jensen(UNEP) [2], Karen Bakker (UBC) [3], Christopher Reimer (UBC) [4]

Contributors [5]: Hamed Alemohammad (Radiant Earth Foundation), Christina Bowen (Digital Life Collective), Anne Bowser (Wilson Center), Steven Brumby (National Geographic Society), Frank Dehnhard (One Planet Network), Laurent Durieux (French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development), Terry Gunning (CGI), Pablo Hinojosa (APNIC), Jason Jabbour (UNEP), Amy Luers (Future Earth), Alison Lowndes (Nvidia), Anthony Mills (C4 EcoSolutions), Nicholas Niggli (Republic and State of Geneva), David Oehmen (UNFCCC), Paul Quaiser (Human Sustainability Institute), Steven Ramage (Group on Earth Observations), Christopher Reimer (UBC), Diana Mastracci Sanchez (University of Oxford), Gavin Starks (IceBreakerOne), David Thau (WWF), Annie Virnig (UNDP).

Graphics/Visualizations/Media [5]: Christina Bowen (Digital Life Collective), Albert Martinez (UNEP), Kristen Murrell (UBC), Douglas Robb (UBC).

Peer Review [5]: Hamed Alemohammad (Radiant Earth Foundation), Maria Cristina Bueti (ITU), Brian Sullivan (Google Earth Engine), Adesuwa Obasuyi (SAWI), Maxime Paquin (UNEP), Andrew Zolli (Planet).


A digital revolution for the environment is needed

New Year’s 2019 was a harbinger of things to come. As unprecedented fires raged in Australia, equally unprecedented floods inundated Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. Many linked these events to climate change and called urgently for action by the global community. Yet only a month prior, the latest round of international climate talks in Madrid ended with a deadlock. Despite record-high carbon emissions levels, and in the face of warnings from climate scientists about risky, abrupt, and irreversible climate tipping points, the international community failed to act decisively.

While the youth climate strikes caught the attention of government representatives (even meriting a mention in the conference’s final declaration), and half a million people joined the protests in Madrid, the conference ended in a stalemate, as delegates headed home without an agreement. To meet their targets, countries would have to reduce their emissions by an average of 7.6 percent per year over the coming decade: Mission Impossible, according to many commentators. Meanwhile, scientists are also sounding the alarm on the planet’s biodiversity crisis: more than 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, and the rate of species extinction is accelerating, with grave impacts on the health of ecosystems on which we all depend.

As we consider this situation, three things become clear.

First, business as usual isn’t working for global environmental governance.

International and multilateral processes are designed to reflect the aggregation of national interests, but this is not aligned with our collective global interest in achieving sustainability on our planet. Although we have been trying to address existential threats such as climate change for decades, our global carbon emissions have continued to increase. Rates of biodiversity loss have continued to accelerate. A stark picture of “nature’s dangerous decline” is painted by recent scientific and multilateral reports — including the new UNEP emissions gap report and the recent reports on climate from the IPCC, biodiversity from the IPBES and our overall environmental outlook (GEO-6). Our global international governance regimes are clearly unable to keep pace with planetary changes and associated social challenges. They are not equipped to move rapidly enough, nor to engage the full range of diverse stakeholders as necessary. Perhaps EO Wilson said it best: “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.” As the scientists overseeing the recent IPBES report on biodiversity phrased it in a recent article in Science: the pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change.

Second, we have not yet fully harnessed digital technologies to address our most pressing global environmental challenges.

Digital technologies can support sustainability in a number of ways: for example, through enhancing both monitoring and management, or by facilitating direct payments for ecosystem services to the field practitioners and communities involved. Access to data is a key barrier to environmental management; with digital technology, we can envision integrating local data silos into higher-quality, more comprehensive (and comprehensible) global data sets through augmented data analytics and modeling capacity. This can improve our understanding of the complexity of the Earth system through better monitoring and reporting on the environmental impacts of our society.

Digital technologies can also empower new environmentally-smart solutions, for example by optimizing ecological resource use efficiency. Of particular importance will be automated assessment of environmental data to trigger direct payments for ecosystem services, whether to rural farmers, entrepreneurs or companies implementing ecosystem restoration. Thousands of digital applications now exist for optimizing resource efficiency, though many are in their infancy. There are, however, very few, if any, applications that assess environmental data and then disburse payments accordingly. Similarly, our attempts at data integration are very rudimentary; for example, despite calls for a data revolution for sustainable development, two-thirds of the environmental indicators in the Sustainable Development Goals (Sustainable Development Goal) framework lack global data sets for monitoring progress.

