What does the landscape of stakeholder processes look like and who should be challenged to meet our targets for a digital ecosystem for the planet?

Authors [1]David Jensen (UNEP) [2], Karen Bakker (UBC) [3], Christopher Reimer (UBC) [4]

Original post: @davidedjensen

Why a Digital Ecosystem for the Planet?

As outlined in our recent article, the promise and peril of a digital ecosystem for the planet, we propose that the ongoing digital revolution needs to be harnessed to drive a transformation towards global sustainability, environmental stewardship, and human well-being. Public, private and civil society actors must take deliberate action and collaborate to build a global digital ecosystem for the planet. A digital ecosystem that mobilizes hardware, software and digital infrastructures together with data analytics to generate dynamic, real-time insights that can power various structural transformations are needed to achieve collective sustainability.

Created by Douglas Robb (UBC)

The digital revolution must also be used to abolish extreme poverty and reduce inequalities that jeopardize social cohesion and stability. Often, these social inequalities are tied to and overlap with ecological challenges. Ultimately, then, we must do nothing less than direct the digital revolution for planet, people, prosperity and peace.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

To achieve this goal, we must embed the vision of a fair digital ecosystem for the planet into all of the key multi-stakeholder processes that are currently unfolding. We aim to do this through two new articles on Medium: a companion article on Building a digital ecosystem for the planet: 20 substantive priorities for 2020, and this one. In the companion article, we identify three primary engagement tracks: system architecture, applications, and governance. Within these three tracks, we outline 20 priorities for the new decade. Building from these priorities, our focus for this article is to identify a preliminary list of the top 20 most important multi-stakeholder processes that we must engage and influence in 2020.

Thus, while the companion article outlines what we should aim to achieve and why, this article focuses on how and who could be undertaking specific, substantive actions to advance our vision in 2020.

Interactive Ecosystem Mapping is led by Christina Bowen with support from Digital Life Collective. To open this map in a new tab, click here.

Potential high-impact multi-stakeholder processes for engagement

There are currently more than 1,000 digital policy mechanisms being tracked by the Digital Watch Observatory. These range from open data initiatives and technical standards to interoperability policies and privacy protection. Yet, one of the current challenges in taking forward a vision for a digital ecosystem for Earth is understanding where and how to engage with the range of different multi-stakeholder processes and policymaking efforts currently underway. Given the growing geopolitical importance of the digital economy and the frontier technology landscape, there has been a proliferation of efforts that have the potential to shape policies, governance models and infrastructure investment priorities. But it is often difficult for many stakeholders in the public and private sectors to identify and focus on those processes with the highest potential for global influence and transformative impact.

The purpose of this article is to map the 20 most important global multi-stakeholder processes in 2020 where the concept of a digital ecosystem for the planet can be firmly anchored, positioned and elaborated. In line with the framework used in our companion article to categorize priorities for the digital ecosystem, each multi-stakeholder process has been categorized into one of three tracks: system architecture, applications, and governance. Key outcomes per track (that align with our 20 priorities) were developed. This structure enabled us to classify processes we encountered and establish boundaries. The tracks and their outcomes are outlined below.

Table created by Douglas Robb (UBC).

To arrive at a top 20 list, the authors began by undertaking a collective intelligence exercise involving 70 experts from the environment and technology sectors to jointly identify the processes that have the potential to achieve or influence at least two or more of the outcomes listed above. These experts included policymakers, scientists, and representatives of the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors at national and multilateral scales. For processes that span multiple tracks, we placed them into a single track representing what we saw as the bulk of their work. In addition to assigning each process a track, we also categorized them by their composition: a) international processes led by multilateral or regional public institutions; b) private-sector led initiatives; and c) nationally-driven initiatives that have an international scope. Below is a comprehensive landscape of the processes that we identified during this exercise. For a comprehensive list of all of the processes (including those that were not prioritized in this paper), a summary of each, and a link to their work, please refer to the Annex that we published.

