Governance Strategies for a Sustainable Digital World

By Igor Linkov

Governance Strategies for a Sustainable Digital World

Digitalization is changing the military and civil society by the increased connectivity and networking that digital technologies enable, such as enhancing communication, services, and trade. Increasingly, policymakers within various national governments and international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are examining the original sustainability policy concepts applied within the Brundtland Report of 1987 through the lens of digitalization. While the growth of a digital economy may increase productivity and benefit local and global economies, digitalization also raises potential sustainability challenges pertaining to social (i.e., the benefits or costs imposed by disruptive digital technologies upon social networks and ways of life, including threats to economic sustainability and the rise of economic disparity) and environmental wellbeing (i.e., natural resource stewardship and concern for future generations) driven by the automation of information processing and delivery of services. Various perspectives have been raised regarding how the process of digitalization might be governed, and national governments remain at odds regarding a single best strategy to promote sustainable digitalization using the Brundtland concept to meet the development needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations (i.e., social and environmental well-being).

Emerging Fields of Digitalization and Sustainability Challenges

The rate of advance and increasing scale and complexity of digital systems present challenges for government and industry to promote sustainable digital growth and development, particularly as it relates to reduced inequalities, decent work, and responsible consumption and production within the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This section discusses the social and environmental sustainability challenges arising from three developments identified by the OECD as among the most promising and potentially disruptive key and emerging digital technologies globally: (i) big data; (ii) artificial intelligence (AI); and (iii) distributed transactions and information sharing via distributed ledger technologies.

(i) Big data

Generation of large volumes of data and the creation of centralized data repositories promise to drive growth across all sectors of society including advancements in SDGs, such as in agriculture, resource allocation, public health, education, and poverty reduction. Specifically, these data can be used to determine relationships, predict behaviours and outcomes, and establish dependencies between correlated variables. Algorithms are developed to generate automated outcomes using this data and improve the performance of algorithm-driven tasks, promoting improved business operations, management, and productivity as well as improved consumer-driven tasks.

(ii) Artificial Intelligence

Digitalization is furthering the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). With AI, computer science enables the creation of intelligent machines (algorithms and software) that work and react like humans. The OECD defines AI as the ability of machines and systems to gain and apply knowledge and to carry out intelligent behavior. Applications range from education to social welfare to energy and the environment. Advanced developments in the field of “machine learning” imply that machines will be able to learn from their experience and make their own decisions, without further input from humans, beyond initial design of the machine. Already, machines have surpassed the ability of humans to perform certain functions, such as image recognition and other intelligence-related tasks.

(iii) Distributed Ledger Technologies

Distributed ledger technologies aim to enhance trust among nodes in an open (public) or closed (private) network through the distribution of ledgers onto which information about transactions between the nodes is recorded. There are many facets of how the basic technology is currently developed, primarily in the exploratory phase, which could change the way organizations and individuals engage in an increasingly digitalized world. The question is whether and how governments should intervene in the choice, design, or use of blockchain technologies and other distributed ledgers.

Despite the identification of big data, blockchain, and AI as some of the most promising and potentially disruptive digital technologies globally, environmental impacts of these technologies have been little discussed among international organizations including the UN and OECD. Janowski points out that digitalization plays a minimal role among the UN SDGs, with 19 of 169 targets promoting the use of technology to reach SDGs and two of those targets promoting the development of clean energy and environmentally sound technology. Social media articles have speculated on the carbon footprint stemming from digitalization and the potential for sustainable use of digital media. Digital technologies are currently calculated to consume two percent of global carbon emissions; however, this number is expected to increase significantly as the number of users and amount of usage inevitably increases. Further, several articles have been released on the energy use requirements for bitcoin mining, a form of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. The Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, for example, shows the amount of energy required to mine bitcoin every year and indicates that bitcoin required as much energy as 32.36 terawatt-hours in 2017, which equals the total energy demand of 2.9 million households in the US each year. More research is needed to show the extent of energy use by different sectors of the digital economy, as well as the knowledge base of digital consumers who ultimately drive the energy demands and needs of the digital economy. Janowski, for example, promotes the use of advanced digital government capabilities to help UN member states reach SDGs, including the provision of digital platforms to enable local or sectoral development as part of the digital government’s contextualization stage.

The Need for Adaptive Governance

Normatively, each government is responsible for the identification of the best digitalization governance strategy based on the country culture, customs, and economic needs. However, regardless of the governance strategy deployed within a given government, a sustainable digital economy will inherently require flexible and adaptive governance approaches that allow stakeholders in industry, government, and society at large to iteratively adjust their best practices and codes of conduct to derive the benefits of digitalization without incurring unnecessary or unacceptable risks or losses. In other words, it will become imperative for governments, in partnership with other stakeholders in industry, academia, NGOs, and the general public, to iteratively improve and adapt their policies that govern the digital economy to balance technological gains against the potential for social and environmental disruption and externalities—particularly as new information and experience is gained over the course of time.

Given the governing authorities and strategies taken by a given government, adaptability is needed to iteratively address adversarial threats related to digital sustainability as framed by the SDGs. Adaptive governance can be defined as the adjustment of regulatory rules and practices to incorporate new data and to balance the risks and benefits of a given activity.


The scope of digitalization remains uncertain yet will likely have substantial consequences upon social and environmental activities. Various institutions in the United States, European Union, and OECD have reflected upon the need for sustainable governance institutions and practices to ensure that the potential drawbacks of digitalization are softened by measures to assist those negatively affected by potential economic and/or social challenges. Given the uncertain and global nature of digitalization, adaptive governance approaches are needed to allow governments to iteratively adjust their policies and best practices to balance the technology’s benefits and risks in a manner that reflects available data and a refined understanding of social and environmental implications.


This is an excerpt of the journal article: Governance Strategies for a Sustainable Digital World, by Igor Linkov, Benjamin D. Trump, Kelsey Poinsatte-Jones and Marie-Valentine Florin. Published: February 2018 in Sustainability 10(2), 440; DOI: under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 4.0). 

Igor Linkov
Senior Researcher

Dr. Igor Linkov, Research Physical Scientist, Environmental Laboratory, U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) was recognized with the Stem Individual Award by the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Headquarters. He is part of the Risk and Decision Science Team and the Risk and Decision Science Focus Area.