Digital Technologies for Environment and Disaster Resilience Work
Development Banks provide finance and technical assistance to support developing and emerging economies addressing a range of economic and social challenges, which includes climate change, broader environmental issues, and disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM). In recent years, all three broad fields of Development Banks have increasingly considered the use of Digital Technologies (DTs) to enhance the effectiveness of their work. Scaletech has recently advised the departments of climate change, sustainability, and disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) in agencies on how to do so more effectively, with a regional focus on Asia.
Digital Technologies Stages
There are various DTs that can play a major role in helping Development Banks better address climate change, broader environmental issues, and DRRM in their operations. DTs can be organized in stages according to criteria including level of technology development and timing of commercial breakthrough, with Stage III being the most recent and most advanced set of DT. Each DT represents the overarching category of a variety of subcategories.
Using Digital Technologies of Stages I, II, III in the Context of Strategic Operational Priorities
Using Digital Technologies for Climate Change: Mitigation
DTs from Stage I include forms of information provision on sources of greenhouse gases (GHG). Such sources can be detected by satellite imagery and the collected data be fed into databases and published on the internet. This includes online repositories and search engines on GHG emissions, mitigation options, or Data Support for Climate Change Assessments like the IPCC’s TG-Data.
DTs from Stage II include Apps and Social Media that calculate the carbon footprint and other personal environmental-climate impacts and provide its user with suggestions on how to reduce them.
Various Stage III DTs have a strong potential to support climate mitigation efforts. DLT can provide reliable proof of climate-friendly products within global supply chains. IoT can enable the establishment of connected sensors that can deliver data from various fields and for various emissions-intensive appliances. For example, smart home energy management systems use IoT and big data analytics to promote energy efficiency.
Using Digital Technologies for Climate Change: Adaptation
Stage I DTs may relate to the provision of information on climate change impacts, and adaptation options including online repositories of adaptation options, such as online versions of the National Adaptation Action Plans. At the household level, adaptation options include mobile phone alert systems in times of climate change-induced temporary water shortages.
Stage II-type technologies may support adaptation planning through app-based information exchange. In the agricultural sector, the app “Modern Agriculture Platform (MAP)” helps farmers to make better decisions, for example, regarding new crop varieties under hotter and/ or dryer climatic conditions. Data that is collected from satellites and IoT sensors in soil and water lead to better farming decisions and can be accessed with the app in real-time.
Artificial intelligence (AI), one of the Stage III technologies, can be applied to agricultural systems affected by climate-induced reduced water availability. Such systems “learn” how water can be used as efficiently as possible in a given location. One such solution combines satellite data (that measures how much water evaporates from agricultural land) with meteorological data and feeds this information to an AI algorithm. Farmers are then advised by the system on the correct amount of water needed to efficiently water the crops.
Using Digital Technologies for other Environmental Issues
Focal areas from OP3, are air, water, and land pollution. Relevant DTs from Stage I include tools for air pollution information city-by-city for public policy decision-making (e.g., distribution of relevant public funds), but also DTs for individuals (e.g., to know when it is safe to go out or where to avoid going during days with severe levels of air pollution). Examples include remote sensing for airborne nitrogen dioxide monitoring over the PRC; or real-time air pollution information city-by-city in real-time, worldwide.
Also on the air pollution front, some Stage II technologies are apps to track air pollution and possible effects on vulnerable groups. Similarly, there are apps to track water pollution and its possible effects on vulnerable groups. In the land pollution arena, it means apps to allow waste collection and disposal: for instance, smartphone apps to manage household waste in Indonesia.
In the biodiversity conservation arena, Stage III technologies include IoT sensors in forests that are difficult to monitor, to track illegal logging and wildfires. Smart sensor systems recognize saw sounds and fireplace sounds. If the system recognizes such sounds, it sends an emergency signal including the location to the respective authorities.