We are flying across the cosmos on Spaceship Earth with no planetary instrumentation panel to measure the state of our life support system, or a flight plan to collaboratively strategize about how our everyday choices and routines shape where we are going together. Reasonable people reading this article would not risk taking a flight on an airplane if it lacked a basic instrumentation panel and intended flight plan, yet we do so every day on Spaceship Earth. Although 2019 was the 50th anniversary of Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, it seems we have made relatively little progress in many areas.

Third, the digital economy itself is not yet being leveraged for a sustainable future.

Digitization and the development of digital infrastructures have been accompanied by increasing energy consumption, as well as global consumption patterns that place an even greater burden on ecosystems. Although attempts to green the digital sector are underway, technical innovation surges do not automatically translate into sustainability transformations. And the issues are far broader than greening the ICT sector (although this is important). As technological solutions utilizing digital services are developed, insufficient attention is being given to a number of pressing environmental concerns. For example, data infrastructure is as important as the physical infrastructure for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, but it is being neglected in current debates. And this is just one example of a missed opportunity; the digital economy includes much more than data.

“The digital economy is generating opportunities to fully integrate information on the current and forecast state of the Earth into all aspects of decision making, from national strategic planning, through to day-to-day actions of individual businesses. [We] resolve to work, individually and through GEO, to encourage use of Earth observations in an inclusive digital economy that promotes sustainable economic and social development.” The Group on Earth Observations, Canberra Declaration, 2019


A global agenda for a digital ecosystem for Earth

In light of the above, we believe the time is right for the creation of a digital ecosystem for Earth: a set of nested, fully integrated global environmental monitoring, data-sharing, and decision-support systems designed to enhance precautionary, predictive, and adaptive environmental governance. In our vision, a digital ecosystem for Earth is built to support constructive action towards sustainability, and is both co-designed and consulted by governments, large organizations, as well as individual citizens.

This is not a simplistic techno-utopian vision. Enormous challenges exist with respect to privacy, security, and the future of frontier technologies like artificial intelligence. Concerns raised about an emerging surveillance society are, we feel, valid. The basic fact is that the digital economy is moving faster than our ability to govern it, and the critical question of where it is headed remains unanswered. We need to balance our optimism about technical solutions with realism about the limits of technology, appropriate skepticism about over-hyped solutions, and a healthy dose of anticipatory caution about unintended consequences.

Despite these potential pitfalls, we believe that we are at a pivotal moment in history: mobilizing the tools of the Digital Age to address our most pressing environmental threats will be critical for ensuring a more sustainable future.

In our first collaborative article on Medium, we proposed that the ongoing digital revolution needs to be harnessed to drive forward a transformation towards global sustainability, environmental stewardship, and human well-being. We called on public, private, civil society and international actors to take deliberate action and collaborate to enable a global digital ecosystem for the planet, mobilizing infrastructure, software, and data analytics to generate real-time insights that can power the structural transformations needed to achieve sustainable development goals.

Based on the responses to our first article, we are publishing two new articles (both on Medium): (1) this “priorities” article, which addresses the what and the why of a digital revolution for the environment, and sets out 20 critical goals for 2020; and (2) a companion “multi-stakeholder processes” article, which will address the who and how by highlighting 20 of the most important multi-stakeholder initiatives to engage and influence in 2020. This piece has already been published on Medium and you can read it here.

Our primary target audiences for these pieces are:

  1. Decision-makers on environment and digital policy: including nation-states, multi-laterals, regional unions, not-for-profits engaged in multilateral dialogue governance on digital and environmental issues, and those charged with crafting digital system architecture and environmental policy.
  2. Practitioners, end-users, and citizen scientists: including earth and environmental scientists, boots-on-the-ground conservationists, private sector companies (including tech companies) of all sizes, conservation tech innovators, together with end-users.
  3. Youth and the next generation of influencers: the growing environmental youth movement and the next generation of citizens, scientists, engineers, coders, and policymakers — the future stakeholders of our planet.
  4. Indigenous and Tribal Peoples: managers and protectors of natural resources, and guardians of biodiversity, for whom Indigenous data sovereignty and data rights are key issues.

2020 will be a critical year for action before the window of opportunity closes to influence the future configuration of the digital economy, for two reasons. First, many national and international initiatives are moving ahead to strengthen governance of the digital economy. It is essential that these processes also include a focus on environmental sustainability issues, and begin to embed the idea of a digital ecosystem for the planet. Second, the environmental clock is ticking: we only have 10 years left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, strive to keep the average global temperature increase within 1.5 degrees, and foster resilience. Decisions and investments are needed now in order to scale to meet these 2020 goals.

