The inherent contradiction of the Information Age is evident to anyone who has searched for some nugget of information that must be out there somewhere. People are simultaneously overwhelmed by too much information and underinformed because they cannot find the information they seek. Such a state of affairs impedes the meaningful exchange of information that can spur progress on the world’s key global missions: achieving the aims of the Paris Agreement, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction.

Things do not need to be this way.

Our recent work argues that that a basic, often-overlooked business practices has the power to change the status quo. This practice is information and knowledge management, a term we use to mean the systematic process of collating and sharing of data, information, and knowledge so that people can easily find it – and then, of course, use it.

Transforming knowledge management for climate action: a road map for accelerated discovery and learning” presents a way forward. Written for the European Union PLAtform for Climate Adaptation and Risk reDuction (PLACARD) project, the report specifically targets the climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR) communities, but its message applies to the climate and sustainability agendas more broadly.

The urgency of these worldwide agendas means we that can no longer afford to squander time or resources searching for the most credible or relevant kernel of information tucked away in some virtual corner. We cannot afford to implement a measure without learning from the experiences of a similar intervention that has proved its worth elsewhere. And, we cannot afford to implement measures that have previously been revealed as ineffective or counterproductive. In short, all people working on these agendas need better, faster ways to learn from one another.

“We can open up and speed up progress if we change how we think about and address the basics of information and knowledge management.”

The report outlines six steps that those working on such agendas can take now to improve the “discoverability” of needed information with existing technologies. It outlines additional steps for the medium and long terms that will set the stage to leverage emerging artificial intelligence approaches – which promise to generate new insights far more rapidly than currently is possible via human brainpower on its own.

At the same time, our work shows that technological tools alone cannot solve the problem. Progress largely hinges on the adoption and use of universal, standardized practices by those working on these issues –  governments, the private sector, civil society, and the research community. Success requires global cooperation and coordination. All involved will need to find the wherewithal to invest in the practices and technologies at our disposal – using tools such as defined terminologies, taxonomies, ontologies, and knowledge graphs. Instituting standardized, universal practices that allow more effective exchange knowledge more effectively. This challenge requires demands a new mindset and a new collective will.

To understand the importance of such steps, one need only consider the definition of a single word: “green”.  Debates erupt over how to use “green” as a description of projects and financial instruments, and whether the designation reveals certain environmental bona fides, or has been used to supply a veneer for less desirable practices. The controversies show the importance – and difficulty – of establishing some accepted definition.

Our work serves as a siren call for greater leadership and needed investment in information and knowledge management. Those of us working on the climate and sustainability agendas must summon the collective will to change prevailing practices to help, not hinder, one another. Information and knowledge management merits greater attention and investment to achieve its potential to serve the global missions of our times.