The Impact of Digital Technology on Environmental Sustainability and Resilience: An Evidence Review
IDS Evidence Report 209
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Striving for ‘environmental sustainability and resilience’ (ESR) is postulated as a crucial, universal and global challenge of the twenty-first century. Today, this challenge has to be addressed in a world that is dynamic in its societal, economic and political constituents, heightened by increased interconnectedness resulting from globalisation. From a developing country perspective these issues need to be reconciled alongside developmental priorities, producing ongoing controversies and contradictions. This is further compounded by the fundamental matter of climate change.
Undeniably the multitude of dimensions interlinked to achieving ESR are inherently complex and dynamic, inter-related across geographies of scale, space and place. Hence recent academic literature depicts the necessity of a systems-based approach in effectively conceptualising the field in the future. It is proposed that to account for the competing challenges and complexity, radical rethinking and innovation of approaches are required. This standpoint contrasts strongly with conventional development approaches, which predominantly focus on ‘palliative care’. One area from which relevant innovation stems is the digital sector.
As this is now firmly what many term the ‘digital age’ or even ‘digital revolution’, there has recently been increasing application of digital technologies in developing country contexts. To date, this innovation has incorporated a spectrum of developmental initiatives, inclusive of those categorised under ESR headings. Inevitably, evidence on the impact of these innovations in practice is key in justifying resources, continuous learning and enabling effective progress.
The latest World Development Report, Digital Dividends, explores impact from a development perspective focused largely on increased prosperity and inclusivity through economic growth, social dynamics and public service delivery in developing countries. Similarly, there are examples such as the UK Department for International Development’s recent review exploring the impact of digital technologies across their own development programmes. However, there appears to be relatively limited work to date collating and addressing the existing evaluative evidence specifically from the ESR viewpoint. The evidence that does currently exist on these areas seems to be primarily documented at the individual intervention level.
The objective of this report was, therefore, to contribute to this evolving field by exploring and synthesising existing documented evidence. Commonalities and disjoints of successes and failures were drawn from across the findings, to produce a stronger evidence base on the impact of digital innovation in ESR. Impacts were considered alongside the academic theorisations of innovation with particular reference to complexity. This aims to identify emerging themes and gaps to ultimately deduce research-informed policy and to practice relevant lessons moving forward.