Table created by Douglas Robb (UBC)

From the processes shown above, we narrowed down to a list of 20 processes. These processes were favored for their formal mandates or conferred legitimacy from intergovernmental processes, UN decisions, industry consortiums, and public-private partnerships. We also considered the volume and level of engagement, documentation of decision-making processes, and any relevant precedent-setting publications, innovations or financial investments. Those selected are either explicitly working on environmental data-related issues or have the potential to significantly influence environmental data flows in the future.

In addition to the top 20 list, we have included a few honorable mentions. We felt that these processes have yet to rise to the point of global multi-stakeholder process and/or did not meet as many criteria as the others; however, they remain important and are gaining traction.

We have created an interactive map of our top 20 (blue) and honorable mention (yellow) processes, narrowed down from the broader field of processes shown above. After the map, we provide a list with a short description of each process.

Interactive Ecosystem Mapping is led by Christina Bowen with support from Digital Life Collective. To open this map in a new tab, click here.

Track 1: Data/System Architecture

The first track is the system architecture of a digital ecosystem of data, infrastructure, and algorithms that can generate real-time insights about our environment and the health of our planet at any scale. This is largely a technical track that focuses on establishing the standards, policies and basic architecture to link the various components and ensure it can be directed towards important public policy questions and the generation of digital public goods on the environment. It also focuses on environmental efficiency and minimizing the direct impact of digital technology on the environment in terms of materials, energy, and waste.

Based on the rapid collective intelligence process undertaken, we identified the following 8 initiatives in this track as the most important for engagement in 2020:

1.ITU focus group: Environmental Efficiency for Artificial Intelligence and other Emerging Technologies: This is a technical group for pre-standardization discussions with industry and government representatives as well as academics. In 2020, it aims to deliver over 20 outputs through a multilateral process to support global stakeholders toward the strategic and environmentally conscious implementation of emerging technologies in alignment with the SDGs.

ITU Focus Group on Environmental Efficiency for AI and other Emerging Technologies.

2. Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs): This group is tasked to develop and implement the global indicator framework for the SDGs, including all of the environmental indicators. The IAEG-SDGs formed three working groups to address specific areas relevant to SDG implementation: Statistical Data and Metadata Exchange (SDMX), Geospatial Information, and Interlinkages. It will be essential to adopt methodologies for all of the environmental indicators by the end of 2020.

3. Global Environmental Data Strategy (UNEP/EA.4/RES.23): In 2019, UNEP was mandated to develop a global environmental data strategy through an international multi-stakeholder process. The objective of the strategy is to support regular regional and global analysis of the state of and trends in environmental parameters, including the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) and the World Environmental Situation Room (WESR).

4. Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM)This committee aims to address global challenges regarding the use of geospatial information, including in the SDGs, and to serve as a body for global policymaking in the field of geospatial information management. It is currently supporting the implementation of the Integrated Geospatial Information Framework (IGIF). One of the most critical needs is agreement on a common set of international boundaries to use in global, regional and national web mapping and digital environmental reporting.

5. German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU): Towards Our Common Digital Future: Has undertaken a flagship process to assess how frontier technologies and the digital revolution can advance sustainability. They issued a 486-page flagship report “Our Common Digital Future” together with a summary version and a draft “Charter for a Sustainable Digital Age”. The WBGU has also issued recommendations on a proposed focus for the German EU presidency in July-December of 2020 on Digitalization and Sustainability. These products will need focused implementation in 2020, including potential adoption of the charter by UN agencies such as UNDP and UNEP.

The three dynamics of the digital age. German Advisory Council on Global Change.

6. Icebreaker OneGathers financial markets, public sector institutions, asset owners and the science community to develop standards, principles, and practices that will make it easier to share data. It aims to unlock enable global data marketplaces that will help investors deliver innovative financing to address the climate and biodiversity crises. Icebreaker One is focused on the cultural mechanics of data sharing: developing common principles, practices, incentives, and safeguards that can influence investment decisions of USD 3.6 trillion per year.

7. The Swiss Digital Initiativelong-term and sustainable process for safeguarding ethical standards in the digital world. In particular, it seeks to strengthen trust in digital technologies as well as in the actors involved in ongoing digital transformation as outlined in their policy statement. The SDI is intended to lead to a self-commitment to ethical standards and conduct such as transparency, non-discrimination, and sustainability. Conversations brokered by the SDI may also explore the international political appetite for a new global digital convention.

