Eng Sengsavang

Eng Sengsavang

Last updated on 4 November 2020

Eng Sengsavang is a Reference Archivist at the UNESCO Archives.

Technologies are needed that produce 'social goods'…[1] earth

Since the 1980s, the drive to achieve “sustainable development” has been led by the United Nations through several global frameworks for action, most recently the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our reliance on digital technologies and information is so enmeshed into our lives that it is time we acknowledge the critical role digital preservation plays in such global initiatives. Digital preservation is an indispensable component of sustainable development and will prove to be increasingly critical for the achievement of the SDGs and future initiatives like it. Digital preservation consists of a constellation of acts and strategies that, like sustainable development efforts, fundamentally anticipate the succession of future generations who depend on our actions today for the shape and content of the world they will inherit in decades to come and beyond.


 Photo: Earth seen from Apollo 17, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The concept of sustainable development was popularized in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development in their publication Our Common Future. Also known as the Brundtland Commission (named after its Chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Prime Minister of Norway), this group of politicians, economists, and specialists in areas such as “agriculture, science, and technology,” with “a clear majority of members from developing countries,” was tasked by the United Nations to construct a “global agenda for change”[2] up until “the year 2000 and beyond.”[3]  What resulted was arguably the blueprint for subsequent major frameworks for action set by the UN, including the Millennium Development Goals inaugurated in 2000, followed by today’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development launched in 2015. These comprehensive, large-scale initiatives are distinguished by their ambition and holistic vision: their aim is not to tackle a single issue or particular regions of the world, but to address the major issues of our time at a global level, recognizing that everything is interconnected within a shared ecosystem.

In 1983 when the Brundtland Commission began its work, Commission members made the critical decision of focusing not only on the environment, but of widening the scope of the task by emphasizing the interdependency of global challenges. To do otherwise, they note, “would have been a grave mistake.”[4] The report offers the concept of sustainable development as an alternative way forward and an overarching strategy that encompasses elements of environmental management in addition to economic, social and technological development. Sustainable development is defined as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[5]  It is the idea that it is both possible and necessary to meet the basic needs of every person on earth, while also protecting the earth’s resources for future generations. This requires an understanding that our actions and patterns of behaviour, production, and consumption affect the quality of life of people in other parts of the world and beyond our own lifetimes.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets of the 2030 Agenda are inspired by the same logic: they “are integrated—that is, they recognize that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability.”[6]  Clearly, targets that require access to information over the long term depend on our current efforts to preserve digital information. Access to information is covered in target 16.6: Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels; and target 16.10: Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements. Besides these, other targets have been highlighted by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), which “actively…advocat[ed] for the inclusion of access to information, safeguarding of cultural heritage, universal literacy, and access to information and communication technologies (ICT) in the framework.”[7]  All of these targets directly concern digital preservation. They include:

  • 5.b – Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women.

  • 9.c – Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.

  • 11.4 –Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.

  • 17.8 – Fully operationalize the technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity building mechanism for least developed countries by 2017 and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology.

Beyond these targets, others that seem only distantly if at all related also implicitly involve digital preservation in some way. For example, Goal 1 on ending poverty calls for access to “appropriate new technology” (target 1.4) and the “mobilization of resources from a variety of sources…to provide adequate and predictable means…to implement programmes and policies to end poverty in all its dimensions” (1a). The ability to implement programmes and policies depends, to a large extent, on access to information, including datasets and information in all manner of digital forms, which in turn rely on digital preservation for their long-term readability and integrity.

Digital preservation and sustainable development share a basic principle: each generation has a responsibility to create the conditions necessary to ensure equal opportunities and better lives for each person over the long-term. In our digital world, digital preservation is part of our interdependent, global ecosystem and undeniably, part of “the future we want.”[8]


[1] United Nations, World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, “Chapter 6, para 67: Reorienting Technology and Managing Risk,” Our Common Future. From document A/42/427. Viewed 28 October 2020, http://www.un-documents.net/ocf-02.htm#I [no page numbers].

[2] Ibid

[3] Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform, “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development - Our Common Future.” Viewed 28 October 2020, https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/milestones/wced

[4] United Nations, World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, “Chairman’s Forward,” Our Common Future. From document A/42/427. Viewed 28 October 2020, http://www.un-documents.net/ocf-cf.htm [no page numbers]

[5] United Nations, World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, “Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development,” Our Common Future. From document A/42/427. Viewed 28 October 2020, http://www.un-documents.net/ocf-02.htm [no page numbers]

[6] United Nations Development Programme, 2020, “What Are the Sustainable Development Goals.” Viewed 28 October 2020, https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html

[7] IFLA, n.d. “Libraries, Development and the United Nations 2030 Agenda.” Viewed 29 October 2020, https://www.ifla.org/libraries-development

[8] Title of a United Nations document leading to the creation of the 2030 Agenda and SDGs. See: United Nations General Assembly, 2012, The Future We Want - Outocme Document. Viewed 29 October 2020, https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/futurewewant.html


Scroll to top