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My New Focus: Leveraging the Digital Age for a Sustainable and Equitable World

Dear Future Earth Community,

Today marks the first day of a new role for me with Future Earth. Almost six months ago, I shared with you that I had informed the Governing Council that at the end of the summer I would step down as the Executive Director of Future Earth and shift to a role of Senior Advisor. I made this decision so I could focus on work that leverages the digital age to accelerate societal transformations toward a sustainable and equitable world. Over the last two years I led the development of the Sustainability in the Digital Age (SDA) initiative, which centers on what I see as some of the most transformative opportunities and profound challenges of our time. As the SDA initiative continues to grow, in partnership with Future Earth, the team looks forward to deepening and expanding collaborations with many of you across the Future Earth networks.

I want to take this moment to share with you why I see this new focus as so urgent, highlight some near-term priorities for SDA, and thank you for three rewarding years as Future Earth’s Executive Director.

The urgent need to focus on digital in our push for sustainability.

The science is clear: to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis and to achieve the UN SDGs we need rapid societal transformations across all sectors of society. Over the last decade the digital revolution has transformed social and economic systems at an unprecedented scale and pace. We need to work together to steer the tremendous power of the digital age towards tackling our sustainability challenges. Without it, we may not be able to achieve the level of transformations needed to achieve our climate and sustainability goals. Furthermore, if we don’t consciously steer this power for good, it may steer us toward an increasingly inequitable and unsustainable world.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how critical digital technologies are to managing global systemic crises. But it has also put a spotlight on ethical and equity challenges, and the dangers of misinformation, all of which are intensified through the digital world.

We are at a turning point, where we urgently need to lean in on research, innovations, and actions that enable us to capture the opportunities of and overcome the challenges to leveraging the digital age to build the world we choose.If we don’t, we are to likely to not only fail to meet our climate and sustainability targets, we will also face the threat that unguided digital transformations pose in accelerating humanity down an increasingly destructive path.

Near-term priorities

In the coming year, the Sustainability in the Digital Age initiative will work in partnership with Future Earth and others across research, civil society, private sector, and government sectors, on two overarching themes.

(1) Reimagining global environmental governance in the digital age. 

The UN Secretary-General recently stated: “We must come together to reimagine and reinvent the world we share…We must reimagine the way nations cooperate.”  The dynamic realities of the digital world create powerful opportunities to reimagine global environmental governance.  But as the UN has outlined, tremendous power and critical vulnerabilities arise in the Age of Digital Interdependence.  SDA is collaborating on multiple activities to leverage these powers and tackle these vulnerabilities so that we can reimagine global environmental governance in the digital age.  These efforts build on the work outlined in our recent report: Digital Disruptions for Sustainability (D^2S) Agenda.

For example, we are thrilled to be working with UNEP to co-convene a series of workshops to collectively identify priority actions needed for the development of a digital ecosystem for the planet that can help scale science and strengthen environmental governance. This work will be informed by SDA’s other work developing pathways for biodiversity in the digital age, in collaboration with GEO BON and the UK Science and Innovation Network (UKSIN). This effort is focused on strengthening digital approaches to ecosystem monitoring and management that can accelerate pathways to biodiversity conservation targets, while strengthening the management of global public health threats. A related effort will address Climate Governance in the Digital Age. SDA is partnering with the ClimateWorks Foundation, to identify priorities for philanthropic investments in order to strengthen collective climate action in this space.

SDA looks forward to collaborating with researchers from Earth Systems Governance Project’s new initiative on Transparency in Climate Governance (TRANSGOV), Climate and AI, Mila, the Barcelona Super Computing Center, the Center for Governance and Sustainability, MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence and others. Together, we hope to advance critical work at the intersection of digital innovations, social and natural sciences, and public and private sectors to collectively advance a reimagining of climate global environmental governance in the digital age. Please let us know if you would like to engage in these efforts!

(2) Building networks and training future sustainability leaders to be bilingual in understanding both the natural and digital worlds.

We are working to build a community that can fluently navigate both digital and sustainability domains. In partnership with Concordia University, McGill University, University of Montreal, University of Quebec, Future Earth and others, SDA recently launched a new training program: Leadership in Environment and Digital Innovation for Sustainability (LEADS). This program is actively recruiting new doctoral and post-doctoral students – please help spread the word!

Finally, SDA is delighted to be collaborating with the German Environment Agency (UBA), the International Council of Science (ISC), UNDP and UNEP, through our Future Earth partnership in an effort to build a network of researchers and innovators to leverage digital tools to advance our understanding of and solutions to global sustainability challenges. 

Thank you for three rewarding years

Over the last three years, I have appreciated the opportunity to work with and learn from all of you in the Future Earth Community. I am proud of what we have done together. Over this period, we re-focused the Secretariat around three strategic pillars: Global Systemic Challenges, Building the Field, and Shaping the Narrative. This helped us to direct our limited resources to cross-cutting and high impact projects and products such as: the 10 New Insights in Climate Science, Our Future on Earth report, Science-based Pathways, the Global Risk Perception Survey, United in Science, and the Sustainability Research and Innovation Congress. This focus also enabled us to secure additional resources for transdisciplinary policy-oriented projects such as the Earth Commission and Sustainability in the Digital Age. Future Earth is now increasingly recognized for both its science and its ability to engage with business, policy-makers, and researchers around the globe.

Over the last six months I have worked with the Executive Team and the Governing Council to ensure my transition is smooth and seamless. More details on what is next will come from the Governing Council soon. In brief, new strategies to expand and strengthen the Future Earth community will be posted this fall, and a call for a new Executive Director will be initiated in early 2021. Until a new Executive Director is appointed, Josh Tewksbury will serve as the interim.

I am optimistic that Future Earth is ready for a new stage in its development. I look forward to continuing to support the team as a senior advisor and through our on-going partnerships in the digital space.


Senior Advisor, Future Earth
Global Director, Sustainability in the Digital Age