Copyright: Swiss Digital Initiative.

We also feel that a few initiatives in this track deserve honorable mention:

➔ Global Data Commons: This initiative aspires to set in motion a global movement to significantly scale-up responsible access to open data, empowering public, private and social sector actors to use data for the public good. This global data commons concept is being developed as a follow-up track to the UN High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation. In particular, recommendation 1b on digital public goods. It will be essential to ensure that any global data commons concept firmly reflects the needs of a digital ecosystem for the planet.

➔ Open Data BarometerA global measure of how governments are publishing and using open data for accountability, innovation, and social impact. The Leaders Edition looks at the 30 governments that have adopted the Open Data Charter and those that, as G20 members, have committed to G20 Anti-Corruption Open Data Principles.

➔ Decentralized Web (DWeb): A community, a social movement, an emerging suite of practices for effective participatory governance, and a set of technologies aimed at re-decentralizing web technologies and architecture. Decentralization is a process of redistributing functions, people, powers or things away from a central authority, including extensive use of peer-to-peer protocols and corresponding open-source software. The DWeb community is increasingly interested in applications of decentralized digital technology for the environment.

Track 2: Applications

The second track is about the transformative applications of environmental insights and digital public goods towards changing consumption patterns, markets, economies, and policy-decisions. It is about transforming insights into exponential impacts — and monitoring outcomes to support adaptive management.

Based on the rapid collective intelligence process undertaken, the following 6 initiatives in track 2 were identified as the most important for engagement in 2020.

8. Group on Earth Observations (GEO)An intergovernmental organization of 108 member countries and 100+ partners that works to improve the availability, access, and use of Earth observations for the benefit of society. It coordinates international efforts to build a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) and a member-driven three-year GEO work programme supporting earth observation programs and related infrastructures, such as Copernicus, Landsat and others from Asia Pacific valued at over EUR 50 billion, with a broader value of total activities in the trillions. In many cases, partnerships brokered by GEO establish de facto governance models for environmental data and various field applications.

9. Data4Now InitiativeThis initiative is supported by the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD), the United Nations Statistics Division, the World Bank, and the Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics (TReNDS) at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. It is a tailored and collaborative process for aggregating, amplifying and scaling-up data solutions for the SDGs. One of the key outputs of this work should be adopting guidelines and safeguards for public-private partnerships generating digital public goods by the end of 2020.

Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.

10. World Data Forum: An international platform for intensifying data cooperation among various professional groups, such as information technology, geospatial information managers, data scientists, and users, as well as civil society stakeholders. The next meeting will be hosted from 18–21 October 2020 in Bern, Switzerland with up to 2,000 people expected to attend. It will be essential to use this opportunity to advance global conversations and awareness around the digital ecosystem for earth concept.

11. World Economic Forum / Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Partners with governments, leading companies, civil society and experts from around the world to co-design and pilot innovative new approaches to policy and governance in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. WEF also acts as the secretariat for the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance on Technology Governance that aims to create global norms and policy standards for the use of connected devices in public spaces. The various WEF processes and reports offer a critical space for conversations and consensus-building around the governance mechanisms and safeguards for public-private partnerships linked to leveraging a digital ecosystem for the planet.

12. Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GESI)consists of 75 companies and partners. The primary goal is to consider how Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) can advance sustainability and the SDGs. In 2019, GESI and Deloitte issued a flagship report entitled “Digital with purpose: delivering a SMARTer2030”. GESI could be used as a key dialogue and implementation platform with members for advancing a planetary digital ecosystem.

13. One Planet Summit (France): An international forum for mobilization and action to implement the Paris Agreement on a schedule compatible with the accelerated pace of climate change. It brings together over 4000 participants from 150 countries, including State and non-State stakeholders, the world’s major sovereign funds, institutional investors, development banks and major companies to speed up the global transition to a low-carbon economy dedicating resources to 12 different action commitments.

One Planet Summit.

