Frontier technologies are the high-water mark so far of human innovation in the twenty first century. But how do we ensure they are used for the good of people and planet?

David Jensen, coordinator of the UNEP Digital Transformation Task Force at UN Environment Programme, and co-champion of the Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability (CODES), is exploring this question. Jensen, who is also the head of the Environmental Peacebuilding Programme at UN Environment, is my guest today on Inside Ideas, and since 2016 has been pioneering efforts to identify environmental applications of frontier technologies in conflict-affected countries and fragile states, using big data, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, blockchain, virtual reality, and citizen science. He has been advising the UN Science-Policy-Business Forum on the Environment on these topics since 2018 and was the co-author of a flagship discussion paper entitled The Case for a Digital Ecosystem for the Environment.

This pursuit of a digital world designed to help nature and humanity thrive will likely define the future for people and planet. For David though, the priority right now is to build the relationships of trust between people needed to form the foundations of that future.

Change is about human relationships, collaboration and trust between people.

David Jensen

“That’s the first thing you have to focus in on: how do we create connections between people, relationships and trust, and how do we then begin to collaborate at a global scale? I think that’s the first and most important challenge we have to overcome if we’re ever going to solve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is that issue of building human relationships, trust-building and collaboration at scale. I think digital technologies can really help with that issue.”

On the back of the UN Secretary General’s Digital Cooperation roadmap initiative in 2019, which focused on how digital tools can be harnessed to achieve the SDGs, David’s executive director offered to explore the following question: how can we make sure that digital transformation is being used to accelerate environmental sustainability?

“That conversation eventually led to the creation of this network called CODES,” Jensen said. “This is meant to be a new part of the Digital Cooperation Roadmap focussing exactly on that question of how do we bridge the digital transformation and environmental sustainability areas.”

He went on: “One of the fundamental needs is to offer a kind of docking station. How do we offer a docking station and a co-ordination platform for all these initiatives that are out there working on one part of this broader picture but that aren’t totally connected. So we’re trying to identify the five or six areas where we can really help bring actors together and we’re looking at the question of planetary data and data standards, digital infrastructure and making sure that infrastructure is green and sustainable.”

He added: “We’re looking at finance, consumers and livelihoods, and we’re looking at energy and governance. So these are the areas that we’re trying to rally around, and the real idea is to come up with a moonshot for each of those six areas, and decide how we can begin to rally that ecosystem – or those stakeholders – around that moonshot to really begin to accelerate the idea of a digital planet for sustainability.”

Trust & transparency

We need to help companies understand that they can still be profitable even when they take into account people and planet.

David Jensen

For trust to underpin relationships between people, Jensen acknowledges work needs to be done to ensure key technologies are managed transparently.

He explains: “The top eight digital companies in the US have a combined market capitalisation of around $8 trillion, which is worth more than the GDP of 156 countries. The imbalance is crazy in terms of their market power and dominance and their potential to collect and share data on our preferences so that is a major issue that we need to address.”

He continued: “The other side of the spectrum is state surveillance, where states use it to monitor who’s against the state to arrest those that are protesting or have counter views, that’s another massive risk and we see that as well. I think the only solution is transparency – we need full transparency in what data is being collected, what it is being used for, and we need the algorithms that are collecting and optimising to be disclosed. So transparency is fundamental and the only way we’ll have a trust in this system. Right now I would say the trust levels are very low in terms of trusting the digital companies to do what’s in the public interest. Some big tech firms are doing some amazing things. Google is doing some incredible things, so is Microsoft, and so is Amazon, they have their ‘for good’ parts of the companies and they are tremendous. But they’re also amplifying and accelerating consumption, perpetuating fake news and doing other things that are not leading to sustainability. So – it’s about using these technologies for good, using them to ensure they accelerate the right kind of behaviours and not the wrong ones.”

Next chapter

David is currently working on a book about digital transformation with a colleague from the private sector he met through the Resilience Frontiers initiative.

“We started discussing: what are these big forces of digital transformation that are going to really accelerate environmental sustainability globally? And we decided to write a book about it, and we started looking at cases of best practice, and we started really taking a systems approach,” Jensen explained.”What are the key operating systems of the human civilisation that are blocking or preventing environmental sustainability from scaling? If we look at each of these operating systems, can we identify a key barrier and can digital technologies help remove that barrier so it can scale?”

He added: “So we identified five of these key operating systems. The first is really the operating system inside our head – the human cognitive system. What is it about human cognition that is preventing environmental sustainability from scaling. From human cognition, we went to the social system. How our ideas in the social system transformed into behaviours and norms. From there we went to the economic system and then the governance system and then the technology system. So, for each of these systems we’re looking at the barriers and we’re trying to identify digital technologies that can really address those barriers and enable the systems to better inter-operate and to basically begin to embed environmental sustainability into the code of each of those operating systems.”

David is at the heart of a global movement now working to accelerate solutions that can deliver ‘a digital planet for sustainability’. It is going to be a defining frontier for humanity and I am delighted to welcome David on to the show to take a deep dive into this complex but hugely exciting synergistic opportunity that exists between humanity and technology.

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