TWI2050 Report: The Digital Revolution and Sustainable Development: Opportunities and Challenges

Second report prepared by The World in 2050 initiative.



The Digital Revolution, including technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, additive manufacturing or
3D-printing, (general purpose) artificial intelligence, or the Internet of Things, has entered the public discourse
in many countries. Looking back, it is almost impossible to believe that digitalization is barely featured in the
2030 Agenda or the Paris Agreement. It is increasingly clear that digital changes, we refer to them as the Digital Revolution, are becoming a key driving force in societal transformation. The transformation towards sustainability for all must be harmonized with the threats, opportunities and dynamics of the Digital Revolution, the goals of the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement. At the same time, the digital transformation will radically alter all dimensions of global societies and economies and will therefore change the interpretation of the sustainability paradigm itself. Digitalization is not only an ‘instrument’ to resolve sustainability challenges, it is also fundamental as a driver of disruptive change.

This report that focuses on the Digital Revolution is the second one by The World in 2050 (TWI2050) that was established by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and other partners to provide scientific foundations for the 2030 Agenda. This report is based on the voluntary and collaborative effort of 45 authors and contributors from about 20 institutions, and some 100 independent experts from academia, business, government, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations from all the regions of the world, who met four times at IIASA to develop science-based strategies and pathways toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Presentations of the TWI2050 approach and work have been made at many international meetings such as the United Nations Science, Technology and Innovation Forums and the United Nations High-level Political Forums.

In 2018, the first report by TWI2050 on Transformations to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals identified Six Exemplary Transformations needed to achieve the SDGs and long-term sustainability to 2050 and beyond: i) Human Capacity & Demography; ii) Consumption & Production; iii) Decarbonization & Energy, iv) Food, Biosphere Water; v) Smart Cities and vi) Digital Revolution.

The focus of this report is the Sixth Transformation, The Digital Revolution. Although it is arguably the single greatest enabler of sustainable development, it has, in the past, helped create many negative externalities like transgression of planetary boundaries. Progress on the SDGs will be facilitated if we can build and implement detailed science, technology and innovation (STI) roadmaps at all levels that range from local to global. STI is a forceful driver of change connected to all 17 SDGs. The Digital Revolution provides entirely new and enhanced capacities and thus serves as a major force in shaping both the systemic context of transformative change and future solutions; at the same time it potentially carries strong societal disruptive power if not handled with caution, care, and innovativeness.

This report assesses all the positive potential benefits digitalization brings to sustainable development for all. It also highlights the potential negative impacts and challenges going forward, particularly for those impacted by the ‘digital divide’ that excludes primarily people left behind during the Industrial Revolution like the billion that go hungry every night and the billion who do not have access to electricity. The report outlines the necessary preconditions for a successful digital transformation, including prosperity, social inclusion, environmental
sustainability and good governance. Importantly it outlines some of the dramatic social implications associated with an increasingly digital future. It also covers a topic that so far has not been sufficiently dealt with in the cross-over discussions between sustainability and the Digital Revolution, that is, the considerations about related governance aspects.

Three possible dynamics of the Digital Age. Source: Adapted from WBGU (2019).

The report provides policy recommendations on how to achieve a Sustainable Digital Anthropocene. Nine key messages of the report:

  1. A new era in human history is emerging! After Neolithic and Industrial, the Digital Revolution is the next era!
  2. Digital technologies can enable a disruptive evolution toward a Sustainable Anthropocene!
  3. Governance is urgently needed! The disruptive dynamics of digitalization are challenging the absorptive capacities of our societies and threaten to erode social cohesion.
  4. The Digital Revolution opens the door to a quantum leap for human civilization!
  5. We need to resolve the paradox of the Digital Anthropocene: Digitalization is creating
    the essential preconditions for TWI2050 Six Fundamental Transformations toward sustainability, yet it is also endangering them!
  6.  Human enhancement and augmentation present an uncertain future for our species! Homo sapiens is being transformed into Homo digitalis.
  7. We need to understand and overcome the retarding moments” of innovation breakthrough!  
  8. We need to build responsible knowledge societies capable of moving toward sustainability in the Digital Age!
  9. The clock is ticking toward 2030 – we have only 10 years to meet our Sustainable Development Goals!

Recommended citation:
TWI2050 - The World in 2050 (2019). The Digital Revolution and Sustainable Development: Opportunities and Challenges. Report prepared by the World in 2050 initiative. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria.

Available at:

Report Launch and side events  at the High-level Political Forum 2019 in New York.

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Last edited: 27 August 2020


Nebojsa Nakicenovic

Distinguished Emeritus Research Scholar Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions Research Group - Energy, Climate, and Environment Program

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The Digital Revolution and Sustainable Development: Opportunities and Challenges

The Digital Revolution and Sustainable Development

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
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