Cross-sectional issue digitalisation

Whether in business or broader society, digitalisation is permeating and changing almost every aspect of our daily lives. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear that the way we live and our business practices have negative consequences for the environment and society, for example for the climate or social cohesion. Digital technologies and innovations can support and accelerate sustainable developments in many areas – such as urban development, the circular economy and energy system transformation. To make a sustainable, secure digital future possible, we want to consistently conceive of digitalisation and sustainability in tandem and use the opportunities offered by digitalisation to implement the 2030 Agenda.

We are shaping tomorrow's digitalisation today – 'Natürlich.Digital.Nachhaltig'!

The Federal Ministry of Education and Research’s Digital Strategy, launched in 2019, provides the framework for informing digital change and data policy in education, science, research and innovation. The strategy formulates the Federal Ministry of Education and Research’s ambition to design digitalisation in such a way that it serves society and the preservation of the basis of life. Digitalisation offers numerous opportunities for sustainable development – provided that it itself is made sustainable and secure. This is where we enter with the action plan ‘Natürlich.Digital.Nachhaltig’ (Natural.Digital.Sustainable). It promotes research and development in the field of digitalisation that is geared towards the Sustainable Development Goals and contributes to their implementation. The action plan has three main objectives: 1) to lay the foundations for digital sustainability, 2) to make digital technologies more sustainable, and 3) to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals through digital innovation.

Digital solutions for sustainability in FONA

The opportunities that digitalisation offers for sustainable development are enormous. Digital technologies can make processes more efficient, faster and more sustainable. They enable new insights and options for action, for example through improved sensor technology, AI-based applications and machine learning. In FONA, we are already making frequent use of the opportunities offered by digitalisation for sustainability research and will promote the use of digital technologies even more strongly in future.

The fields of application cover the entire spectrum of FONA sustainability research. For example, intelligent digital solutions are already making a key contribution to the success of energy system transformation by bringing the production and consumption of renewable energy into alignment. Another example can be seen in precision farming. It uses digital technologies to better manage water consumption and the use of crop protection products and fertilisers. Intelligent data collection and analysis through key enabling technologies such as machine learning and AI also helps us better understand climate change, biodiversity loss and natural hazards. And they help us design a resource-efficient circular economy. We want to use our funding to further expand this potential attached to digitalisation.

However, the relationship between digital innovation and sustainable development is often ambivalent. After all, what good is the use of digital innovations in the sustainability sector if AI algorithms or server farms consume more energy than they save? Questions such as these, especially regarding rebound effects, are also addressed in FONA.

Research data – the raw material of the future

Data is the raw material of the future – and digital data infrastructures are essential to use data for sustainable innovation. In addition to the development of new algorithms and digital workflows for data acquisition, processing and analysis, access to quality-checked research data is particularly crucial. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research is making a major contribution to the systematic development of research data through the National Research Data Infrastructure (NFDI). For example, in the area of sustainability, an NFDI will be established for biodiversity, ecology and environmental data. As part of FONA, we will use the associated synergies for sustainability research and pursue the process for the sustainable use of data.

In addition to data generated in the research context, public and private data also contribute to sustainability. FONA supports the cooperation between data owners, analysts and users for the purpose of sustainable development. With the ‘Data Science for Sustainable Development’ (DSSD) initiative, we are bringing together cities, municipalities and metropolitan regions with data scientists to develop and implement sustainable digital solutions at local level – for example, for land use or for recording environmental pollution and noise.

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