Authors Stefan Ramesohl, Joscha Wirtz, Alyssa Gunnemann & Rahel Weier
research article

New Government for New Tasks?

The Reorganisation of Government Action in the Digital World

A call for new governance – a sense of urgency

The ecological challenges of this decade have been clearly identified. The pressure of problems is increasing drastically; progress in climate protection or the preservation of biodiversity is insufficient. Little time is left to act. In consequence, we can only achieve and permanently secure social and environmental prosperity through far-reaching changes in economy and society.
As a socio-technical innovation, digitalisation can realise its full ecological potential above all where it helps to profoundly change today’s lifestyles, consumption patterns, and economic practices with a clear commitment to sustainability. As the most urgent design task of the 21st century, it is important to put digitalisation’s enormous creative power at the service of the great transformation (Ramesohl and Losse-Müller, 2021). The ‹great transformation› refers to the comprehensive restructuring of technology, the economy, and society in order to deal with the social and ecological challenges of the 21st century (Polanyi, 1944; Schneidewind, 2018; WBGU, 2011). This is a task for state action in terms of both regulatory policy orientation and facilitating collective processes of change – new tasks call for new governance.
A digital-ecological statecraft is the indispensable prerequisite for effective state action to shape the social-ecological digital transformation. Using the example of the platform economy, we explore challenges, starting points, and (policy) measures.

Looking closer: platform economy and regulation what are platforms, actually, and why are they important?

Platforms are actors that provide internet-based, multi-sided forums and markets, thereby enabling the exchange of data, communication, and transfers of goods and services between various user groups. These digital platforms can now be found in all areas of our social and economic life, and they are playing an important role in the interaction between people, companies, and institutions. Platforms connect private individuals (peer-to-peer, P2P), business-to-customer (B2C), and business-to-business (B2B), e.g., in the organisation of industrial supply chains. Finally, public institutions are increasingly using platform approaches to carry out their tasks. The platform economy is an outstanding example of how digitalisation is changing the nature of societies, industries, and markets. The ecological impact of platforms – their footprint – as intermediary actors can be seen in different direct and indirect effects and depends on their design and use. Their footprint might include the energy and resource input necessary for operating the infrastructure on which platforms depend and the consumption incentives they set, just as much as their effect on market structures (Frick et al., 2019; Pouri, 2021).

Our working theses

Since platforms facilitate environmentally relevant transactions and have a footprint themselves, they have the potential to shape proactively the socio-ecological transformation of our economies and lifestyles. This potential is currently untapped; on the contrary, the business models of platforms reinforce unsustainable production and consumption patterns. Considering their market power and relevance for today’s consumption patterns, platforms need to redefine their role and proactively take wide-ranging responsibility for sustainable development.
Our vision: In 2030, platforms will be key drivers of the digital-ecological transformation of production and consumption. Their infrastructures, processes, supply portfolios, and governance mechanisms will be designed according to strict sustainability criteria (sustainability by design) and embedded in progressive enabling regulation.
But how can platforms themselves become agents of ecological change and contribute to sustainable development? What are the starting points and possible actions for politically framing and steering platforms?

Where we are today

These questions can be linked to the ongoing debates on regulating platforms at both the national and the European level. In recent years, several initiatives have started or are nearing completion.
It is becoming clear that the European Union and its member states are working intensively on the regulatory framework conditions to create a level playing field and push back dominant companies. Three major fields of (digital) policy action have emerged:

  • Regulation of content, especially of (social) media
  • Data regulation, with a focus on data protection and data access
  • Competition regulation, with a focus on (potentially) dominant platform companies.

A lack of sustainability

At the same time, the guiding principle of sustainability has not found its way into these initiatives. The political target dimensions of climate protection and environmental sustainability do not yet play a relevant role in digital policy and platform regulation. There is still a way to go to manifest the vision of ‹platforms in the service of sustainability›. We therefore see the need for a governance framework that aligns sustainability and digitalisation in the shaping of platforms and their ecosystems.

CC BY S. Ramesohl et al., Illustration Lone Thomasky
CC BY S. Ramesohl et al., Illustration Lone Thomasky

What needs to be done?

Platforms do not have sufficient momentum for an ecological shift towards sustainable consumption and the satisfaction of our needs without greenhouse gas emissions and with less use of resources. To become active players in a sustainable


Platforms must support

sustainable consumption patterns

and consistently align

their service portfolio and

business models

with climate, resource, and

environmental protection.


transformation, platforms must support sustainable consumption patterns and consistently align their service portfolio and business models with climate, resource, and environmental protection.
We therefore see the need for a governance framework that actively shapes and politically steers the sustainable orientation of transaction platforms and their ecosystems. Governance can be defined as the steering, coordinating, and governing of socio-economic-political systems with the aim of managing the interdependencies between non-state and state actors (Benz et al., 2007).
The competencies required for the design of a new governance approach for a sustainable platform economy can be applied to a wide range of challenges at the intersection of digitalisation and sustainability. It is essential to formulate the competencies in a universally valid and simple manner – after all, decision-makers at all levels must be able to understand and implement them quickly.

How it works – elements of a new digital-ecological statecraft

The digital world is increasingly shaping how and what we consume. But it is also changing: With the vision of a continuous virtualised fusion of our internet use in the metaverse, expectations are growing for a completely new quality of the customer journey - although it is still completely open as to how these visions will manifest in the near future. The aim is to make complex digital ecosystems sustainable by linking infrastructures, hardware, software, data, and services along overarching social values and political guard rails.
Decentralised self-organisation of actors will not be sufficient to achieve the necessary system transformations in such a broad, comprehensive, and timely manner. In this context, it is important to understand the state again as what it is: the organisation of collective, common action. The socio-ecological transformation requires an active and capable state as coordinator of the transformation – we are not yet at this point in Germany.
We understand statecraft as the knowledge and ability to jointly shape the state and the community in the interest of all. In our view, a stronger role of the state as an active actor in a socio-ecological transformation is indispensable. The concept of a digital-ecological statecraft means that state and society, e.g., public and private actors, acquire the capacity to govern the transformation of complex digital systems. In our view, the following four competencies are particularly relevant for this.

  1. Orientation and strategic ability, through common goals and narratives
  2. Ecosystem capacity, through organisational set-up
  3. Alliance and cooperation capacity
  4. Learning and scalability

The next few years can and must be used wisely to address platforms as central actors in sustainable economic activity and consumption and to build and expand the necessary competencies of a digital-ecological statecraft.

About the authors

  • Stephan Ramesohl is Co-Head of the Research Unit Digital Transformation at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, focusing on the research area Industrial Transition at the intersection of digitalisation and sustainability.
  • Joscha Wirtz leads the strategy team for digitalisation at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. His work is focused on enabling a just and green transition, scaling responsible innovations, and exploring future organisations for a regenerative economy.
  • Alyssa Gunnemann is a student assistant in the research area ‹Digital Transformation› at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. She is studying Economic Research in the Master programme at the University of Cologne.
  • Rahel Weier is a student research assistant in the research area ‹Digital Transformation› at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. She is studying socio-economics in the Master programme at the University of Duisburg-Essen.


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