AI and the governance of sustainable development. An idea analysis of the European Union, the United Nations, and the World Economic Forum


In this article, Björn-Ola Linnér and Marie Francisco from Linköping University, present an analysis of the uptake of AI in the policy documents and reports of the United Nations, the European Union and the World Economic Forum. These institutions are deemed to have a role as organisations defending and promoting certain ideas in order to translate them into policies and accepted ways of working with it.

The three organisations expect AI to contribute to sustainability and a prosperous future with better data analysis, greater amounts of quantitative knowledge, and by making economic and social activities less wasteful and more energy efficient. However, questions regarding ethics, human rights, cybersecurity, access to reliable data, transparency, and the digital gap are among the challenges considered by the three organisations.

Publication Björn 2023 AI
A child next to a robot can raise ethical questions about Artificial Intelligence. Photo: Andy Kelly / Unsplash.

Key messages

  • The EU, the UN, and the World Economic Forum see AI as a tool for sustainability and a technology of governance.
  • Authors noted that there are strong incentives for international cooperation to manage transboundary issues like the governance of AI. Yet, the focus, especially from the EU, on becoming first-movers of AI innovation to gain competitive advantage conflicts with the cooperation narrative. Thus, they suggest both values of collaboration and competition coexist in this frame.
  • According to the analysis, the three organisations’ ideas correlate to ecological modernisation, which assumes that existing political, economic, and social institutions can internalise the care for the environment. Some examples of these ideas can be making climate change and sustainable development measurable, automating sustainable transformations and analysing carbon emissions from economic activities in real time.
  • Strong focus is put on data accessibility and analytics compared to other sustainability challenges brought by AI. These may include political and personal transformation of worldviews and perspectives. Other negative environmental effects of AI may result from the use of digital hardware and infrastructures such as data centres and networks.


Similarities in ideas about AI and sustainable development between the EU, the UN, and the World Economic Forum suggest that these have reached discourse institutionalisation, and therefore are deemed to reinforce already existing institutional and discursive settings.


Francisco, M. & Linnér, B-O., 2023. AI and the governance of sustainable development. An idea analysis of the European Union, the United Nations, and the World Economic Forum. Environmental Science & Policy, 150.

Authors of this publication

Björn-Ola Linnér , Marie Francisco ,