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Digital Impact Assessment – “mission impossible” or the “fifth element” of future sustainability

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

We are all witnessing a widespread and rapid expansion of digital technologies in recent decades. This brings tremendous changes to personal life and social habits, as well as a paradigm shift to almost all businesses. The digital adoption levels are above 50% already for many sectors, reaching 80% for manufacturing (Figure 1). Various engineering fields, i.e. electrical, chemical, civil, mechanical, etc. have long adopted software as tools for their services in design of products and processes, operations and control. Digital technologies are now an inevitable part of engineering practice, currently advancing into the virtual world of simulations, i.e. digital twins. Digital solutions in business services, i.e. financials, marketing, sales, HR, insurance, asset management, etc. are already state-of-the-art. Further, they nowadays widely exploit the advantages of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to boost the effectiveness and performance. Although many aspects of the digital transformation are not bright and have versatile deficiencies, the benefits for businesses are manifold, as expressed by numerous business leaders and C-level officers. Crucially, the digital revolution also has the potential to substantially aid sustainability, and help in reaching the UN SDGs and carbon neutrality.

Figure 1. Digital adoption in the EU and the US (%). Source: EIB Investment Survey (EIBIS wave 2019)

However, Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (EIA and ESIA) is lagging behind digital developments, despite all opportunities for advancement. Why?

Looking at the survey results on general barriers to digital transformation across industries (Figure 2), a number of reasons for IA delays can be easily found in the list. Nevertheless, examining particularities and specifics is worthwhile.

Figure 2. Barriers to digital transformation. Source: Harvard Business Review Analytic Services Survey (2016)

As EIA can be considered primarily as a governmental mechanism for protection of societies and the environment, it is fairly their call of responsibility to improve the process by leading digital transformation. However, an inertia of governmental apparatus, sluggishness and resistance to changes is widely experienced, which can be one of the reasons for a delay. Although many initiatives and activities are seen in e-government domains worldwidely, they are still mostly done for the public-related administration and basic business-related procedures. Mostly for the ones which are bureaucratic bottlenecks for citizens or ones driven by the pressure of businesses. While, the EIA is not a simple process at all, and probably not seen as a priority for investors of development projects. Are project proponents worried that digital impact assessment, bringing more transparency and public involvement, will result in lesser control and more demanding appraisal process? Are they concerned about sensitive data disclosure? Are these the reasons why the investors are not pushing for faster digitalization?

Environmental and social experts, engaged as consultants, are also hesitant, or at least not rushing into digital ESIA. Do they fear that software systems utilization will eventually lead to less work for them and reduction of paid hours? Why would they steer the change, if regulators and their clients are not? Or are they overloaded with conventional work in ESIA and other services, and do not have time to invest in adopting new ways of work and do structural changes? Furthermore, there are other angles of concern coming from specialists. Some of them are not certain how such a complex assessment, including so many variables and relations (project activities, aspects, receptors, impacts, measures, etc.), can be generalized and transferred into the digital domain effectively. Those are unsure what is the reach of the software - how predictive, accountable and coherent a digital system can be for EIA? However, they start from the premise that software can itself generate, process and deliver new and high-quality knowledge and decisions. Nevertheless, it is actually an expert role to provide and ensure the quality and accountability, now and will be for a long period of time, even with AI engaged. The digital system can only aid experts’ work, as they do for any engineering field (for example, in longtime used chemical process simulators or building design software).

What is the actual utilization status of digital technologies in EIA? How far does their support reach?

Truth to tell, various digital technologies have been utilized in EIA for a long time already. GIS software and pollutants or noise distribution (dispersion) simulators are regularly used for baseline studies and quantitative predictions, important for further impact significance evaluation. In some cases, parts of Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) software are exploited for EIA. Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) software is occasionally used and adapted for EIA purposes, especially for project follow up - monitoring and management plans. Aided with new sensing or observation tools, such as satellites, drones, IoT devices and even smart-phones, mentioned software are becoming more powerful and beneficial, especially for gathering data.

Figure 3. Overview of existing digital technologies and tools used in Impact Assessment. Source: Howard, R., Gold, T., Hall, L., (2020) Digital Impact Assessment, IEMA Webinar

Importantly, a number of environmental digital solutions moved to the internet (Cloud) in the last decade, opening up new avenues for virtual collaboration, improved data management and easier software maintenance and upgrade. Digital EIA reporting on the internet, beyond PDF and links for their download at sites, has been an actual topic and development direction in recent years. There are nice examples of digital EIA/ES/ESIA reports available - Simister Island Interchange, A303 Stonehenge, Oswestry Innovation Park, Coastal Protection Strategy Tacloban & Palo, etc. which were initiated and deployed by the environmental consultancy companies. They are mostly based on Story Boards and GIS platforms, and are well suited for public summaries and in some cases full report writing, exploration and review. Digital reports can be considered as a first bold step into digital transformation of EIA. However, there are hard limits in capabilities of independent digital reporting solutions, as they are not as adaptive (customizable) as needed for the ESIA, and more importantly - they do not directly provide or process ESIA data. Recently, several platforms for stakeholder engagement have been introduced to the EIA field (e.g. Plan and Engage by AECOM, EngagementHub), and they move boundaries for effective public participation with digital and virtual engagement (some with VR and AR). COVID 19 crises and restrictions in social gathering have accelerated those virtual participating alternatives.

If all environmentally-related tools and technologies are already available, what is missing for a fully digital ESIA? What is beyond digital reporting and virtual stakeholder engagement?

That is an integrative digital platform, tailored made for the ESIA, which will be able to put together existing digital pieces of the puzzle. It has to be a knowledge management platform that offers structured (pre-defined or imported) expert data and templates, and is capable of efficient processing, storing and exchanging large amounts of heterogeneous data, with the highest security standards. Such a digital system should be highly dynamic and agile with a subtle balance between generality and adaptability for various specifics, that are both seen in environmental and social impact assessment. These characteristics are crucial for the efficient process of identifying impacts, evaluating their significance and defining mitigation measures. Moreover, to effectively communicate and leverage the results, all parties involved in an EIA need to gather at the same digital spot which exposes reports, summaries and highlights of assessment results in a comprehensible way. Further, this should be a platform for direct exchange of questions, answers and comments of all stakeholders. All these requirements are achievable with advanced software technologies in the Cloud. They are actually state-of-the-art, but so far have not been applied to fit the purpose of the complex impact assessment process.

What can such an integrative and comprehensive digital platform bring to EIA and to all its contributors and stakeholders? It could actually help in overcoming the existing challenges of IA and go beyond. Well designed and widely-adopted digital EIA systems can: improve the objectivity and transparency; facilitate standardization of EIA; reduce the length of the reports, boost the efficiency and productivity and thus decrease the cost and time for studies completion; aid virtual collaboration and communication between all participants to enhance stakeholder engagement and public participation; assist in review and approval process and support accountable decision-making.

Importantly, a digital system would allow for effective reproducibility and reuse of the ESIA studies and their parts, which provides new opportunities. Apparently, this would enable exploitation of previous knowledge accumulated within a company or organization. Furthermore, such a structured data platform would be a ground for functional introduction of AI in EIA. Accelerated generation of information and their reusability, would enable specialists to extend the use of EIA platform beyond its traditional boundaries. One direction is prior to the EIA, for conducting ES due diligence, and even before - for thorough examination of project alternatives during design. The other direction is after the EIA, for continuous ES management accompanied with factual re-assessment of impacts and tuning of mitigation measures and monitoring plan. During this extended process, an EIA digital platform would be exchanging data with existing software, such as BIM, GIS, dispersion simulators, EHS and ESG software. Such an integrated digital suite would provide an all-encompassing sustainability solution, exploited during a whole project lifetime, from “cradle-to-grave”, with a central position and role of a digital ESIA platform. This would enable digital ESIA to become one of the key elements and truly contribute in efforts for achieving a sustainable planet in the digital age, as envisaged by the UN-backed Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability (CODES, see Figure 4.)