Also in this track, we feel that a few initiatives deserve honorable mention:

➔ Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL): A multi-stakeholder partnership among USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Swedish government and the United Nations Foundation. DIAL works to identify the most effective and efficient digital solutions to speed service delivery to reach many more people and position countries to achieve the SDGs.

➔ Sustainable Digital Finance Alliance: Aims to leverage digital technologies & innovations to enhance financing for sustainable development. Currently convened by ANT Financial and UNEP, it is currently building a network of fintechs, financial players, policymakers and other stakeholders that can collaborate and promote sustainable digital finance practices at national and international levels.

➔ UNDP Accelerator Labs: The Accelerator Labs are UNDP’s new way of working in sustainable development. 60 labs serving 78 countries will work together with national and global partners to find radically new approaches that fit the complexity of current development challenges. The Labs will analyze challenges within local contexts to identify connections and patterns in search of new avenues of work to act effectively in addressing wicked development challenges, including environmental sustainability. The Labs currently cover the full range of Sustainable Development Goals, though there is a critical mass of labs working on circular economy and youth employment problems.

➔ UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021–2030): A vision of long-term decision-making in societies worldwide — whether in urban, suburban, agricultural or industrial landscapes — being underpinned by quantitative analysis of all the social, economic and environmental benefits emanating from ecosystem restoration. The Decade will include developing a digital global movement that catalyzes large-scale restoration by: developing bankable business plans, using digital tools for monitoring the effects of restoration, connecting buyers/funders with restoration practitioners on the ground, developing technical capacity of stakeholders, and raising awareness on the wide-ranging benefits of ecosystem restoration globally.

Track 3: Governance and Policy

The third track is about the governance of the digital ecosystem for the planet. This is largely about governing the distribution of power over decision-making, benefits-sharing, and accountability across the public and private sectors. This also tackles a range of fundamental issues at the global level linked to data ownership, sovereignty, privacy, and security.

Based on the rapid collective intelligence process undertaken, the following 6 initiatives in track 3 were identified as the most important for engagement in 2020:

14. European Green Deal/ Digital Europe ProgrammeThe overall value of the Green Deal is EUR 1.1 trillion — with EUR 9.2 Billion to be earmarked for Digital Europe Programme to cover the deployment of innovative digital technologies in five key areas: supercomputing, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, advanced digital skills and ensuring a wide use of these digital technologies across the economy and society to enable to EU Green Deal. While regional in nature — the Digital Europe Programme could be instrumental in setting the architecture and governance foundation for a digital earth ecosystem.

15. UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation: The panel was convened by the UN Secretary-General to provide recommendations on how the international community could work together to optimize the use of digital technologies and mitigate the risks. Its final report “The Age of Digital Interdependence” makes five sets of recommendations: (1) build an inclusive digital economy and society; (2) develop human and institutional capacity; (3) protect human rights and human agency; (4) promote digital trust, security and stability; and (5) foster global digital cooperation. There are three important follow-up tracks that link directly to establishing a digital ecosystem for the planet, including achieving a “Global Commitment for Digital Cooperation” by the UN’s 75th birthday in 2020.

UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation.

16. Internet Governance Forum (IGF) & World Summit on the Information Society Forum (WSIS): The WSIS Forum 2020, to be held in Geneva from 6–9 April 2020, will represent the world’s largest annual gathering of the ‘ICT for development’ community. It is a key forum for discussing the role of ICTs as a means of implementation of the SDGs.The IGF is one of the three key follow-up tracks to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). Discussions are underway on how to strengthen the role of the IGF as the global policy forum for internet governance-related issues and as a follow-up track for the report of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (a proposal known as IGF Plus). There is a proposal on the table to ensure that the environment is one of the pillars addressed by the IGF Plus process.

17. Secretary General’s Task Force on Digital Financing of the SDGs: Mandated to identify how digitalization will reshape finance and to identify, theorize, and propose how best this transformation can support the financing of the SDGs. The interim report of the task force was titled “Harnessing Digitization in the Financing of the Sustainable Development Goals”. It will be essential to ensure that the final report considers how digital financing and related tools could contribute to a digital ecosystem for the planet.

