The role of data in transformations to sustainability: a critical research agenda

A recently published article in ‘Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability‘ investigates the role of digital technologies and data innovations, such as big data and citizen-generated data, to enable transformations to sustainability. We reviewed recent literature in this area and identified that the most prevailing assumption of work is related to the capacity of data to inform decision-making and support transformations. However, there is a lack of critical investigation on the concrete pathways for this to happen. We present a framework that identifies scales and potential pathways on how data generation, circulation and usage can enable transformations to sustainability. This framework expands the perspective on the role and functions of data, and it is used to outline a critical research agenda for future work that fully considers the socio-cultural contexts and practices through which data may effectively support transformative pathways to sustainable development.

The review, conceptual framework and critical research agenda laid down in this article offer a starting point to develop a deeper understanding of the relation between data innovations and transformations to sustainability which includes broader considerations of social, cultural and political issues. Building upon our proposed framework and critical agenda, future research should investigate how specific projects on sustainability transformations are able to integrate the different data transformation pathways and functions we identified, whilst addressing the corresponding tensions and challenges. We thus hope this article can inspire future research and practical projects to consciously reflect about their assumptions and practices to be able to effectively integrate data into sustainability transformation processes.

De Albuquerque, J. P.,  L. Anderson, N. Calvillo, J. Coaffee, M.  Cunha, L. Degrossi, G. Dolif, F. Horita, C. Klonner, F. Lima-Silva, V. Marchezini, M .H. da Mata Martins, D.-Grajales, V. Pitidis, C. Rudorff, N. Tkacz, R. Traijber, A. Zipf (2021): The role of data in transformations to sustainability: a critical research agenda.
Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability
. Vol. 49, 2021, pp 153-163.

This article is part of the project Waterproofing Data that is supported by the Belmont Forum and NORFACE Joint Research Programme on Transformations to Sustainability (, which is co-funded by DLR/BMBF, ESRC/GCRF (ES/S006982/1), FAPESP (process n. 18/50039-4) and the European Commission through Horizon 2020.

Selected project related publications: