The Missing Digital Dimension in Green New Deals

Thinking & Analysis


Professor Mulgan identifies a troubling neglect by green deal politics of the potential of digital innovation to transform the data and learning that it needs to think and act globally and locally. We need to fill this gap as a matter of urgency.


As Green New Deals of various forms take shape around the world, there’s a glaring gap in many of them. Although this is an era dominated by digital technologies and data, the digital world has been much less involved in decarbonization strategies than investment and finance. City and government strategies are largely silent on how digital tools can contribute to net zero, and there’s little collaboration between the people in charge of environmental issues, such as Chief Sustainability Officers or Chief Resilience Officers and Chief Digital Officers.

Here I summarise what we might need over the next few years to put this right:

The first priority is to generate, curate and share relevant data to guide action. Currently, although there are huge amounts of relevant data, relatively little of it is standardised and easily accessible – from benchmarking data within sectors to carbon emissions data of buildings and transport systems. Much of this data is now proprietary. It needs to be brought out into the open so that we can better understand the carbon footprints of infrastructures, supply chains, cities and neighbourhoods. A lot of work is underway on this – including some dashboards, projects like Carbon Tracker using satellite data to map coal emissions, the Icebreaker One project that aims to enable investors to track the full carbon impact of their decisions, – but they are fragmented and not integrated with money allocations.

To fix this it will be vital to mobilise some of the powers that governments have at their disposal. Data is often handled through ad hoc processes, or even through using markets (as Copenhagen tried). But the more efficient way to handle these issues is through making them the default, so that any private entity securing a public license (like provision of a 5G network, Uber or electricity supply, or a supermarket getting local planning permission) would be required, as a condition of that license, to provide relevant data in a suitably standardised, anomymised and machine-readable form. Ensuring this happens should become part of the core work of regulators.

Another crucial factor is the lack of institutions to govern data in the public interest. I’ve previously  outlined the different forms data trusts could take in order to do this, sometimes as public private partnerships acting to curate data around fields like transport and energy (for example gathering smart meter data) and sometimes as purely public bodies focused on research. The lack of such institutions is one factor behind the major problems facing smart city projects like Sidewalk Labs in Toronto and Replica in Portland, or the recent problems Singapore faced over its track and trace system. Getting this right will also be vital for mobilizing AI and machine learning for carbon reduction, some of the applications of this are covered in this overview.

The second priority is better organization of evidence and shared knowledge: the collective intelligence of the many people working on net zero. The IPCC orchestrates global knowledge on the diagnosis of climate change. But there is much less organised evidence about what works – in fields ranging from retrofitting to community energy to food waste. Market pressures mean that businesses have strong incentives to learn. But for more systemic or public interest aspects of carbon reduction there is a glaring gap in terms of responsibility and action. Some organisations are attempting more multi-level strategies – such as Climate KIC or C40 – but their resources are limited, and C40 took a very long time to evolve into even quite modest knowledge orchestration roles.

Exploratory work is underway in the UK on a ‘Net Zero’ What Works Centre to provide reliable guidance to frontline workers and policy makers around issues such as retrofitting homes. We now have a dozen such What Works centres in other fields (some of their work is summarized in this overview), but surprisingly none around the environment. Instead the UK has a patchwork of initiatives ranging from the Zero Carbon Hub, The Green Construction Board, Active Building Centre, Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), Smart Energy Research Lab, Energy Systems Catapult (which also has a data for net zero programme), Green Finance Institute and Coalition for the Energy Efficiency of Buildings (CEEB), Mission Innovation Heating and Cooling and its associated government/UKRI funded projects.  These tend to be more supply-push rather than demand-pull, and not always designed in ways that make it easy for users to find the knowledge they need.

Finally, we need more systematic social innovation to complement the welcome investment in technological innovation.  Achieving the targets will require much more success in mobilising communities to play their part in reducing emissions, learning for example from the leading ecotowns such as Freiburg. This would include topics such as reducing food waste or changing eating behaviours, again making use of data and explicit hypothesis testing about some of the options, including how to boost place-based action. Here there are useful lessons to be learned from pan-European competitions and challenges.

These are all different aspects of what can broadly be termed ‘knowledge and data infrastructures’ – the intangible counterparts to the systems that find, process and move materials. These are largely missing from the Green Deals, and their absence reflects an imbalance in institutional structures. At a European level, for example, there is a strong European Investment Bank but no comparable institutions specialised in orchestrating data and knowledge. The same is true in the UK, while at a global level there is an IMF and a World Bank but again no equivalents for data or knowledge.

This is not an insoluble problem. But it needs to be acknowledged. Then perhaps a tiny fraction of the huge investment now being channelled into green investment could be directed into funding the underlying data and knowledge plumbing that is so essential to ensuring that money is well spent.


Professor Sir Geoff Mulgan is based at University College London, in STEaPP.

This blog is produced by TIPC and partner, EIT Climate-KIC

The editors of this blog series are Fred Steward, Emeritus Professor, School of Architecture and Cities, University of Westminster, London; and Jon Bloomfield, Systems Innovation Policy Advisor, Climate Innovation Ecosystems, the European Institute of Technology’s Climate Knowledge & Innovation Community (EIT Climate-KIC).

3 thoughts on “The Missing Digital Dimension in Green New Deals

  1. Regarding ‘The second priority is better organization of evidence and shared knowledge: the collective intelligence of the many people working on net zero’ this could be a role for smart specialisation strategies (S3). S3 focuses on competitive positioning in the economy of the future – in this case sustainable circular economies. S3 can help align resources as effectively as possible based on place-based entrepreneurial opportunities triggered by a shared European vision. S3 requires tailored policy mixes and policy integration. It stimulates integration of innovation policy in the broader set of education, training, regulation and infrastructure policies to make it work. Finally S3 can and must engage civic society (quadruple helix) and build trust in the future. There is now much interest in moving S3 to S4 – sustainable smart specialisation – in fact the EU Green Deal can be seen as the EU’s S4.

  2. Very interesting and timely blog. Cenex (www.cenex.co.uk) runs the electric vehicle national chargepoint register NCR on behalf of the UK government. It is critical that dynamic real data is made available in publicly accessible API’s to enable the integration of electric vehicles into the energy system and to provide accurate and useful information to customers.

  3. I agree that there is enormous potential to promote Green Deal politics through digital innovation. One glaring opportunity is to develop some new ‘transition indicators’ of system innovation and transformation which are meaningful for both analysts and actors. We are still stuck with old fashioned statistical innovation indicators or selective anecdotal reporting. New techniques such as web scraping and semantic analysis offer enormously powerful methods to track the real time progress of net zero transition in key sociotechnical systems such as mobility. This can show international variety in the pace and direction of transition pathways down to a very local level. Green Deal policy can only be effective if informed by this type of data. Another great challenge is to promote ‘platform innovation’ for sustainability. The prevailing exploitation of the platform economy has triggered well justified critiques of precarity and privacy. Yet the potential of digital platforms for sustainability and public purpose also merits serious attention. It should be a key focus for Green Deal transformative innovation policy.

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