The Latest Insights on Digital Technology and the Environment

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Big data offers an unprecedented opportunity for scientific progress that can address our most pressing environmental concerns. As a result, it can also improve our living conditions, according to the recently published report Digital technology and the environment.  

Applying digital technologies to environmental data, can make it easier to manage conditions we encounter in our surroundings. Digital technologies can additionally extend involvement in that process to a broader extent. This in turn helps inform better environmental policies and regulations. It even changes the way decisions are made.  

Environmental data is also ushering in new business models, such as those based on sharing economy or circular economy principles. These can reconceptualize and alter the need for and use of physical resources and assets. It is also spurring innovations that would otherwise not be feasible. For example, smart thermostats and meters can lead to smarter pricing structures, while conserving energy and natural resources.  

Data and transparency may reduce need for detailed regulation 

Data from the environment and insights drawn from analysis have potential to transform traditional regulatory approaches. This will mobilize non-governmental drivers for change. The private sector, civil society, and machine-aided control and correction systems can help drive change. A change without the need for government intervention. These complementary drivers could greatly reduce the load for regulators.  

Environmental data
The right data, governance and innovation grow a more sustainable future
Environmental data
The right data, governance and innovation grow a more sustainable future

Until now, transparent and trusted data and digital technologies can dramatically improve environmental accountability. If what is happening is acknowledged and transparently seen. It should allow regulation to be refocused away from process controls towards measurable environmental conditions. In case conditions are positive, this could lead to new flexibilities with respect to process management. When the measurable conditions identify certain problems, then classifying and correcting them can happen rather quickly. Usually this is impossible through conventional intervention models. 

An example that showcases its impact, is the real-time monitoring of water conditions. This is a major difference in contrast to interval, manual sampling for water resources. It has lead to a significant reduction in the reaction time for intervention, if a pollution hazard has occurred. This might also reduce the safety distance from farmable / industrial ground / roads to the water resource. 

Massive privacy and ethics challenges in getting the most out of the data 

To understand relationships between human activity and the environment, core environmental data needs to be combined with other factors. Health, economic activity, demographics, and other data types can amplify the environmental data’s usefulness.  Subsequently, tapping into the potential of big data poses a massive integration and data governance challenge.  

The data about the physical environments in which we meet, work and conduct our daily activities are consequently raising serious privacy and security concerns. This happens especially when is combined with health data. We need a better understanding of how to set the boundaries for data collection. For instance whether there are certain types or sources of data that should be off limits. As well as where the boundaries are for the use of such data towards citizens, communities and enterprises.   

 You may want to attend the Green Tech and Trust track on the upcoming virtual IWDK21 Tech festival 6th of May 2021, where AI Ethics advisor Kim Escherich and I address these challenges

We need to link environmental impact more closely to our economic and social activity. Therefore, we will need to make sure that the data collected is securely retrieved, stored and processed. Also, we need to alert about the potential for data manipulation, fabrication, and misuse. In such cases we need to take steps to prevent it.  Therefore – data governance and ethical scrutiny is key. 

Recommendations for governments and enterprises: 

The report recommends 3 important actions to a data-driven future for environmental care:  

1.    Focus on concrete initiatives that can generate measurable results and show value.
Demonstrate the value of data for the environment to obtain more buy-in, create momentum, then scale the initiative. This is for information what we are working on in the Lake George fresh water monitoring project.  

2.    Reinvigorate environmental protection efforts with data.
Make environmental data and its governance the central pillars of future efforts by government agencies. With this said, let us support environmental sustainability to become more data-driven, fact-based, and empirical rather than anecdotal. Transparency and authenticity will compel action.  

3.    Create new ways to encourage open innovation and collaboration. Include different approaches for the public, private, academic, and not-for-profit sectors to work together to accelerate innovation. An example is our open collaboration with Yara, academia, industry and start-ups to advance sustainable food production. 

Share your views, comments, concerns. If you would like to know more about how technology, open innovation and sustainability thinking can help improve our life, feel free to contact me.  

Digital technology and the environment, IBM Institute for Business Value, Environmental Law Institute and IBM Center for the Business of Government. The report explores how governments, agencies, companies and citizens can collaborate to find sustainable solutions to complex environmental problems.  

Research & Innovation Executive, IBM Research - IBM Watson

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