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Expert advice

En route to a digital future

by Sabine Balk

In brief

Education matter – secondary school students in Rwanda.

Education matter – secondary school students in Rwanda.

In a comprehensive study, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU – Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen) has assessed the pros and cons of digitalisation. It proposes policy options, both at the national and international level. The executive summary was published a few weeks ago. In the eyes of the WBGU, protecting the natural foundations of life and the digital revolution are intricately linked.

According to the WBGU, which was appointed by Germany’s Federal Government, digitalisation must be designed in a way that promotes the “transformation to sustainability”. Fundamental change is needed in all spheres of life and work. It will affect infrastructure, modes of production, investments, legislation and lifestyles in general. Success will hinge on an innovative interaction of politics, society, science, economy and individual people, the authors state.

The need for such a transformation is undeniable. International agreements point the way. They include the UN 2030 Agenda with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement on climate change as well as the so-called Aichi goals, which were adopted in the context of the UN Convention on Biodiversity in 2010.

Digitalisation has massive impacts on all 17 SDGs, the WBGU argues. The goals cannot not be achieved unless the upsides and downsides of digitalisation are considered properly. Given that environmental degradation is happening fast, the WBGU insists on urgent action. So far, policymakers have been acting far too slow to save the planet, they write, but digitalisation can help to speed up things. Decarbonisation, eco-friendly agriculture, resource efficiency and recycling, emissions reductions and the protection of ecosystems can be made easier and accelerated thanks to digital innovations.

At the same time, digitalisation itself can cause harm. The risks include:

  • digitally driven economic growth that breaches planetary boundaries,
  • digital authoritarianism that disempowers individuals,
  • automated decision-making that undermines democracy,
  • excessive power of private-sector companies that escape government control,
  • loss of jobs,
  • unequal access to digital technology, resulting in deeper social divides around the world.

In this context, the WBGU considers governments’ role to do two things at once.

  • On the one hand, they must tap the enormous potential of modern information and communication technologies.
  • On the other hand, they must prevent abusive behaviour and controls the risks.

The WBGU wants the EU to assume a role of leadership. The experts make several tangible policy proposals (see box next page). The crucial challenge, in their view, is to enable people to understand what is going on and to actively shape change.

The key is education, according to the WBGU. Scientists must generate the knowledge concerning both “digital sustainability” and “sustainable digitalisation”. Governments themselves must become digitally informed and build the capacities required for shaping digitalisation. The authors add that digitalisation will have an impact on the prospects of low income and middle income countries. They see a role for international development agencies to act accordingly.

The WBGU identifies two fundamental dynamics of the digital era:

  • Digitalisation must serve to protect the planetary system and safeguard social cohesion, with the SDGs providing the needed guidance.
  • Digitalisation must empower a new culture of humanism, preventing digital totalitarianism. The fundamental change that the digitalisation is bringing about must be shaped in a humane way.

For humanity to rise to the challenges, better global governance is indispensable, the WBGU warns. Shared policies and regulations are needed. Once again, the scholars see the EU as a potential leader. They demand that the EU develop a digitalisation model of its own that is different from the existing models in the USA and China.

WBGU, 2019: Towards our common digital future (summary).