Opportunities and challenges for sustainable development

The IIASA-led The World in 2050 initiative launched its second report in 2019. The publication reviewed recent trends in digitalization and identified opportunities the digital revolution presents for the sustainable development agenda, governance issues, and specific leverage points available for policy.

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As part of their mandate to provide science for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and develop pathways that highlight synergies and multiple benefits of integrated SDG policies, researchers from The World in 2050 (TWI2050) initiative and collaborators from 20 partner institutions assessed the major opportunities and challenges that digital technologies pose to achieving the SDGs. The resulting report draws attention to the need for policymakers, researchers, companies, and civil society to intensify their efforts to understand and harness the multiple effects of digital systems and anticipate far-reaching structural change to create a basis for sustainability transformations.

Digital technologies can enable a disruptive revolution towards a sustainable future and can be beneficial on many fronts, including enabling decarbonization across all sectors and promoting circular and shared economies. According to the authors, this will however not happen by itself and will likely necessitate a radical reversal of current trends to harmonize the disruptive potentials of digitalization with pathways toward sustainability. In this regard, there is a need for corresponding regulatory policies, incentives, and shifts in perspectives, which currently only exist in a small number of sectors and a limited number of countries.

Closely related to this is an urgent need for governance to counteract the effects of the disruptive impacts of digitalization, which are challenging the absorptive capacities of societies, and possibly multiplying the already alarming trends of erosion of social cohesion. In addition, autonomous technical and decision-making systems based on machine learning and artificial intelligence could fundamentally transform all areas of society and the economy in the future. Some of these, such as weather forecasting systems, spam filtering programs, and Google’s search engine, which are all powered by artificial intelligence, have in fact already become an unmissable part of our daily lives.

The authors conclude that if we can leverage the plethora of new technologies available to us effectively, we will be able to assess and anticipate risks, increase transparency and accountability in the management of natural resources, change markets, and inform more sustainable business and consumer decisions. These actions are all required if we are to stand a better chance of achieving a sustainable future for all.


[1] TWI2050 – The World in 2050 (2019). The Digital Revolution and Sustainable Development: Opportunities and Challenges. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria.

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