Secretary General’s Task Force on Digital Financing of the SDGs

18. UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD): This Commission holds an annual intergovernmental forum for discussing pertinent issues affecting science, technology, and development. Its members are composed of national Governments, with civil society also contributing to discussions. The twenty-third session of CSTD will be held in Geneva from 23 to 27 March 2020. The Commission will address two priority themes: harnessing rapid technological change for inclusive and sustainable development; and exploring space technologies for sustainable development and the benefits of international research collaboration.

19. UN Science Policy Business Forum:A UN-hosted multi-sectoral platform designed to strengthen cooperation among stakeholders working on the intersection of frontier technology and the environmental dimensions of the SDGs. The overall objective of the working group is to influence the form, function and governance model of the emerging digital ecosystem for the planet so that it achieves key environmental sustainability goals and generates important digital public goods. The first discussion paper of the working group was published in March 2019. It will be essential to continue advancing this work at the next meeting of the Forum is scheduled for September 2020 so that it could potentially inform the deliberations of the UN Environmental Assembly in February 2021.

20. Future Earth: Sustainability in the Digital Age Initiative: During 2019, this initiative convened more than 200 diverse experts from over 30 countries to consider how the digital age can steer societal transformations towards sustainability. The final policy report “Digital Disruptions for Sustainability Agenda (D²S Agenda) lays out the research, innovation, and actions needed to take forward this vision. The flagship report from this process will be released in February of 2020 and should trigger a series of follow-up actions and opportunities for multi-stakeholder engagement.

Also in this track, we feel that a few initiatives deserve honorable mention:

➔ Resilience Frontiers Initiative: A foresight-driven interagency initiative, led by the UNFCCC secretariat, to address long-term global resilience to climate change beyond 2030 by following 8 pathways around the three main objectives: fostering a “nature-first” global culture to ensure environmental stewardship; retooling global cooperation to effectively respond to future climate risks; and transforming sectoral approaches to sustain long-term regenerative resilience. By the end of 2020, it aims at defining policy-relevant roadmaps that identify milestones for the achievement of these visions during the next decade.

➔ Internet Society: One of the principal goals is to provide an organizational home and financial support for the Internet standards process and developing multi-stakeholder governance processes. The Internet Society also publishes concise policy briefs on critical Internet issues. The Internet Society should consider how internet architecture needs to be shaped to contribute to a digital ecosystem for the planet.


Conclusions and moving the conversation forward…

Do you agree with our list of Top 20 Processes? Are there other processes that we missed? Should we have prioritized differently, based on an alternative set of outcomes or metrics? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

We acknowledge precedents for multi-stakeholder collaboration at a global scale, such as the Open Educational Resources movement, and LTI/LMS integration in the educational technology sector. We also acknowledge that we devote insufficient attention in this paper to regional initiatives, entrepreneurial ecosystems, and existing international partnerships like Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). Finally, there is another recent article on processes for internet governance more broadly. At a later stage, mapping these initiatives would be a useful contribution. However, our focus in this first phase is to identify those processes where the different elements of a digital ecosystem for the planet can be directly addressed by multi-stakeholder actors.

In addition to wanting your feedback, we would also like to share a few of our own observations and conclusions from this review.

First, the community of experts and practitioners dealing with digitalization, sustainability, and the environment does not yet have a strategic or coordinated approach to engaging in each of these important multi-stakeholder processes. As engagement is still ad hoc, siloed, and largely uncoordinated, our ability to integrate our vision into these processes remains weak. In 2020, our community must double down on our efforts to improve our internal coordination and our external strategic engagement. While it is necessary for different processes to focus on key issues, the strategic connection between processes and the need to ensure they drive forward specific outcomes is critical. The global environmental community must adopt a digital diplomacy strategy and coordination process by the end of 2020 to drive forward the concept of a digital ecosystem for the planet in all relevant multi-stakeholder processes.