Given this urgency, our vision for 2020 is that a digital ecosystem for the planet becomes a key outcome for digital governance initiatives and a key mechanism for environmental agendas to be achieved. This vision is closely aligned with the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021–2030) which seeks to have long-term decision-making in societies worldwide — whether in urban, suburban, agricultural or industrial landscapes — underpinned by quantitative analysis of all the social, economic and environmental benefits emanating from ecosystem restoration.

We hope that substantive advances can be made on a digital ecosystem for Earth. We discuss how and who could take this agenda forward in a separate companion article on multi-stakeholder processes, already published on Medium. The rest of this article focuses on what we should aim to achieve and explores why the time is right for a global digital Earth agenda. You can interact with the below map to explore more about our vision for a Digital Ecosystem for the Planet and to access the other articles.


Why build a digital ecosystem for Earth? Why now?

In short: because we need it now, and it is feasible to a degree that was not possible even five years ago in terms of scale, cost and usability.

The basic idea of building a digital ecosystem for the planet has been around since at least the launch of the first satellite solely dedicated to Earth observation in 1972. NASA’s Earth Observing System Data Information System (EOSDIS) was one of the first space-based programs for assessing humanity’s impact on the global environment. Key pieces of our envisioned digital ecosystem for Earth, such as the first digital networks of meteorological data, were put in place even earlier. Since that day, Earth Observing systems have returned petabytes of data, with approximately 90% in the last 5 years, and super-computing systems have become one billion times faster.

Today, we have the ability to extend this digital ecosystem to integrate a broad range of variables, both biotic and abiotic, from the depths of the oceans to the edges of space. We also have the ability to create decision-support systems that enable dynamic governance: spatially and temporally responsive environmental management on ecologically appropriate time scales. This newfound ability is due to the exponential increase in environmental data from satellites, drones, sensors and in situ data through methods like citizen science; combined with the advent of relatively inexpensive, cloud-based storage and data-adjacent compute this has created a literal tsunami of environmental data. Although many organizations still manage this data using spreadsheets (and we have a mountain to climb to reach our goal of accessible, transparent data governance), our ability to extract insights from this data has expanded exponentially thanks to advances in machine learning and massively-parallel scientific computing (and, in the future, quantum computing).

In developing these new techniques, technologies, and opportunities, bottom-up leadership and cross-disciplinary collaboration have emerged from a variety of sectors and institutions. For example, researchers from computer science and engineering have been collaborating with ecologists and biologists to create entirely new disciplines like computational sustainability, ecological informatics, and digital earth studies. Innovative hackathons, such as GEOHACK19, are harnessing the collective intelligence of the crowd to co-design innovative solutions with and for Indigenous peoples, that combine traditional knowledge and science across cultural and generational lines. Artificial intelligence (AI) researchers, cognizant of the highly energy-intensive nature of machine learning, have recently launched an agenda tackling climate change with machine learning. Academic initiatives like DataOne, which enable data sharing between Earth and environmental scientists, provide inspiration for the agenda we are now proposing: building a digital ecosystem for the entire planet, in a dialogue-based process which brings together public, private and civil society actors together with academics, in a multi-stakeholder process that creates and enables a common vision. Digital technologies can also be incorporated into this international dialogue, enabling humanity to enhance its collective intelligence and collaboration in a more inclusive manner.

We believe that the way we decide to deploy frontier digital technologies (e.g. artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, distributed ledger technology) combined with innovations in governance (e.g. safeguards for privacy, security, licensing, transparency and accessibility) will shape the evolution of the digital age and our ability to build a sustainable future. Human culture is fundamentally shaped and influenced by technology — we are “designed” by that which we design. Choices must, therefore, be made that will drive positive environmental outcomes, for all species on Earth (humans and non-humans) as well as the ecosystems upon which they depend. In making this observation, we are mindful of the differential rates of adoption and access around the world, and unequal access to digital technology globally. We acknowledge that individual citizens are also taking action, and wish to avoid top-down or ‘baked-in’ one-size-fits-all solutions. And we are keen to avoid over-hyping technological solutions, which are embedded in socio-economic and political contexts, and are not a magic bullet.