Using Digital Technologies for Disaster Risk Reduction and Management
The use of Stage I DTs in DRRM is strongly focused on information systems. This stems partly from the fact that DRRM information needs, on average, to be shared as widely as possible, and developers of DRRM-relevant DTs, therefore, aim for the lowest common denominators of DT complexity. For example, in Indonesia, a DRM agency mapped the locations of critical infrastructure using a tool that allows volunteers to create digital maps that can be used without restrictions.
Many of the Stage II DTs used in DRM consist of disaster-focused apps, and social network-based information and/or alert systems. This may include apps and social networks allowing for citizens to inform authorities about weak points in civil protection (e.g., flood protection); or to be informed about natural hazards (early warning, shelter options, relief coordination).
In DRRM, the potential of Stage III technologies is significant. It includes the use of AI and Machine Learning (ML) in analyzing potential hazards, robotics in the recovery of victims from collapsed structures, coordination of relief efforts in post-disaster zones, or the use of remote sensing for hazard analysis. For instance, in the case of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, the US Geological Survey (USGS) responded to the crisis by providing landslide-hazard expertise to Nepalese agencies and affected villages. In addition to collaborating with an international group of remote-sensing scientists to document the spatial distribution of landslides in the first few weeks following the earthquake, the USGS conducted in-country landslide hazard assessments.
Problems with Scaling Digital Technologies
To only mention one among the various potential problems associated with Stage I DT we focus on raw material sourcing and electronic waste at the end of life of a device. First, many Stage I DTs depend on the mining of raw materials such as cobalt or lithium, which have strong health and environmental side-effects. Second, electronic waste (e-waste) is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. While electronics are made up of a sophisticated mix of valuable raw materials, their post-use extraction is inefficient and costly.
Stage II DTs like Social Media may infringe on data protection preferences and its users’ privacy. Furthermore, running such DTs requires large amounts of energy for the data centers. For instance, in 2018, the data centers worldwide were estimated to consume 1% of the world’s total electricity consumption. Quality problems of apps and social media providers occur not only due to the vast number of providers but also as these technologies are too complex for proper quality control. Even though many purposeful apps and social media platforms may be developed, they are challenged by reaching a considerable initial minimum network size to gain traction.
Several problems can potentially impede the scaling of Stage III DTs. Their use for climate change would require a life cycle assessment of their net carbon impact. For IoT, a fragmented landscape for standardization prevents interoperability. Moreover, Stage III technologies usually imply considerable upfront costs and a large amount of computing power. These challenges are especially severe for DMCs of ADB. The lack of capabilities such as technical knowledge and skills also affects the deployment of Stage III technologies. For instance, according to the employability evaluation and certification company Aspiring Minds’ Annual Employability Survey 2019, only 2.5% of Indian engineers had AI skills required by the industry.
Considerations in Selecting Digital Technologies
Current Breadth and Scale of Application
Stage I DTs are well established, even in low-income communities of developing countries. What is needed on the part of development assistance institutions is support to communities in making content specific to CCM, CCA, DRM, and environmental sustainability issues along with incentivizing participation.
Stage II DTs hold much potential in Asia given the high rates of usage and growth rates of these technologies in the region. In 2020, 72% of the Chinese population were active social media users, and over 55% owned smartphones, which enable their owners to use apps. Both numbers have been constantly growing over the last years and are expected to continue growing. Hence, development agencies should encourage the creation of social media and apps relevant to CCM, CCA, DRM, and environmental sustainability, for example, by sponsoring relevant creations in incubators and accelerators where private risk capital will not.
Some Asian countries (Republic of Korea, the PRC, Japan) are at the global forefront of Stage III DT. Regarding the PRC, a 2017 report noted that the country could be a “close second” to or “even ahead of” the US in artificial intelligence (AI). However, there are significant concerns with scaling Stage III DTs given the strategic nature (and hence sensitivity) of some DT Stage III applications, and intellectual property-related concerns. Governments that sponsored research and development of Stage III technologies don’t want to lose exclusive use of these technologies. One option to nonetheless moving forward with reaping the benefits of Stage III technologies for developing countries in Asia is for Stage III research relevant to key CCM, CCA, DRM, and environmental sustainability to be sponsored by dedicated Trust Funds from the Stage III DT “leadership” countries, based on public benefit calculations jointly made with ADB.
