In this blog, IEMA's Dr Rufus Howard discusses the findings from the recent Tallinn Forum, an international conference on Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), and addresses why the profession needs to adapt and adopt new behaviours to move with the wider societal shift towards digitisation.

IEMA recently supported the Tallinn Forum, an international conference on Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)[1] . I contributed on behalf of IEMA by chairing the session on the Future of Digital SEA as well as presenting on the topic.

In this interactive session we asked the audience to take part in an exploration of the art of the possible by combining digital techniques with best practice in SEA to ask, “is the future of SEA digital?" ​

Attendees of the session were asked in break out groups to discuss the future opportunities offered by digital SEA using an ERIC model (Eliminate-Reduce-Increase-Create) to answer the following questions; In an ideal world, what would you eliminate or reduce in SEA practice? What aspects would you increase or improve? What elements would you add or create to improve SEA?

Prior to the group discussion on the future of digital SEA, the participants heard from three international speakers, together they covered in three short introductory presentations, the theory, practice and future of digital SEA.

Firstly, Dr Paol​a Gazzola, University of Newcastle, introduced ideas underpinning the development of digital SEA. Paolo made it clear there is no doubt that advancements of information and communication technologies (ICT), geospatial tools and of smart and digital technologies in general, are transforming the science and policy practice interface. She went on to point out that more recently, evidence from practice is showing that the use of digital and technological advancements have the potential to reduce data and knowledge gaps in SEA as well, by reshaping for example, information generation, management and dissemination. But she went on to query, ’Can digital approaches to SEA help make SEA smart(er) and more effective in supporting more informed and robust decision-making for sustainable development?’

In the second presentation, Paul Eijssen, Royal HaskoningDHV, provided some real-world examples of Digital SEA in Practice. Paul explained how the millennial generation is growing up in a world where almost all information is digital. With social media and the internet, today people expect information to be available 24/7 in an interactive and engaging manner. Paul spoke of how digital interactive reporting is set to become essential for the future. Based on the experiences over the last 3 years Paul demonstrated a couple of examples including a recently published fully digital SEA on national level in The Netherlands.

In the final presentation, I examined the opportunities and barriers to Digital SEA in the Future. Using a 5-whys model I asked why SEA was important, and concluded that it was a key tool to help implement the SDGs and achieve sustainable development in the context of the triple crisis of social, climatic and ecological emergencies. I then went on to explain the concept of VUCA and the role of disruptive technology and the rapid advancements in the digital economy, concluding that digital SEA is both desirable and inevitable. I finished by setting out some of the key findings and 7 principles set out in IEMAs Primer on Digital Impact Assessment.[2]

Following the three presentations the attendees were split into three discussion groups where attendees were able to debate their ideas for an ideal SEA, using their ERIC models and drawing on the content of the presentations. Following the breakout groups, the three groups returned to a plenary session for a Q&A debate with the panel and audience.

Following the plenary, the consensus was that digital SEA offers real opportunities to improve re-use of data and evidence, as well as increasing transparency and stakeholder and citizen engagement. We acknowledged that there are skills gaps, and capacity issues, but the profession needs to adapt and adopt new behaviours to move with the wider societal shift towards digitisation.

We saw opportunities to gather a robust evidence base, and share this knowledge, nationally, and internationally to learn from past projects, monitoring and research. We concluded that digital software and hardware offer additional tools, but the core function of SEA must not be lost, providing sound assessment and recommendations for making plans, programmes and policies more sustainable.


[1] https://sea-conference.eu/

[2] See IEMA, Digital Impact Assessment – A Primer for Embracing Innovation and Digital Working, March, 2020 and IEMA, Impact Assessment Outlook Journal Vol. 6 Digital IA in Practice, May, 2020.

Photo of Dr Rufus Howard IEMA
Rufus Howard

Dr. Howard is a leading professional in environmental impact assessment and sustainability with 20 years of experience across public, private and not-for-profit organisations. A Fellow of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) and Chartered Environmentalist, Rufus sits on strategic advisory boards at; the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), the Advanced Research and Innovation in Environmental Science (ARIES) NERC Doctoral Training Programme, and the Kent Nature Partnership. Dr Howard currently holds positions as Policy and Engagement Lead for IEMA, Director and Founder of Greenfriars, and Sessional Lecturer at Kent Business School and Canterbury Christ Church University.