Second, our approach to building a digital ecosystem for the planet must be mission-led and fundamentally multi-stakeholder at the global level. We need to identify opportunities and new ways to define a market which, through an inspirational vision setting, can crowd in investments from various actors such as businesses, public institutions, and philanthropic actors and citizens. We must establish new ways of collaboration between public and private sector actors that create public trust, prevent lock-in dependencies, regulate antitrust risks and generate win-win outcomes together with critical digital public goods. At the same time, many formal multilateral processes are moving too slowly relative to the pace of digital technology and private investment. Many processes continue to talk at the expense of concrete action. We need to recall that in the absence of clear global policies and governance frameworks, de facto approaches and precedents will emerge and take root. Many coalitions of the willing are coming forward to fill the vacuum — but these eventually need to connect to multilateral processes in order to achieve global reach and legitimacy. Building a digital ecosystem for the planet will inherently involve a delicate balance act between bottom-up and top-down, just like the early governance of the internet.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Third, many of these processes treat ‘data’ as a generic term. While ‘data’ may have technical similarities, its use and ‘life cycle’ is often very diverse. For example, personal health data requires strict privacy protection, e-commerce data has a focus on intellectual property protection while many types of climate and environmental data can be openly shared. The same could be said for the data spectrum in terms of open, shared and closed data. The lack of clarity we have on the potential uses and life cycle of environmental data as well as the data licensing regime could lead to policy confusion. It would be helpful to adopt a data taxonomy and clear definitions for the categories of data on the data spectrum. We should also understand the massive potential for data to help bridge and overcome policy silos. Indeed, data sharing has been dubbed a “gateway” for better collaboration — and nowhere does this ring truer than across the different environmental domains. Currently, many organizations and big systems are adjusting to digital challenges by recalibrating their mandates and roles around the question of data and digital technology. If there is not timely and smart action, an opportunity to bridge policy silos via data could be easily turned into the opposite — the use of data to fortify policy silos and turfs. In this regard, while it is important to build a digital ecosystem for the planet, this must also be able to interact with and leverage other types of socio-economic data and avoid becoming its own silo.

Fourth, conversations about a global multi-stakeholder governance framework for a digital ecosystem for the planet are still in their infancy. The UN Science Policy Business Forum certainly raised this idea for the digital ecosystem — but the future work plan remains uncertain. It is therefore important to solve this vacuum, to avoid de facto governance decisions being made on an ad hoc basis largely by projects and partnerships operating in this space. These are establishing important precedents with unintended consequences and should not evolve into a governance framework by default. The biggest risk is that the key multi-stakeholder processes currently unfolding adopt a vision for the digital transformation which falls short of laying the necessary foundation for a digital ecosystem for the planet and a digital drive towards environmental sustainability. Such oversight could lock in an investment and policy framework that fails to achieve the global environmental sustainability goals we have set for ourselves. Hence a wider process needs to be established coupled with strong institutional leadership. In particular, a leadership dialogue is needed with the CEOs of the 20 top technology companies by market capitalization to agree on a common vision to advance sustainability through their respective platforms.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Fifth, although the European Green New Deal is regional in nature — the fact that it addresses all three tracks of our outcome framework (architecture, applications, and governance) places it in a league of its own. Clearly, the Green New Deal has the potential to drive a new set of values, ethics, and outcomes into the European digital space. If these can be operationalized, and offer a viable alternative vision for economic development, they have the potential for global influence — especially for companies and countries wanting to do business with the EU. The work of the Group on Earth Observations falls into a similar category-spanning two of our tracks and potentially influencing billions of investment in the digital ecosystem. Many of the projects in the GEO work plan are also establishing de facto governance precedents for public-private partnerships that warrant greater attention.

