About 40% of the land in six Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries is suffering from ‘severe or very severe’ human-induced degradation. With economic growth projected to grow at 8% a year for the next six years, pressure on the environment will increase substantially. As fourth industrial revolution reshapes economies and disrupt incumbencies, interest has surged in the potential of novel frontier technologies to improve environmental decision support systems in the region. The transformative impact of this revolution will require ASEAN member states to reconfigure policies and governance structures at both, national and regional levels. It is important to explore the current adaptation landscape of frontier technologies in environmental decision-making, and the associated governance challenges and opportunities.
A meta-analysis of current policies, strategies and initiatives across the region was conducted using PRISMA-based systematic review methodology. The analysis found that frontier technologies including artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, internet of things and advanced robotics are being radically used to disrupt the environmental governance sector across the region. The diverse set of applications include use of blockchain to manage water allocations, new credit-scoring technologies for agricultural finance, smart urban transport system, green space design, and use of drones for utility provision during disasters, etc. Equally diverse are the countries of ASEAN politically, economically and socially. Hence, these technologies pose several challenges at national and regional levels.
Some of the key impediments identified include, i) a possible frontier technology divide emerging with advanced economies like Singapore and Indonesia investing in environmental leapfrogging through these technologies at astonishing rates, leaving others in the region at a risk of being left behind, ii) imbued trust deficit amongst countries, private and development sectors exists regarding use and abuse of such technologies and associated data, iii) limited technical capacity of governments and policymakers in developing technologically advanced governance solutions is leading to over-dependence on donor agencies and other developed countries, iv) limited research and baseline data is available to prioritise infrastructural elements of national and regional environmental decision support systems, and v) a potential concern about technological unemployment persists due to surge in technological adaptation.
The article acknowledges that ASEAN region is leading from the front and is forecasted to be the major market of the future. This prominent position means it is prudent for governments to think carefully about the policy priorities and issues raised in this article to address ethical issues, ensure development of an adaptable workforce for the future, put in place regional level systems to allow environmental innovation to flourish, and utilise frontier technologies to deliver more efficient public services in the environmental sector.