Tech companies could be leaders in advancing this digital ecosystem for Earth agenda. Some companies, including “Big Tech” companies, have advanced a green energy agenda, reducing carbon emissions and investing in renewable energy. Many technology companies have also begun exploring how to support and enhance sustainability across their entire supply chains, innovate in environmental data infrastructure. We can expect more engagement on these issues in the future; senior tech leaders like Microsoft’s Brad Smith have identified sustainability as a top tech issue for the 2020s. Much attention has been focused on reducing carbon emissions, which is encouraging; DeepMind, for example, has been used to cut the amount of electricity needed for cooling Google’s data centers by 40% and is also being used to predict the energy output of wind farms up to 36 hours ahead, enabling the optimization of energy deliveries to the grid. However, the range of conservation technology applications is much broader than this (for a review, see this article on Smart Earth technologies). Indeed, an emerging ecosystem of ‘conservation technology’ companies is entirely focused on creating an environmentally-friendly and environmentally-focused digital economy, aligned with longstanding efforts in the scientific community.

Our vision aligns more closely with this broader ‘conservation technology’ agenda. Experts from a range of disciplines have put forward bold new visions for a digital ecosystem for the planet — albeit using slightly different terms and metaphors along an ambition continuum. These include a planetary computer, earth optimization, design for planetary health, a noosphere for collective intelligence, smart earth, digital earth, platform planet, digital ecology, fourth wave environmentalism, and a central nervous system for the planet. In many cases, academics are collaborating with the private and not-for-profit sectors to jointly create an artificial intelligence platform for the planet to fundamentally revolutionize the fight against global challenges, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity, to name a few. The need for a common, coordinated observation and analysis global solution becomes even more obvious when these challenges are brought together in a nexus of interactions between water, energy and food security.

Building a digital ecosystem for Earth will be one of the most ambitious visions ever undertaken by humanity. We believe it can be accomplished because we have already set important precedents for this kind of global collective action. The large hadron collider at CERN (USD 5 billion), the Human Genome Project (USD 3 billion), the International Space Station (USD 150 billion), the Global Positioning System (USD 5 billion) and the Internet itself are all examples of public and private sector actors collaborating at scale to achieve a transformational global public good.

A healthy digital ecosystem not only offers insights we need for coherent decision making but also recognizes the human implications of the structure and use of this technology. This includes consideration of

  1. Ownership: the structure and ownership/custodianship of the hardware systems, software systems, and data;
  2. Inclusion and accessibility: how we co-design, engage, navigate and promote such an ecosystem;
  3. Science-policy interface: how the information and insights from that ecosystem are linked to credible science and scientific review processes, and how these are articulated with policy;
  4. Data sharing: how access to rapid insights from a wealth of information and the practice of widespread collaboration can support augmented and collective intelligence; and
  5. Digital environmental justice: how diverse, inclusive and equitable commitment to environmental justice should be reflected in the processes and priorities of a digital ecosystem, drawing inspiration from digital environmental justice methods such as community informatics and participatory mapping[6].

In making this call for action, we are mindful of issues of environmental justice. The digital divide (e.g. unequal access to digital technology, and exclusion from design) and algorithmic bias are of concern. We are also mindful of the vulnerability of environmental data (see the work of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative). Meaningful inclusion of a diverse range of stakeholders is, in our opinion, a prerequisite for moving forward.

In particular, as we move towards a digital ecosystem for Earth, recognizing the vision, worldviews, ecological knowledge, and the rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (including their right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) will be key to protecting the natural world. Indigenous peoples make up less than 5% of the world’s population, yet their traditional lands are home to 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Some indigenous communities are already innovating with technology for a broad range of environmental sustainability goals, as well as Indigenous-led AI [7]. The digital economy raises some fundamental questions about Indigenous data storage, ownership, access, and consent. Any framework that is developed for a digital ecosystem for Earth should affirm Indigenous peoples’ rights, including their right to set their data agenda, and the right to choose the conditions of Internet connectivity. It is imperative to engage, learn from and co-design digital solutions with Indigenous communities.

Another key issue is data architecture and governance. This issue continues to be a significant focus for both academic researchers and practitioners, as well as international and multilateral organizations; summarizing their activities is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, we emphasize the importance of accessible, transparent data, and an overhaul of digital data governance, as a precursor to the specific targets identified below. Unless data-related governance issues (including data discovery, open licensing regimes, intellectual property, and user co-design) are addressed, the potential of a digital ecosystem for Earth will be limited.


Three priority engagement tracks for 2020

A digital ecosystem for the planet is the next logical step forward for humanity to unleash a new era of digital public goods at a planetary scale. But conceptualizing a digital ecosystem for the planet is the easy part. The hard part is dividing up and sequencing the necessary actions that must be undertaken by different coalitions of public and private sector actors together with civil society.

We believe that action can be broken down into three main tracks, which we explore below. The tracks are further broken down into twenty preliminary targets, which are intended to be actionable goals. These twenty targets have been identified through a collective intelligence process involving 70 experts from the environment and technology sectors. We view this list as a first iteration that we anticipate will evolve as the dialogue continues. To enable this dialogue we are also publishing an Annex that provides more substantive detail on each of the targets.

