A review of data-intensive approaches for sustainability: methodology, epistemology, normativity, and ontology

  • Vivek Anand AsokanEmail author
  • Masaru Yarime
  • Motoharu Onuki
Review Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Concepts, Methodology, and Knowledge Management for Sustainability Science


With the growth of data, data-intensive approaches for sustainability are becoming widespread and have been endorsed by various stakeholders. To understand their implications, in this paper, data-intensive approaches for sustainability will be explored by conducting an extensive review. The current data-intensive approaches are defined as an amalgamation of traditional data-collection methods, such as surveys and data from monitoring networks, with new data-collection methods that involve new information communication technology. Based on a comprehensive review of the current data-intensive approaches for sustainability, key challenges are identified: the lack of data availability, diverse indicators developed from a narrowly viewed base, diverse definitions and values, skewed global representation, and the lack of social and economic information collected, especially among the business indicators. To clarify the implications of these trends, four major research assumptions regarding data-intensive approaches are elaborated: the methodology, epistemology, normativity, and ontology. Caution is required when data-intensive approaches are masked as “objective”. Overcoming this issue requires interdisciplinary and community-based approaches that can offer ways to address the subjectivities of data-intensive approaches. The current challenges to interdisciplinarity and community-based approaches are also identified, and possible solutions are explored, so that researchers can employ them to make the best use of data-intensive approaches.


Data-intensive approaches Sustainability Sustainability indicators SDGs Planetary boundary Open data Big data 



We acknowledge Monbukagakusho (MEXT), the Government of Japan, for their financial assistance during the doctoral study. We would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and editors for providing new insights and broadening the scope of the paper. We would like to especially thank Nikole Roland and Clare Sandford for providing editing and proofreading assistance.


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate Program in Sustainability Science, Graduate School of Frontier SciencesThe University of TokyoKashiwaJapan
  2. 2.Division of Public PolicyThe Hong Kong University of Science and TechnologyKowloonChina
  3. 3.Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public PolicyUniversity College LondonLondonUK
  4. 4.Graduate School of Public PolicyThe University of TokyoTokyoJapan
  5. 5.Graduate Program in Sustainability Science (GPSS), Graduate School of Frontier SciencesUniversity of TokyoKashiwaJapan

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