Can digitalisation save us?

Pacific disaster centre
Workers at the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC), an applied science, information and technology center, working to reduce disaster risks and impacts on life, property, and the economies worldwide. Copyright: Guatemala-COEN (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) This image has been cropped.

Speed read

  • Digitalisation has been overlooked in global development
  • Technologies can improve access to health, education, knowledge
  • ‘World commission’ on sustainability needed for the digital age

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The power of digital to solve global problems has been too long ignored, say Dirk Messner and Ina Schieferdecker of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU).
Global problems threaten human kind: climate change, increasing inequality and erosion of social cohesion are uprooting societies.

A boost of global cooperation is needed, but UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres rightly criticises the chaos of the world order and the notion of nationalism.

“What if we use the full potential of digitalisation to address the most pressing challenges our societies face?”

Dirk Messner and Ina Schieferdecker, WBGU

In this crisis situation, technological change and digitalisation are accelerating, but nobody is paying real attention to the key question: how can digitalisation help to solve the world`s most pressing problems?

Artificial intelligence (AI), automated decision-making and virtual spaces will change the world profoundly and digitalisation will have fundamental impacts on sustainability.

Yet the 17 goals on sustainable development (SDGs) to which the global community committed in 2015, barely mention digitalisation.

On the research side, sustainability scholars and practitioners have largely ignored digital upheavals. And pioneers of digitalisation have shown little interest in the most pressing global problems. This must change.

If we want digitalisation to make us more sustainable, we urgently need to govern this process politically. Until now, digitalisation has driven established growth patterns, which are accelerating global warming and largescale environmental degradation.

Let us think positively from a global development perspective, in a “We have a dream” scenario, based on the sustainability opportunities we have identified in our German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) report.

What if we use the full potential of digitalisation to address the most pressing challenges our societies face?

In developing countries, technological advances would enable digital access for all to education, libraries, and first-class university teaching.

In the pursuit of universal healthcare, social communication technologies and virtual spaces would allow people in rural and low-income areas to access medical services and doctors.

Around the world we would use AI to modernise educational and knowledge systems. Digital tools would help create circular economies, radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote renewable energies and monitor and protect ecosystems.

Virtual spaces would enable communication and joint learning between people around the globe, fostering a global culture of cooperation. Global awareness can emerge which helps us to solve global problems.

In short, our dream is using powerful digital tools to work for a better world. So, what is keeping us from achieving this dream? The reality is that governments in the Global North and Global South, and international development banks, are not yet prepared to mobilise this potential.

Today, digital realities are quite different from our “sustainable digitalisation dream scenario”. In many countries, digitalisation has failed to leverage transitions towards sustainable economies, instead driving resource and emission-intensive growth.

Digitalisation must now be shaped towards the public good and sustainability transformations.

We therefore call for investment in digital capabilities at all these levels and recommend a UN summit on “Sustainability Transformations in the Digital Age” in 2022 – 30 years after the impactful Earth Summit in Rio.

We believe that a key result of such a summit should be a charter naming the fundamental topics relevant to sustainable shaping of the Digital Age and identifying political starting points.

In preparation for this, the WBGU recommends setting up a “World Commission on Sustainability in the Digital Age” modelled on the UN Commission on Environment and Development, established in 1983.

That commission published the report “Our Common Future” in 1987 which framed much of what would become the UN’s Agenda 21 action plan for sustainable development, and the 27 principles of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.

Over 30 years later we ask the global community to expand our understanding of “Our Common Future” to “Our Common Digital Future.” We believe digitalisation is key to creating a more sustainable, just and prosperous world for what is soon to be a global population of 10 billion people.
Prof. Dirk Messner, United Nations University, Institute for Environment and Human Security, Co-Chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU)

Prof. Ina Schieferdecker, Member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), Co-Director Fraunhofer FOKUS, Co-Director Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society