Track 1: Data/System Architecture

The first track is the system architecture of a digital ecosystem of data, infrastructure, and algorithms that can generate and deliver real-time insights about our environment and the health of our planet at any scale. This is largely a technical track that focuses on building on existing or establishing new standards, policies and basic architecture to link the various components and ensure it can be directed towards important public policy questions and the generation of digital public goods on the environment.

Within the emerging digital economy, these public goods will largely be produced by a combination of public and private sector actors. If we truly want to harness the potential of data to manage the planet, we need to understand and find ways to unlock and reuse private data, as well as platform-based user-generated data for the public good and for advancing sustainability. Especially for environmental and natural resource challenges, it will be essential to share and integrate various forms of public, private, platform-based user-generated and citizen science data that can speak to environmental change, socioeconomic patterns as well as human behaviors, networks, perceptions, and sentiments.

This track is largely the technical domain of coders, data scientists, statisticians, and computer engineers combined with experts from the natural sciences including ecologists, geographers, biologists, hydrologists, climatologists, and remote sensing scientists. Precedents and potential collaborators include the work of policy networks, such as the Internet & Jurisdiction Network, academic data-sharing initiatives such as DataOne, collaborative public-private partnerships such as NOAA’s cloud-based open environmental data access initiative, the collaborative networks to analyze massive astronomy and other science datasets, and the Global Indigenous Alliance, an international network promoting Indigenous control of Indigenous data.

In 2020, we need to strategically target the initiatives which ensure transparency, accessibility and quality control for environmental data. We believe the following targets can be achieved:

Target 1 // Measuring SDG indicators: A method is developed for monitoring of Sustainable Development Goals, including an integrated, accessible dashboard at the global level. Over 95% of the environmental indicators in the Sustainable Development Goals can be measured and monitored on a global level using data-sharing methods adopted through the use of regional, sub-regional and country-level mechanisms.

Target 2 // Open Data: Environmental data held by governments and multilateral organizations needed to measure progress against the Sustainable Development Goal indicators is made open and released into the public domain in an accessible and interoperable manner. Data is consistently open and findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable (FAIR). Documentation of data quality is sufficient for secondary users to assess fitness for use in research and policy purposes.

Target 3 // Data Discovery, Access, Licencing and APIs: An international framework is proposed to enable the discovery, access, license and use of environmental data originating from different data custodians and regimes. This includes both governmental and commercial providers of Earth Observation data and analysis products. The framework includes a common code of conduct for partnerships with public institutions and civil society, focusing on adequate monitoring data for the Sustainable Development Goals. We need to build systems of data production that are more frequent and globally complete together with standardized “APIs for Earth” (application programming interfaces).

Target 4 // Standards and Scorecard: Leveraging existing frameworks and tools, like DOIs, a set of international technology standards, norms and best practices for a digital ecosystem for the planet are adopted, and a scorecard methodology is developed. These standards include crowdsourcing and citizen science, as well as the use of passive monitoring data.

Target 5 // Data Collaborations, Commons and Trusts: Clear guidelines and decision-making processes are available for public-private collaborations on data commons, data trusts, and data aggregation to address different global environmental challenges.

Target 6 // Indigenous Data Governance: Indigenous Peoples are engaged and active participants in the data space. Indigenous Data Sovereignty, the process by which Indigenous Peoples govern and control all aspects of their data, is embraced by both public and private entities. The CARE principles for Indigenous Data Governance (Collective benefit, Authority to control, Responsibility, and Ethics) is a recognized international framework, complementing the existing FAIR standards by ensuring data guidelines address power imbalances.

Track 2: Applications

The second track focuses on transformative applications that will exponentially enhance monitoring and regulatory capacity, as well as the capacity of buyers of ecosystem services to purchase the services directly from field practitioners. This should lay the foundation for accelerating action on specific environmental targets, ranging from consumption patterns to conservation targets and the Sustainable Development Goals. For example, it has been estimated that digital information and communications technologies (ICT) can enable a 20% reduction of global CO2e emissions by 2030 when strategically applied to five sectors: mobility, manufacturing, agriculture, energy, and buildings.

Leading AI researchers have recently published an ambitious agenda for machine learning and climate change and AI’s role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. For example, machine learning and game theory are now being applied for predictive poaching prevention; one system, Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security (PAWS), is being integrated into the world’s largest digital conservation monitoring network (the SMART network) and applied in over 600 wildlife sanctuaries in 55 countries around the world [8]. Transformative applications supporting circular economies, cradle to cradle design, supply chain sustainability and the like are already in use by behavioral psychologists, economists, financial and insurance experts and government decision-makers. This ecosystem of applications supporting sustainability should be mapped and supported.

