May 22, 2022

Exploring How Digital Technologies Are Used in Natural Resource Management

"In the coming years, as the environmental crisis becomes even more complex and far-reaching, digital technology will play an increasingly critical role in protecting livelihoods and the natural resources on which they depend," according to a report published by the GSMA. Through the GSMA CleanTech program, the UK-based organization conducted research to explore the "digital dividends" of various types of technology on natural resource management in low- and middle-income countries. Through desk research and stakeholder interviews, they captured and documented global trends and examples of best practice; identified the common incentives, bottlenecks and benefits natural resource management (NRM) stakeholders encounter when deploying digital technology; and highlighted opportunities for the GSMA and its members to enhance the reach, scope and effectiveness of NRM programs.

The report explains that "[n]atural resource management (NRM) refers to the sustainable use and management of the planet's natural resources, including forests, watersheds, oceans, air and a diversity of plant and animal species." Furthermore, "These and other resources work together to produce the benefits and services on which human existence depends, such as the provision of food, medicine and timber, the regulation of our climate, the improvement of our water and air quality, and protection from natural hazards."

Below are the report's key findings:
  • Natural resources, livelihoods and poverty are interlinked. "The areas of the world that will be most affected by global changes in climate, biodiversity and ecosystem functions are home to many of the world's poorest communities. This, combined with limited access to and rights over natural resources, is a major contributing factor to poverty, particularly in rural areas. A lack of livelihood opportunities can put unsustainable pressure on local ecosystems by eroding community support for protected areas, instigating unsustainable changes in land use, or incentivizing participation in illegal logging and poaching activities. Conversely, sound NRM practices can have a positive impact on livelihood creation, reward communities for the ecosystem services they provide and drive sustainable agricultural, fishing and land use practices."
  • You can't manage what you don't measure - and analyze. GSMA's "review of 131 NRM projects in LMICs shows that digital technologies are transforming the frequency, reliability and transparency of data collection activities, and improving organizational capacity for data visualization, analytics and evidence-based decision making. Nearly 100 of the NRM projects leverage data collected through satellites, drones or connected devices, and one in five uses artificial intelligence to discover, explore and derive insights from datasets. NRM organizations are highly motivated to work with mobile network operators (MNOs) and other technology organizations to find low-cost connectivity solutions that enable them to transmit data from remote or protected areas."
  • Digital technologies can incentivize community participation in NRM activities and influence the way people perceive, think about and engage with nature. "There is growing recognition that poverty is more than a lack of material necessities and income; it also includes fewer rights and capabilities and less voice and influence over decision making. Although current approaches to NRM often fail to consider the needs and rights of local communities, digital technology—especially mobile—offers new ways to facilitate dialogue between stakeholders, leverage local knowledge and incentivize community participation in NRM activities."
  • MNOs and other technology organizations have a critical role to play. "Although NRM organizations are increasingly tech savvy, many still lack the technical skills and expertise required to keep pace with technological innovations, and are typically overly cautious using donor funds to test 'experimental' digital solutions. The projects in our dataset indicate that when an NRM initiative receives support from an MNO or other technology organization, it is twice as likely to leverage emerging technologies like connected devices, blockchain or artificial intelligence."
  • The GSMA and its members can support ambitious responses to climate challenges. "As the environmental crisis becomes even more complex and far-reaching," the GMSA expects "to see even greater integration between digital technology and NRM activities."

The GSMA importantly notes:
The use of digital technology in NRM, such as mobile devices, satellites, the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), is still nascent, but has grown steadily over the last decade. There is increasing evidence that when developed and applied in a customizable and scalable way, digital solutions can significantly improve the efficiency, responsiveness and efficacy of NRM activities. However, current efforts are generally fragmented and poorly documented, making it difficult for stakeholders to learn from best practices, replicate success or identify opportunities for collaboration.

The report, however, points out that "In the coming years, as the environmental crisis becomes even more complex and far-reaching, digital technology will play an increasingly critical role in protecting livelihoods and the natural resources on which they depend." The UK-based organization says that its "analysis of existing projects and conversations with stakeholders suggests there are two impact areas where further support could help mature and mainstream digital innovation in this sector. First, further research and insights are required to reveal and promote examples of best practice, to help technology organizations develop sustainable business and partnership models, and to empower underserved populations to play a more active role in NRM. Second, there is potential for new cross-sector partnerships and dialogue within and across stakeholder groups to catalyze new action."

Lastly, GSMA's "research found that when developed and applied in a customizable and scalable way, digital solutions can enhance the quality and efficiency of data collection, empower local and global communities to be engaged in conservation efforts and aid real-time decision making. It is also clear from the three case studies presented in this report that digital technology can help scale nature-based solutions to climate action in ways that reduce biodiversity loss and optimize nature's contribution to resilient livelihoods."

Which digital technologies do you think will be utilized to facilitate the sustainable use and management of our planet's natural resources?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

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