Decision Making Tools
When selecting DTs for climate change mitigation and adaptation, DRM, and environmental sustainability, one of the key parameters is to define how cost-effective the DT is for its purpose. In addition, other parameters must be taken into account to be able to choose from the many options. Various quantitative and qualitative instruments can be used for this purpose.
- The marginal abatement cost curve allows for comparison of the costs and emission reduction potential of different mitigation measures while the marginal adaptation cost curve allows comparing the cost-effectiveness of various adaptation options.
- Cost-benefit analysis may be used in DRM and various fields of environmental sustainability.
- Multi-criteria analysis is a decision-making tool that includes qualitative criteria, such as ease of local implementation, broader socio-environmental benefits, and compatibility with current technologies.
Opportunities, Enablers, and Barriers in Development Agencies Utilizing Digital Technologies
The use of DTs to promote environmental sustainability by companies in ADB DMCs can offer opportunities to develop competitive advantages. For instance, in July 2020, the European Commission (EC) launched public consultations on taxation rules to meet the EU’s climate goals. The idea is to reduce carbon leakage risks and discourage companies from shifting their production activities to countries that have less stringent green regulations and poor enforcement mechanisms. With the debate on introducing carbon dioxide (CO2) taxes, some companies are proactively taking steps to ensure that their supply chains (SCs) are ready to comply with possible new regulations. To give an example, carmaker Mercedes-Benz has explored blockchain’s potential to promote sustainability with a primary focus on environmental sustainability. Mercedes-Benz teamed up with a blockchain company to conduct a pilot project that involves the use of blockchain to track CO2 emissions in the supply chains of its battery cell manufacturers.
The key enabler for the successful use of DTs in any domain is, of course, education about navigating the universe of DTs successfully. Some governments have, therefore, made considerable efforts to integrate learning on and with DTs into national curricula, covering in most cases the design and development of digital “outcomes” (like digital media) and more in-depth computational thinking (programming).
A key enabler for those who are already users of various forms of DT is digital platforms for their effective use. Early-stage platforms often focus on experience exchange among users or trouble-shooting for new DTs. As users get more comfortable and increasingly push to get the maximum out of the technologies they are using, many improve on existing features or suggest new ones. Ultimately, such platforms may push the boundary: of idea generation and usher in new R&D, with relevant alliances and networks emerging.
One of the major barriers to DT implementation is the lack of availability of basic DTs. For instance, in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, a large proportion of the population is not covered by the mobile-cellular network or the internet. For example, 96 percent of the population of the Republic of Korea is using the internet, compared to only 11 percent of Afghanistan’s population. Where mobile phones or internet connectivity exists, it is frequently unreliable. Basic technical barriers are non-existent or unreliable electricity, or slow internet speeds. Compared to Pakistan, the Republic of Korea’s mobile speed is more than seven times as fast; broadband speed even seventeen times faster.
Further issues include illiteracy, lack of capacity to pay for DTs or DT-related services, or lack of locally appropriate content. Other basic barriers are regulatory, with some governments in the region concerned notably about DTs that enable communication or collaboration at odds with the government, or with the country’s legal systems, and a tightening of cybersecurity laws most recently in the PRC.
Besides, DTs face technology-specific “scaling” barriers, such as the ability to scale the sourcing of relevant raw materials for the type of DT in question. Additionally, it is necessary to muster the additional human resources – which is particularly difficult for DTs from Stage III, as these require highly skilled individuals to run them effectively.
Possible strategies that can be employed to overcome these barriers include DT-specific Technology Needs Assessments in climate-relevant sectors, and quantitative market analysis for DTs in climate- and sustainability-relevant sectors, backed by appropriate regulatory and legal structures and incentives to use advanced DTs. To do so requires the building of such structures and of the institutions that can oversee and enforce them. These institutions should also be in charge of adapting DT strategies to local circumstances.
