With the climate clock ticking to show only 6 years to limit climate warming to 1.5oC, we are drifting into disasters and calamities without a game plan on how to avoid them.  Even as nations struggle to attain the 2030 UN sustainable development goals (SDGs), the reality is that the cities are in mortal danger, whereas the rural grassroots may hold the realistic solutions to tackling social and planetary justice.

Accelerated migration into crowded cities has only heightened social alienation, trauma and concentration of buildings and transport vehicles.  While cities consume and emit carbon it is the rural areas that provide vital support to the cities with food, water, energy, resources and carbon capture.  Yet villages receive limited policy attention.

Hitherto, the mainstream political hope is to use technology to create “smart cities”, but it is unrealistic to expect cities to “de-grow”.  With over half of the developing world’s population residing in them, the rural villages remain the stewards of most of the land and seas which provides water, food and natural resources for the rest of humanity.  Smart villages using technology can safeguard nature as well as narrow the social gap between them and the cities.    

Hence, village communities, living closest to nature, could be what legendary ecologist Dana Meadows called the leverage point, where with relatively few resources, we can make a larger and more immediate impact on climate change and ecological diversity, while meeting our basic needs. 

First, our current top-down governance structure cannot be the only way to solving human problems.  Silo-based state action often lacks coordination and good bottom-up feedback, resulting in perennial electoral overpromise and under-delivery.  Moreover, growing concentration of market forces in large global companies generate oligopolistic tendencies that ignore their corporate social responsibilities.  Inclusive sustainable development using a bottom-up approach requires a mindset change. 

Moving away from global solutions to global problems, we must think systematically, but act locally.  Universalistic global goals that apply indiscriminately to millions of different communities fail because they do not realistically recognize how each community is different given diverse histories, cultures and legacies.  Such diversity is unified by the growing interconnectivity and interdependence.  We share one planet Earth but its self-regulating natural systems remain segmented by artificial national boundaries.

Nationally divided partial action and power cannot overcome borderless externalities resulting in a  whole that is often less than the sum of its parts.  Without a common narrative and more comprehensive data to make informed decisions, we cannot coherently reform the diverse systems in the right direction.  Big Data and AI that can curate knowledge and funding to cities and villages to solve their own problems offer a new market design out of this global collective action trap. 

With the increasing availability of data through various devices, technologies and platforms, we can begin to create a systemic data dashboard for Earth that enhances decision-making at all levels (see the One Earth Balance Sheet concept).  AI can play a crucial role in connecting the dots between siloed datasets, filling existing data gaps, and building a robust, transparent, and accessible data ecosystem that fosters trust.

Second, to mobilise the masses for effective local action, we must equip them with the necessary practical tools, and knowhow that they can use and trust: accurate data, knowledge, and funding. 

The 2019 book, Buying Time for Climate Action, argued that there is no global shortage of technical know-how, nor funding, to deal with climate change.  What is lacking is an institutional network or a tech platform that leverages our hyperconnectivity to match the demand for climate action at the local level, with the global supply of know-how and funding.   As Nobel Laureate Alvin Roth suggests, market failure is often an issue of market design.   

A tech platform or Global Creative Commons (GCCs) similar to Wikipedia could function as an AI curator of the global pool of domain knowledge, available within universities, research institutes, national and multilateral agencies, civil societies, corporations, and financial institutions.  While these sources often exist in isolated silos, AI has the capacity to curate and disseminate customised knowledge to millions of social enterprises or micro-small medium enterprises (MSMEs).  Platforms like TikTok already demonstrate the potential for curating information according to individual needs.

Third, whilst globalization under a unipolar order demands a universal standard of development, i.e. GDP, a bottom-up, diverse multi-polar world requires a multidimensional development model that co-creates mutual and diverse well-being or well-becoming.  Thus creating smart villages that take an omni (holistic multidimensional) approach to development needs village-level data dashboards that enable through AI-curation to exchange knowledge, knowhow and funding across different communities and regions.   In short, the GCC becomes the tech platform to match the available supply of global know-how to solve local problems of diverse smart omni-villages. 

When wielded skilfully, the AI-empowered GCC can present a win-win or virtuous cycle for villages to upgrade their own standard of living and conserve nature through circular economic behaviour. High-quality data serves as a valuable natural resource or fuel for AI, essential for its success. And rural communities possess untapped sources of quality data but are unable to monetize their value.

These communities, intimately connected to their environment, have accumulated ancient wisdom on regenerating local ecosystems, herbal medicines, plant care, and natural regenerative practices.  By curating such knowledge to research institutes, local knowledge can help advance pharmaceuticals or enhance our understanding on how to regenerate biodiversity. Value is created because the rural areas can earn to provide what the urban people need but cannot access easily.  For example, urban elderly can move to villages where health caregivers are available in natural environments to provide organic well-being.   In short, the GCC connects the many to the many (M2M) overcoming the shortcomings of existing B2C market and G2C governance systems.

The practical and daunting reality is that villages do not possess the necessary know-how to build AI platforms on their own.  The challenge is therefore how to incentivize AI developers to build the next-generation GCCs to create and network smart omni-villages.  The political message is unmistakable – by empowering the masses through technology, we co-create to solve complex challenges for ALL.

Ultimately, AI as a tool must be judged not only by how well it serves its inventors, but how it is used to produce social and ecological justice. By drawing in the rural areas from the periphery to the centrality of cities, we can unlock AI’s transformative potential to create positive outcomes at the local and global levels.

Contributed by

Andrew Sheng and Sneha Poddar


Andrew Sheng is Distinguished Fellow of Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong, and Chief Adviser to the China Banking Regulatory Commission.

Sneha Poddar is a Research Fellow at Georgetown Institute of Open and Advanced Studies, an associate of the Global Soil Health Programme, and an adjunct faculty member at the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh.