In the tech-driven 21st century, data is rapidly becoming the world’s most valuable commodity. It’s why Facebook – a company that deals solely in data – is currently worth an estimated $576.56 billion.
The reason it’s so valuable, is that it has the potential to change every part of our society: It can provide the insights needed to develop bespoke products and services. It can swing political favour and change the fortunes of entire nations. And, above all else, it can help us tackle the biggest scientific struggles of our time – like our ongoing battle for sustainability.
In this context, data presents a huge opportunity. But there’s a huge problem too – and it’s to do with the way it’s is collected and disseminated. Today, a handful of big players own a significant amount of the data. And their inability or unwillingness to collaborate is restricting our potential to thrive.
The struggle for sustainability
One thing has become clear: the way we live, as a global society, is simply no longer sustainable. We’re currently exhausting the earth’s natural resources at a greater rate than they can be generated, and we desperately need to find a solution to reverse our impacts on the planet. This is an area where data can prove invaluable.
By gathering data from physical environments – whether that’s a building, city, or even an entire country – we can use the latest predictive technologies, like AI and digital twins, to improve efficiencies and reduce our impact on the world.
With the right insights into our physical domains, we can ensure a more sustainable use of resources, build smarter cities and roads, monitor waterflows, devise new ways of growing crops and gain a better understanding of climate change.
And we are doing this. Although small in scale, data projects are currently in place to improve almost every aspect of our daily lives. But the problem is they’re rarely able to grow. And their insights are often restricted by a limited sample of data.
This is the crux of the issue: data is always more powerful when it’s combined with other data. Doing so exponentially increases the level of the insight available. For instance, if we could combine consumption data from smart meters with the distribution data from different energy companies, we could build a more efficient energy grid. And even recycle excess energy to the areas that need it most. Or, if a city’s CCTV cameras could feed data about traffic flows to road signals, we could reduce congestion and lower emissions, all without any human intervention.
There are endless examples of what we could achieve by sharing data between companies and across industries to provide greater contextual understanding. But the problem is, organisations simply aren’t incentivised to do so. In fact, the opposite is true.
Rethinking the culture of ownership
The first problem is, because data is so valuable, obtaining ownership of it is now a business model in itself, and giving it away is akin to giving away millions of dollars.
If you couple this with the stringent regulations about sharing and compiling data imposed across Europe, then it becomes clear why this collaborative approach is met with reluctance.
To truly succeed in tackling the sustainability challenges the world throws at us, we need to rethink these attitudes and rebuild our approach to data ownership from scratch. But it can’t be down to big companies to volunteer their data. Why would they? They need to be incentivised to share it. And that requires a widescale change, led by governments and wider institutions like the EU. Change that requires rethinking the traditional rules, regulations and boundaries that currently govern data. It also requires a dedication to open standards and interoperability. For digital twins to work alongside each other, and for them to be able to scale in a meaningful and impactful way, everyone needs to be provided the same opportunity and be working from the same playbook. Only then can we really feel the benefits of collaborative innovation.
There are some initiatives in place helping to build this future today. The European Digital Strategy is one such example, aiming to deliver “EU-wide, borderless, digital public services that are indispensable for the functioning of the EU”.  And if you look within certain industries, like healthcare, then data sharing initiatives are common – largely because there’s the pursuit of a mutual goal, like eradicating the world of a disease.
For us to tackle the big issues, however – like sustainability, global warming and the wellbeing of our planet – this collaborative approach needs to be universal and governed by a shared set of principles and guidelines. This way, we can develop solutions that can scale across borders and industries.
Both individual stakeholders and wider society can benefit from this, but it’s going to take decisive action to get the ball rolling. And I believe now is the time to do it.
For more information on this subject, and the creation of a sustainable and collaborative Europe enabled by digital twins, read our Bits and Pieces white paper.