Social scientists have thoroughly documented some of the pitfalls of data infrastructures and planetary computerization; insights from their incisive critiques should be incorporated [9]. Most importantly, there is a need to focus on end-users’ needs and pathways for capacity building. We have chosen four sectors and allocated two targets per sector: urban, fintech, citizen science, and environmental stewardship.

In 2020, we need to strategically target the sectors where the largest sustainability gains can be achieved from frontier technology, develop an inclusive dialogue with a diverse set of actors and environmental stewards, and take a “nature first” approach.

Urban

Target 7 //SMART Cities: A global protocol and standard are proposed for publishing environmental and climate data generated through SMART city applications, designed in a manner enabling input into national and global Sustainable Development Goal monitoring processes.

Target 8 // Digital Twins: “Digital twins”[10] are adopted as a planning and sustainability optimization tool for 10 of the 100 cities with the largest emissions footprints.

FinTech

Target 9 // Fintech and SDGs: Establish principles, standards and targets for the integration of Sustainable Development Goals with emerging financial technologies, with specific focus on government, corporate and private equity finance stakeholders that are funding this transition.

Target 10 // Environmental Footprints of Products: At least one global e-commerce platform and one leading Fintech firm offer consumers information on the supply chains and environmental footprints of products using standard metrics that enable comparability and sustainability nudging.

Citizen Science

Target 11 // Consumer Awareness and Behavior: Mobile phone apps are used at scale to help individuals seamlessly calculate their individual environmental footprints. Nudge technologies push citizens to improve their sustainable consumption choices and as well as contribute data to citizen science.

Target 12 // Extended reality: International organizations release at least 3 new extended reality applications that allow users to downscale global reports and data on environmental degradation and climate change to the community level to understand the projected impacts as well as practical solutions.

Environmental Stewardship

Target 13 // Accessible Digital Resource Management Tools: Users in underserved communities are able to trial digital technologies as inputs for different low-cost commercial resource management applications. We suggest that this can be achieved through Open Data Cubes being completed for the world, focusing on Africa and Latin America.

Target 14 // Applications for Indigenous Peoples: ICTs are used by Indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their culture through the use of earth observation data and in-situ observations. Further, Indigenous communities that share data on in-situ environmental monitoring maintain control and governance over their information, in line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Track 3: Governance and Policy

The third track is about the governance of the digital ecosystem for the planet. This is largely about governing the distribution of power over decision making, benefits-sharing and accountability across the public and private sectors. This also tackles a range of fundamental issues at the global level linked to data ownership, sovereignty, privacy, and security.

If information is power in the digital economy, then who controls access to environmental data, insights and processing infrastructure is a fundamental consideration. Indeed, the success of the most valuable tech companies in the world is now underpinned by a sophisticated capacity to collect, organize, control, analyze and commercialize stores of user-generated data. These companies have amassed more data about people (and their behaviors) than many governments and organizations around the globe. They also control much of the cloud infrastructure required to process, integrate and extract “public good” insights. But much of this analytical capacity also relies on publicly-funded data sets, including satellite images, census, surveys, and others. In short, building a digital ecosystem for the planet is going to inherently involve public-private partnerships. Improving global governance over data goes hand in hand with adopting a shared set of values and ethics to underpin a more agile approach to digital governance and digital humanism.

Arguably, this is the most difficult track to implement. It is much easier to develop a data infrastructure than have data providers agree, for example, on data license concerns, including privacy. But such agreements are fundamentally necessary in order to allow data to flow to end-users with minimum friction. This track is also the most political of the tracks, and largely involves high-level, plurilateral decision-makers, lawyers, and policy experts operating at an international level, balancing geopolitical and commercial concerns and interests.

In 2020, we need to strategically target key multilateral processes on digital technologies and on the environment, and ensure that they have acknowledged and incorporated the necessary conditions and frameworks for a digital ecosystem for Earth, while developing a set of “model protocols” that enable data sharing, applications/use and safeguards.

Target 15 // Global Commitment for Digital Cooperation: The environmental governance and sustainability agenda is integrated with the “Global Commitment for Digital Cooperation” by the UN’s 75th birthday in 2020, together with concrete actions and financing.

Target 16 // Digitization Strategy for Global Environmental Institutions: At least 90% of the key global environmental institutions, agreements and strategies complete a Digital Review, adopt a digitalization strategy and hire a Chief Data Officer or Chief Digital Officer.

