Science, Finance and Innovation

How digitalization is supporting sustainable development

5 min


Shivam Gupta

This blog is part of a series organised in conjunction with the 19th global development conference.

Digital technologies can make an enormous contribution to sustainable development. This column—the winning entry in the 2019 international youth blog competition organized by GDN and its partners—outlines five notable areas in which digitalization is improving people’s lives.

Digitalization is playing a significant role in sustainable development and having a big impact on people’s lives. To accelerate progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established in 2015, it is crucial to use the full potential of digitalization, with active digital cooperation and interactions between researchers and policy-makers. Our approaches to addressing global challenges should continue to evolve, just as our farmland, our ecosystems, and our urban spaces are changing.

In what follows, I outline various scientifically backed digital approaches that are helping and can help to step up sustainable development efforts. The research I showcase here is summarized in the form of five approaches to how digitalization can strengthen cooperation between multiple stakeholders for sustainable development.

Digitalization, healthcare, and environment quality

According to Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, health, safety and security are our basic human needs. Digitalization is assisting immensely to serve all these needs. For example, digital e-health solutions such as ‘mhealth’ and remote diagnostics using telemedicine services have contributed significantly to improving access to healthcare facilities, reducing neonatal mortality, and providing better health coverage.

New digital methods, along with artificial intelligence and smart health information systems, have also paved the way for innovative predictive healthcare and personalized medicine services to ensure a healthy and safe future for all.

Digitalization also facilitates timely monitoring of urban climate, noise pollution, and air pollution for environmental health benefits. Applications such as Breezometer and  Luftdaten provide near real-time information about air quality at a city level, making it possible for citizens to be aware of the ambient environment.

Digital cooperation and inclusiveness of multiple stakeholders

The report of the UN Secretary-General’s panel on digital cooperation recommends a broad multi-stakeholder alliance and platforms for sharing digital solutions and services to attain the SDGs. The report suggests bringing together diverse voices from all groups of people, including citizens and marginalized groups, and not only the digital industry.

In line with the recommendations of that report, I would like to highlight the concept of an Open City Toolkit (OCT), a collection of tools, processes, specifications, datasets, and guidelines to enable the use of services based on open data for multiple stakeholders, such as researchers, private organizations, citizens, and policy-makers.

Fostering the practices and policies related to open data would help in strategic development, consensus-building, and better use of different kinds of data. Such exercises can also support practical digital cooperation along with fostering transparency, providing opportunities to test new ideas, bringing equality and opportunity in participation, which contributes to various SDGs.

The role of cities in solving global problems

Cities are the dominant form of human settlements of our time. More than half of the world’s population is already living in urban areas, and by 2050, this proportion will rise further. The influx of large numbers of people positions cities at the forefront of major global threats, such as increasing air pollution, noise pollution, resource inequality, and urban heat impacts.

Hence, seeking to fix problems at the city level would be more advantageous than merely focusing on the national level for concrete sustainable development. As discussed in work on the sustainable assessment of cities, each city and its links to national development tend to have different trend requirements. City authorities must have data available locally rather than at an aggregated national level.

Sustainable assessment of cities, along with the OCT, could be considered as a fit-for-purpose new digital architecture. The locally generated city-level data and tools (such as apps and services) in the OCT can serve as lessons using reflections from researchers and policy-makers. Such approaches will also benefit further in creating a strong research-community-policy nexus, considering the unique characteristics of each city, its demographics, and the requirements of marginalized communities.

For example, air pollution is not a problem in all cities, and reasons for pollution could vary for each city. Thus, it will be efficient if we develop solutions that take account of local data to uncover the obstacles for a specific city, which also promotes sustainable consumption and action plans for sustainable development.

Citizens hand-in-hand for sustainable development

The report of the UN high-level political forum on sustainable development asserts that community-based engagement is essential to build climate action and achieve the SDGs. Citizen involvement helps in better planning and governance, and in mobilizing various social actors for sustainable development.

Concepts such as the OCT can also be considered as a platform for community engagement. Since the OCT’s core concept relies on open data, it acts as a platform with the capability to organize data collection and retrieval for all kinds of stakeholders. The platform can support citizen cooperation by bringing forward not only dialogues but also data-driven facts about the SDGs.

For example, citizens, researchers, and city councils can collect data about air quality and store it in the OCT, which can then be used by researchers for modeling, by city councils for their action plans, and by citizens for awareness. Such kind of practices can bring people together, enhance fact-based discussions, and promote environmental sustainability.

Big and open data for optimal planning and participation

Digital co-operation on platforms like the OCT can help in creating a data commons, which could be used for big data analytics-based solutions to support city planning and optimization. Data commons also decrease the workload of requesting each individual organization for data by making legitimate data open.

But bringing these data sources together also poses a problem in terms of how much resources and infrastructure are required for sustainable development. For example, to model air pollution, we require a large amount of data from multiple organizations. So the question is, how we can handle that?

The answer to some aspects of this question lies in my own research, where we use open data to identify the required number of data sources and their optimal number and locations for air quality monitoring. The local open data help in determining the variables that are essential for a particular city, reducing the data and process load on the overall system.

Together with my colleagues, I have also developed methods that can help in gathering the required data and using the efforts of citizen participation efficiently. These scientifically backed methods help us to monitor and estimate resource requirements and action plans with citizen engagement, adhering to the SDG needs for responsible consumption of resources.

To conclude, digitalization can help us to tackle the unparalleled challenges that our generation is facing—such as climate change, an unhealthy environment, and increasing inequalities—and improve our lives for a safe and sustainable future.


Shivam Gupta
Researcher at the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research/ Innovation Campus Bonn (ICB)