The twin transition: digital transformation in government can also boost sustainability

By on 17/06/2021 | Updated on 17/06/2021
Bridging the gap: digital government can help to create sustainable government, and vice versa. Credit: Danika Perkinson/Unsplash

From using data and AI to decide where to install electric vehicle charging points to cloud adoption, there are many ways digital technologies can help governments support sustainability. At a recent webinar, experts from around the world explored the opportunities, challenges and how to manage the transformations in tandem

As governments increasingly turn to digital solutions to tackle many of the challenges they face, there is an opportunity to simultaneously catalyse sustainability and the low-carbon transition.

Microsoft is already innovating in many of the systems used by governments in this space. As part of its AI for Earth Programme, for example, it has built a “planetary computer” that monitors ecosystems and forest carbon risks, using artificial intelligence (AI) to accelerate mapping techniques. It is also working with earth observation network GEO BON to build an information system to monitor and assess biodiversity, and support regional and national governments with decision making.  

During a recent webinar on tech and sustainability, Dr Julia Glidden, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President for Worldwide Public Sector, launched the company’s Public Sector Center of Expertise, a global forum for research and case studies on digital transformation in the public sector.

Environmental sustainability is a key focus for the centre, which aims to connect policymakers and leaders around the world on the issue. As Dr Amy Luers, global lead of sustainability science at Microsoft explained, the company’s 2030 target to become carbon negative, and its 2050 target to remove all of its historical greenhouse gas emissions since it began, means that it is focused on cutting its own emissions and empowering other organisations to reduce theirs.

Two priorities

Governments that want to progress environmental sustainability need to invest in technology and data, according to Dr Gianluca di Pasquale, global green economies and infrastructure leader, at professional services firm EY.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the twin priorities of environmental sustainability and digital transformation “front and centre” for governments, according to recent research by Microsoft and EY, di Pasquale said. Nearly 30% of long-term recovery spending by EU governments has been committed to green projects, and while there was still some way to go, it was clear that leaders were serious about investing in a sustainable recovery, he added.

But governments do not always see the opportunities that can be gained from integrating work on the two issues, di Pasquale noted. “In our study, we discovered that digital government can help to create sustainable government, and vice versa. This is what is meant by a ‘twin transition’, a term first set forth by European Commission,” he said.

As part of the research, Microsoft and EY spoke to sustainability and technology experts across 12 countries to ascertain governments’ progress on sustainability and digitalisation. The main areas where governments were using technology to solve sustainability problems included: in cities, such as deploying smart streetlights to cut energy consumption; reducing government’s own carbon footprints, such as by using cloud computing to cut energy use; and monitoring ecosystems, such as earth observation projects in Italy that support forest protection.

Panellists pointed to several countries that were already looking like leaders in the sustainability and digital technologies space. Di Pasquale gave the example of South Korea and the EU, where the European Commission will score member states against a combination of criteria on sustainability and digital technologies when assessing their post-pandemic recovery plans.

Several countries, including India and Pakistan, have sufficient maturity in digitalisation of public services that they could use technology to mount a pretty strong response to multiple issues, said Robert Opp, chief digital officer at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

There was also the opportunity for less digitally mature countries to “leapfrog” forwards, he noted, because they are not encumbered with some of the challenges faced by the more advanced countries, such as legacy systems, which could vary between different departments and therefore be difficult to reengineer into an interoperable whole.

Whole-of-society approach

But while there has been a surge of interest in digital responses to sustainability issues, said Opp, the work tends to be fragmented across governments. For example, departments using different technologies on individual projects. “How do we bring together all of those efforts under one more whole-of-society-approach to digital transformation?” he asked.

The UNDP has come together with partners including the UN Environment Programme, the German Environment Agency, and several governments including Kenya in a new initiative called the Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability.

The coalition will help to build a systematic approach to the integration of digital technologies and sustainability. This includes reimagining business models to drive action and building digital infrastructure, such as getting the three billion people worldwide who are not yet connected to the internet online, Opp said.

Collaboration and co-ordination extends to partnerships with the private sector too. Dr Vik Pant, chief scientist and chief science advisor at Natural Resources Canada, told the webinar about the department’s digital accelerator, a launchpad for advanced technologies where data science and AI is applied to its projects.

The department is working with Microsoft on several projects, for example improving co-ordination around the provision of charging points for electric vehicles (EVs) to encourage uptake by the public.  The team is predicting where charging posts will be needed most using data such as where EVs are being purchased, the location of electricity grids, how the weather is expected to affect renewable energy generation, and where people live and work.

It is also using digital technologies to create a comprehensive inventory of mines, including structures that could become dangerous such as rock piles or tailings ponds. Satellite imagery is used to build a map of where all these are located, so that surveyors and mining experts can investigate sites and make proposals to remediate any problems, he said.

“Each of these are very high potential projects by themselves. But really what’s interesting here is not just that we’re using advanced technology to approach these problems, but that we’re using new types of partnerships with organisations such as Microsoft that has similar intentions around sustainability, especially in the public sector context,” Pant said.

Secrets of success

Several panellists spoke of the need for officials in government to identify success criteria in advance to maximise the impact of digital sustainability programmes. “There are a lot of interconnected elements, so our projects have clear-cut success criteria, and not just from a final perspective, but from an interim checkpoint perspective as well,” said Pant.

The research by EY and Microsoft revealed a correlation between how strongly a government pushed a particular outcome from the outset, and how well the technology supported that aim, di Pasquale explained. “The purpose is the driver, not the technology,” he said.

Di Pasquale also stressed the importance of having common standards and frameworks. The “smart cities” movement failed to develop these and that is one reason why it has not moved beyond pilot projects, he argued.

“There are more than 500 reports, key performance indicators and indexes measuring what a smart city is. We were not able to create a common background about this concept. What we need to avoid with sustainability is something similar – we need to provide relevant, comparable, reliable information for sustainable transformation,” he said.

Diverse teams with multiple skills are also crucial for success, noted Pant. While his department employed data scientists, PhD mathematicians, computer scientists, coders and statisticians, it also includes people with expertise in the challenge that was being tackled, and those with very strong communication skills.

“We look at the talent mix of a project, rather than the individual knowledge of a specific colleague working in a larger team. Some projects, and some people in the team, certainly do need to have extremely deep technical skills to interrogate the models, and train and test them, but we also need people with a baseline digital acumen so that the team as a whole can communicate with each other and with the external partners,” he said.

The department was using Microsoft’s AI Business School, which allowed workers to access training to whatever level they wanted, he added.

There is a strong case for using data to inform decision-making, said Dr Karen Rice, associate professor and department chair and DSW programme coordinator at Millersville University in the US. “Community mapping is a great tool and asset that we can use to begin to identify where the areas within our community that are struggling the most, so we can target them with ideas for solutions. It’s a tool we could use more – it’s perhaps an underused resource at the moment.”

Opp believed that ultimately, the use of digital technologies would be crucial in undoing the damage inflicted on societies by the pandemic, which has sent indicators on development worldwide into reverse for the first time since 1990. It is hard to imagine how governments will achieve the SDGs now, with less than 10 years to the 2030 deadline, without the use of digital tools, he said.

“Where are we going to find the boost to get us back to where we need to be? I think that the big part of the answer is the innovative use of digital technology and being able to harness that as people, governments, and societies,” he said.

This Global Government Forum webinar was held on 6 May 2021, with the support of Microsoft. You can watch the event via our events pages or below.

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