Target 17 // Global Environmental Data Strategy: International consultations are initiated towards the adoption of an inclusive Global Environmental Data Strategy.

Target 18 // Digital Charter: An international Digital Charter for Environmental Sustainability is initiated, as an inclusive process which co-defines, with a diverse set of users, an ethical framework to guide the development of digital technology and applications.

Target 19 // Indigenous Inclusion: Indigenous data sovereignty is incorporated into the preceding targets, through inclusive dialogue with Indigenous communities and initiatives.

Target 20 // Detecting Fake Environmental News: Methods are identified and vetted for detecting information on social media platforms about the environment that are either fake, biased, discriminatory or scientifically unsound, and a user-friendly repository of these methods is shared with the international community, as the first step towards action on digital misinformation on environmental issues.


Next Steps and moving the conversation forward…

Do you agree with our list of Top 20 Priorities? Are there other priorities that we missed? Should we have approached this differently? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

A digital ecosystem for the planet is an ambitious idea. It will require us to build a global network that integrates petabytes of data points about our environment with the computing power, networks, and infrastructure to process them into actionable insights. These insights will enable decision-makers from all sectors to integrate sustainability and environmental stewardship.

We believe the best way to advance a digital ecosystem for the planet is to start now and break down the required actions into a series of concrete actions and targets. We have listed 20 specific targets (as well as rationales and baselines) that we believe can be achieved by the end of 2020 in the Annex to this article. These targets should be understood as preliminary, and as a starting point for dialogue.

They were developed through a rapid collective intelligence process that included policymakers, scientists, and representatives of the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors at national and multilateral scales. However, we are aware that this group (diverse though it is) is still insufficiently inclusive. A key next step will be to consult with a broader range of environmental stewards, including Indigenous peoples, local communities and citizens — core end-users of this technology. An example of an initiative already underway is the GEO Indigenous Alliance, which engages Indigenous communities around the world in challenges that can be addressed using open Earth Observation data. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration will also be providing a digital platform and developing a global movement to bring a wide range of stakeholders together for cross-sectoral dialogue on how to catalyse large-scale ecosystem restoration globally, including through innovative technology. Finally, we also believe that the ICT sector has a key role to play in this transition; we plan to publish a follow-up article focused on this topic.

The nature of the digital economy and the global reach of different platforms demands a multi-scalar, multi-stakeholder and cross-sectoral response at the international level. Individual regulatory actions on the national scale won’t amount to a global solution. Together, these technologies can illuminate the scale of the challenges we face as never before, enable us to undertake faster and more agile interventions, measure and monitor the actions we take more effectively, enable new stakeholders to participate, and bring revolutionary levels of transparency to the entire enterprise. That transparency will, in turn, drive greater accountability and promote trust.

Public and private sectors must join forces to forge the digital future that we want, and not allow private capital to dictate our future based on short-term profit. We have already seen the consequences of a digital world that are largely driven by algorithms designed to maximize revenues and return on investment (ROI) rather than human values. The unsustainability of our current linear economic systems will only be amplified by digital technology and exponential business models. We must use technology to move towards green, circular and regenerative economies that actually protect and enhance natural, social and human capital. We must build a future where business opportunities and incentives in the digital space also advance our collective environmental and climate goals and sustainability values.

Building an initiative on a global scale requires leadership. We view the UN’s role as a catalyst, helping to highlight the challenges and bring a diverse range of people and organizations into dialogue. The digital tech sector is clearly instrumental in the creation, support, and sustainability of this digital ecosystem. However, unlike industries such as finance, insurance, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and energy, the tech sector has not yet been brought into international agreements on environmental issues. We believe that the UN has a key role to play in catalyzing and incentivizing the more direct integration of the tech sector into international environmental fora. This dialogue must also incorporate public and not-for-profit actors, as well as citizen scientists, land stewards, and civil society more broadly, collaborating to create a shared strategy for the future of our digital environmental commons.

A revolution is underway in environmental governance. A growing movement is using the tools of the digital age to address the most critical threats of the Anthropocene. We intend to take forward these ideas via dialogue with the international community throughout 2020. Join us and email us.

To explore all three papers and learn more about the various priorities and processes we have identified for 2020, we invite you to play around with the interactive ecosystem map below. Please note that this is best used on a desktop, and is not particularly mobile-friendly. Alternatively, you can access the first paper here and we will soon add a link to our processes article here and in the interactive maps within this paper once it is released.