Figure 4: Three shifts and 18 strategic priorities to achieve a sustainable planet in the digital age. Source: CODES Action plan, 2022

From today's perspective the described ideal ESIA digital solution sounds like a star reaching rocket. How to achieve such an ambition and broad acceptance?

Indeed this would be a long lasting, challenging and risky endeavor for a single party, as it encounters systematic transformation for multiple participants and stakeholders. Having a software developer that is dedicated to ESIA digital system design and delivery would be an imperative. Nevertheless, it should have a special team and powerful resources to master the complexity of the assessment process, have a practice with EIA procedure and know the market and its challenges. Actually, the latter better portrays a large and digitally-conscious environmental service consultancy, as a best candidate for initiating the change. However, aside from business motivation, it should also have a strong expertise in contemporary software technologies, in order to translate the domain knowledge into a usable platform and workspace, described previously. Seemingly, this is still not the case for many sustainability service companies.

The other possible candidate could be among large international financial organizations - development banks that request ESIA, such as IFC, World Bank, EBRD, ADB EID, AfDB, etc. They have plenty of resources and power to change. But also are complex structures, thus prone to inertia and slow movements. Similar to national regulators and their agencies and bodies, that further require political and legal decisions. Given all challenges and requirements, the solution probably lies in a wider front, initiative and cooperation of multiple parties.

The basic conditions for the digital transformation of EIA are now present. The main drivers arrive from the need to make EIA more efficient and effective, in line with contemporary climate, biodiversity and societal needs and their dynamic changes. And the state of software technologies and their acceptance are more than sufficient to support the transformation. The interest in digital EIA has been rising sharply in the last 7 years - starting from the IAIA conference in Florence 2015, when the main topic was EIA in the digital era, followed by a number of publications and announcements of digital reporting solutions coming from consultancy companies (some listed above).

A comprehensive IAIA publication from 2021, prepared by Fothergill gives a very good overview of the recent digitalization directions and practices, with a global spread of examples (Figure 5). It is followed by the series of webinars in 2022, giving a good chance for live presentations and discussions. Another notable article is published in IEMA’s Impact Assessment Outlook Journal in 2020, presenting practical views from consultants. Earlier that year IEMA published a well elaborated Digital Assessment Primer. Soon after, an open collaborative initiative Digital EIA, funded by Innovate UK, aimed to accelerate the change in the UK. These were promising steps forward, mapping the needs, barriers, benefits and perspectives, but now it is not publicly evident how these are practically progressing. Another excellent example of collaboration is the research project DREAMS with a focus of aligning EIA with SDGs in digital framework, with a 15-parties consortium led by Aalborg University and supported by the Innovation Fund Denmark.

Figure 5. Examples of digital impact assessment around the globe. Source: Fothergill, J. and Murphy, J. (2021) The State of Digital Impact Assessment Practice, IAIA

Therefore, there are a number of important movements and some collaborative schemes. Yet, no breakthroughs in digital ESIA transformation and wider collaboratives, which would entail the full horizontal: proponent-consultant-lender-authority-public and deliver completely digital showcases implemented for actual development projects. Such proof-to-work examples would be critical for wider adoption with digital upskilling, as well as for investments in solutions and licensing. Support from regulators and lenders, in terms of trial and acceptance of digital means are very important and highly motivating. Most probably, all these together can catalyze the innovations and changes that are anyway inevitable.

In this blog we will further elaborate on particular topics related to opportunities and challenges of ESIA and its digitalization. We are inviting all to join the discussion, and connect with us to make a collaborative effort in the transformation of ESIA for a sustainable planet in the digital age.


Founder of Eon+ and the principal co-author of Envigo

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