As you wake up in 2050, you might begin your day by looking out of the window, with your augmented reality device showing you real-time pollution data. You then have breakfast that you bought because you were convinced by its environmental score, which was clearly visible at the time of the purchase, thanks to digital data.
The food itself is produced by farmers in a resource-efficient manner, because they know exactly which crop to plant when – they have access to Big Data, thanks to open-source platforms gathering public environmental information, weather forecasts, or data through on-farm sensors.
Before you turn on your washing machine, you check the electricity price at the moment. To incentivise consumption at periods when renewable-produced energy is abundant, the prices vary, and gamification is making the hunt for good timeslots a fun experience. You not only consume but also produce electricity, thanks to the solar panels installed on your roof, which is connected to a meshed micro-grid.
These are just a few of the future snapshots envisaged in the JRC’s “Towards a green and digital future - Key requirements for successful twin transitions in the European Union” Science for Policy Report, which forms the basis of this year’s Strategic Foresight Report.
The study is the result of a thorough literature review and expert engagement in discussions and workshops with over 200 participants from academia, civil society, public administration, and industry.
The researchers at the JRC used a normative back-casting approach, which means they took the goals of the European Green Deal as a starting point, and then examined the opportunities and pitfalls in the green and digital transitions in achieving this goal.
The relationship between the two transitions
Ideally, the green and digital transitions reinforce each other. For example, distributed ledger technology, which underlies blockchain and thus cryptocurrencies, can be used in material tracing, aiding the circular economy by better maintenance and recycling.
And Digital Twins, virtual counterparts of the real world, can model, among others, traffic, to optimise traffic flows, reduce jams and slash emissions in the process.
However, sometimes the two transitions can also clash. Digitalisation uses electricity, and many digital technologies are resource-intensive and create waste. Unintended consequences can crop up, such as owners of hybrid cars driving more because it is cheaper. Teleworking would cut office space but could lead to employees building separate working rooms at home, and heating or cooling more space than if they were in the office.
To make the most out of the twin transition, proactive and integrative management will be needed. The digital transition will be spearheaded mainly by the private sector due to its huge economic potential. To harness its benefits for greening and to limit its harmful effects, state and civil society engagement will be necessary.
Requirements for having successful green & digital transitions
The authors listed a set of requirements to show under which conditions this engagement can be successful. These are social, technological, environmental, economic, and political in nature.
One requirement is to increase the societal commitment to the need to change to achieve the transitions. This cannot be enforced top-down, the researchers warn.
Making the twin transition fair and inclusive can make its acceptance easier. Not everyone is in a position to buy costly rooftop solar panels, but subsidies for it are provided by all taxpayers. Making such technology affordable to everyone is key to a just and effective transition.
More data also means more privacy concerns. These must be addressed by anonymising data collection and data minimisation, gathering only as much data as strictly necessary.
Another set of requirements is technological. The needed infrastructure environment has to be put in place, beginning with high-speed broadband internet access for all. Interoperability between devices must be ensured, and benefits must be shared equally, with small and medium-sized enterprises included as much as large companies.
When it comes to the environmental requirements, awareness-raising and higher environmental standards could keep unintended consequences and rebound effects in check.
In economic terms, enabling markets are required to avoid getting stuck in an “innovation valley of death”, when research gains fail to materialise in applied form. A regulatory eco-system should be created that sets high green standards and internalises external costs of pollution and emissions. Upskilling of the labour force is needed to fully exploit the potential of digital technologies.
Finally, politically, the EU should continue in its role as first-mover by establishing lasting green-digital standards. Policy coherence, as well as unlocking private investments are also crucial.
10 key areas of actions
Furthermore, this year’s Strategic Foresight Report, which builds on the JRC’s twin transition report, identifies 10 key areas of actions for a successful twinning:
- Strengthening resilience and open strategic autonomy in sectors critical for the twin transitions via for instance, the work of the EU Observatory of Critical Technologies.
- Stepping up green and digital diplomacy, by leveraging the EU’s regulatory and standardisation power, while promoting EU values and fostering partnerships.
- Strategicallymanaging supply of critical materials and commodities, by adopting a long-term systemic approach to avoid a new dependency trap.
- Strengthening economic and social cohesion, by for instance, reinforcing social protection and the welfare state, with regional development strategies and investment also playing an important role.
- Adapting education and training systems to match a rapidly transforming technological and socio-economic reality as well as supporting labour mobility across sectors.
- Mobilising additional future-proof investment into new technologies and infrastructures – and particularly into R&I and synergies between human capital and tech –with cross-country projects key to pooling EU, national and private resources.
- Developing monitoring frameworks for measuring wellbeing beyond GDP and assessing the enabling effects of digitalisation and its overall carbon, energy and environmental footprint.
- Ensuring a future-proof regulatory framework for the Single Market, conducive to sustainable business models and consumer patterns, for instance, by constantly reducing administrative burdens, updating our state aid policy toolbox or by applying artificial intelligence to support policymaking and citizens’ engagement.
- Stepping up a global approach to standard-setting and benefitting from the EU’s first mover advantage in competitive sustainability, centred around a ‘reduce, repair, reuse and recycle’ principle.
- Promoting robust cybersecurity and secure data sharing framework to ensure, among other things, that critical entities can prevent, resists and recover from disruptions, and ultimately, to build trust in technologies linked to the twin transitions.
The Commission will continue to advance its Strategic Foresight Agenda, while informing the Commission Work Programme initiatives for next year.
On 17-18 November 2022, the Commission will co-organise the annual European Strategy and Political Analysis System (ESPAS) conference to discuss the conclusions of the 2022 Strategic Foresight Report and prepare the ground for the 2023 edition.
- Publication date
- 29 June 2022
- Joint Research Centre