Concluding Thoughts on Digital Technologies at each Stage
Stage I DTs above represent a treasure trove of basic information, search, and communication possibilities. The key challenges here are threefold:
- to make the information easily accessible and understandable, to enable information recipients to undertake concrete actions in climate change, environmental sustainability, and DRM space;
- to make search functions easy to use, yielding information targeted at the individuals, entities, or groups searching for them; and
- to make communication possibilities easy to embed in coordinated efforts in climate change, environmental sustainability, and the DRM space.
As for Stage II DT, well-designed apps and social media that have proven useful to a large enough audience will become self-perpetuating. Designers of relevant apps and social media in climate change, environmental sustainability, and the DRM space, therefore, have two tasks:
- to support the creation of relevant climate and sustainability social media and apps that the market will not bring about on its own;
- to prioritize standardization and quality control efforts.
As is evident from the preceding discussion on Stage III, this set of technologies is the most complex and costly. This makes structured technology choice mechanisms, such as marginal abatement cost curves, and multi-criteria decision analysis crucial. Stage III technologies hold particular promise in the area of MRV (monitoring, reporting, and verification) of emission reduction efforts. This will provide efficient and cost-effective certainty to the authority and to carbon markets and, therefore, will reduce transaction costs (since less validation will be needed).
Digital technologies (DTs) have been affirmed by many for their potential in being a catalyst to support climate action, build climate and disaster resilience, and enhance environmental sustainability at a reasonable cost. They can also provide economic and social progress and help achieve sustainable development targets.
The current setting of DTs is quite wide and growing and can be broadly divided into three distinct stages. DTs of Stage I are currently being used for a range of supporting actions relevant to climate change mitigation and adaptation, DRM, and environmental sustainability. These include the internet, satellite imagery, geographic information system (GIS), remote sensing, mobile phones, and databases. Stage II DTs are available but are not being utilized to their full potential to address climate change mitigation and adaptation, environmental sustainability, and DRM and include technologies such as social media, applications, and cloud computing. Finally, technologies of Stage III are expected to reach their commercial breakthroughs in the future and have the potential to significantly accelerate actions to address climate change mitigation and adaptation, environmental sustainability, and DRM. Stage III cutting-edge technologies include artificial intelligence, machine learning, IoT and smart systems; distributed ledger technologies and blockchain; big data and predictive analytics; virtual and mixed reality; and robotics and unmanned vehicles.
Our work highlights the broad enterprise of digital technologies that countries can utilize to enhance the effectiveness of their efforts toward achieving OP3. This holistic view of DTs, along with the necessary considerations in selecting DTs to achieve development objectives, presented in this publication helps understand relative merits, costs, and limitations to the application of DTs such that decision-makers can assess and evaluate the usefulness of DTs in their country and/or company context. For example, knowledge and analysis of key concepts such as Marginal Abatement Cost Curves and Marginal Adaptation Cost Curves can form the basis of related “appropriate technology” discussions for developing countries. DTs from different stages can also be combined to achieve amplified impacts. DTs can also strengthen the ongoing efforts toward a green recovery and their impact can be maximized by leveraging public-private partnerships.
Despite the global recognition of the benefits of digital technology, however, the risks of digital divides suggest more investment is needed in policy and regulatory frameworks, infrastructure (including connectivity), applications (including contents and services), and capacities and skills. This means the successful application of these DTs requires an enabling environment that helps to overcome barriers which can range from lack of basic requirements such as national policies on DTs, lack of access to technology, or intermittency in nationwide internet coverage. Resolving these barriers requires specific strategies including, at the most, investments in basic DT infrastructure and education. In applying these DTs into developing country contexts, there is also a need for careful attention on issues related to capacity and usability as well as environmental, security, and privacy concerns.
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