Sixth, one of the most important application frontiers to leverage the environmental insights from a digital ecosystem for the planet is in the field of consumer behavioral influence. There are massive opportunities to help consumers make more sustainable consumption choices using mobile applications, digital nudging algorithms, and micro marketing. However, this potentially raises some ethical issues that need to be resolved around human agency, privacy, and psychographic profiling. Only a few of the processes reviewed in this article are addressing this space such as Future Earth and Towards Our Common Digital Future. These efforts should be further supported and scaled, with policy guidance issued by the end of 2020.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Finally, a key process that is currently missing from the mix is a dedicated digital ecosystem X prize, or global grand challenge competition as well as connecting the existing competitions to the broader vision of a digital ecosystem for the planet. The recent announcement of the Earthshot prize by Sir David Attenborough and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge certainly moves in this direction. It will be essential to connect the scope of this Earthshot prize to a digital ecosystem for the planet and to the 20 key priorities laid out in our companion paper. Other more thematically oriented initiatives, challenges, and funding opportunities should also include criteria to ensure that the resulting projects benefit from and contribute to a digital ecosystem for the planet. These include XPrizes such as Rainforest or the IBM Watson AI Prize, dedicated grants such as the UK’s Constructing a Digital Environment Strategic Priorities FundMicrosoft’s AI for Earth, the GEO-Google Earth Engine Programme, or Earth on AWS and on-going global grand challenges such as Saving Water for Nature by Conservation X as well as the Earth Challenge 2020, the EarthTech Challenge, and Reboot the Earth coding challenge by UN Tech Innovation Labs.


In 2020, the most critical need is for governments and philanthropic foundations to fund leaders to participate and engage on these issues in a more coordinated and strategic manner. We urgently need to build the capacity for public environmental institutions and civil society actors to conduct digital diplomacy and to position environmental and sustainability outcomes as priorities. Too often, digital is seen as the realm of the IT department. But these departments often have little policy or diplomatic expertise. Often, government and civil society lack the resources to engage in what is an overwhelming number of technical processes spanning way beyond their comfort levels. But digital technologies will soon infuse almost every aspect of human existence. Every last natural resource on earth is being digitally indexed and modeled. Ignoring this massive trend will either lead to the marginalization of the environment, or a failure to establish the right architecture, applications, and governance processes to enable a digital ecosystem for the planet.

Photo by USGS on Unsplash

A global alliance of philanthropies and policy leaders — similar to the Global Alliance for the Future of Food — is necessary to stimulate and direct public policy and civil society engagement in all areas of digital diplomacy linked to the environment. A dedicated global governance framework that connects digital processes with planetary priorities can provide a platform to engage not only across the players within these disparate conversations, but also launch collaborations and interventions into other aspects of digital diplomacy where planetary priorities are not being expressed or understood. This includes forums like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and the Internet Society (ISOC) and the Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network.

2020 is the year to position our vision at the highest political level and advance a series of 20 concrete goals that we propose in our companion paper on Medium. As outlined here, we can begin to do this by acting on and influencing these 20 multi-stakeholder processes. Or, perhaps a different group of processes? Regardless, we all need to come together to make an equitable digital ecosystem for the planet a reality. Join us.

To explore all three papers and learn more about the various priorities and processes we have identified for 2020, we invite you to play around with the interactive ecosystem map below. Please note that this is best used on a desktop, and is not particularly mobile-friendly. Alternatively, you can access the first paper here, and the companion article on priorities here.

Interactive Ecosystem Mapping is led by Christina Bowen with support from Digital Life Collective. To open this map in a new tab, click here.
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. We will only use this for the purposes of periodic updates on our evolving dialogue on a digital ecosystem for Earth.

Footnotes & Appendix

[1] Authorship for the article is based on the CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) protocol. This includes 14 roles typically played by contributors to scientific scholarly output: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal Analysis, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Methodology, Project Administration, Resources, Software, Supervision, Validation, Visualization, Writing — original draft, Writing — review & editing.

[2] UNEP: Conceptualization, formal analysis, writing — original draft, review & editing.

[3] UBC: Conceptualization, formal analysis, visualization, writing — review & editing.

[4] UBC: Visualization, formal analysis, writing — review & editing.

[5] Everyone in the group of contributors assisted in the writing, review, and editing process. Within Graphics/Visualizations, Christina created the interactive ecosystem maps, Kristen created the cover image and Doug created the graphics within the sidebars of the ecosystem maps as well as the static graphics within the article. The group of peer reviewers assisted by reviewing the final draft and double-checking the accuracy of claims.

An additional, more robust annex with items that emerged from the creation of this article can be accessed here.