Footnotes & Appendix

[1] Authorship for the article is based on the CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) protocol. This includes 14 roles typically played by contributors to scientific scholarly output: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal Analysis, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Methodology, Project Administration, Resources, Software, Supervision, Validation, Visualization, Writing — original draft, Writing — review & editing.

[2] UNEP: Conceptualization, formal analysis, writing — original draft, review & editing.

[3] UBC: Conceptualization, formal analysis, visualization, writing — review & editing.

[4] UBC: Visualization, formal analysis, writing — review & editing.

[5] Everyone in the group of contributors assisted in the writing, review, and editing process. Within Graphics/Visualizations, Christina created the interactive ecosystem maps, Kristen created the cover image and Doug created the graphics within the sidebars of the ecosystem maps, as well as the top 20 targets graphic in the article. The group of peer reviewers assisted by reviewing the final draft and double-checking the accuracy of claims.

[6] Digital environmental justice. See, for example, de Moor, A., 2018. A Community Network Ontology for Participatory Collaboration Mapping: Towards Collective Impact. Information, 9(7), p.151; Dunn, C.E., 2007. Participatory GIS — a people’s GIS?. Progress in human geography, 31(5), pp.616–637. See also: Walker, D., E. Nost, A. Lemelin, R. Lave, and L. Dillon. 2018. Practicing environmental data justice: From DataRescue to Data Together. Geo: Geography and Environment 5 (2):e00061.

[7] Indigenous digital strategies. CyberTracker technology has been used for decades by Indigenous communities around the world. In Australia, for example, CyberTracker technology is being used for on-the-ground resource management by Indigenous rangers, and a range of geolocalized databases have been developed to house Traditional Environmental Knowledge. See: Ansell, Shaun, and Jennifer Koenig. “CyberTracker: An integral management tool used by rangers in the Djelk Indigenous Protected Area, central Arnhem Land, Australia.” Ecological Management & Restoration 12, no. 1 (2011): 13–25; Pert, Petina L., Emilie J. Ens, John Locke, Philip A. Clarke, Joanne M. Packer, and Gerry Turpin. “An online spatial database of Australian Indigenous Biocultural Knowledge for contemporary natural and cultural resource management.” Science of the Total Environment 534 (2015): 110–121.

[8] AI and game theory for conservation. See Fang, Fei, Thanh Hong Nguyen, Rob Pickles, Wai Y. Lam, Gopalasamy R. Clements, Bo An, Amandeep Singh, Brian C. Schwedock, Milind Tambe, and Andrew Lemieux. “PAWS-A Deployed Game-Theoretic Application to Combat Poaching.” AI Magazine 38, no. 1 (2017): 23–36; Fang, Fei, Thanh H. Nguyen, Rob Pickles, Wai Y. Lam, Gopalasamy R. Clements, Bo An, Amandeep Singh, Milind Tambe, and Andrew Lemieux. “Deploying PAWS: Field optimization of the protection assistant for wildlife security.” In Twenty-Eighth IAAI Conference. 2016.

[9] Surveillance capitalism and critiques of digital earth technologies. See Shoshona Zuboff’s recent publication: The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. Also see: Arts, K., van der Wal, R. and Adams, W.M., 2015. Digital technology and the conservation of nature. Ambio, 44(4), pp.661–673; Büscher, B., 2016. Nature 2.0: Exploring and theorizing the links between new media and nature conservation. new media & society, 18(5), pp.726–743; Gabrys, J., 2016. Program earth: Environmental sensing technology and the making of a computational planet (Vol. 49). U of Minnesota Press; Jepson, P. and Ladle, R.J., 2015. Nature apps: Waiting for the revolution. Ambio, 44(8), pp.827–832; Sandbrook, C., 2015. The social implications of using drones for biodiversity conservation. Ambio, 44(4), pp.636–647; Walker, D., Nost, E., Lemelin, A., Lave, R. and Dillon, L., 2018. Practicing environmental data justice: From DataRescue to Data Together. Geo: Geography and Environment, 5(2), p.e00061.

[10] Digital twins. A digital replica of a living or non-living physical entity (including a process, product, infrastructure, service), a digital twin is a bridge between the physical and digital world. The pairing of the virtual and physical worlds allows for monitoring and data analysis in order to anticipate problems, prevent downtime, plan for the future by using simulations. For more information see: Grieves, M. and Vickers, J., 2017. Digital twin: Mitigating unpredictable, undesirable emergent behavior in complex systems. In Transdisciplinary perspectives on complex systems (pp. 85–113). Springer, Cham.

*An additional, more robust Annex with items that emerged from the creation of this paper can be accessed here.

David Jensen

Written by

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

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