Sustainability has been a hot topic for a many years. It is increasingly evident that the supply of raw materials is limited and the way we use them can have significant knock on effect on the world around us: Traditional energy sources are getting more expensive as fossil fuel supplies become less certain; climate change and related natural disasters have global impact; and the scarcity of some raw materials is demanding new approaches to manufacturing. In response, many governments and companies are deploying comprehensive and demanding sustainability policies.
So what’s new? – The big news relates to the digitalization of the economy through the application of technologies sometimes referred to as SMAC (social, mobile, analytics, cloud).
At Divine Graphic Designs, we also call it the “Third Digital Revolution”. Let’s see how this revolution links to and impacts sustainability. If we consider the rise of new digital technologies, we see they have the capability to significantly change the game in each sector of sustainability.
Technology has great potential to help deliver the SDGs, but it can also be at the root of exclusion and inequality. We need to harness the benefits of advanced technologies for all.
– UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, at the closing of the 2018 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development
One of the recurring themes of the 2018 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) was the impact of technological change on sustainable development. The benefits of digital technology for the sustainable development goals (SDGs) is relatively well-integrated into the 2030 Agenda, not only through Goal 9 (industry, innovation, and infrastructure), but also through the Technology Facilitation Mechanism and its Science Technology and Innovation (STI) Forum. By now, there is a well-established understanding that digital technology can help drive progress for all goals, and it might be essential to harness this potential to be able to reach the goals by 2030, as ‘time is running out.
New technologies to accelerate SDG progress
This year’s HLPF discussed many different ways in which digital technology can benefit the SDGs. For example, technology might help minimise inequality by providing access to basic services, such as e-health or online education. It can be used by governments to better connect to their citizens through e-government tools, and to improve stakeholder engagement and information management.
Some sessions explored the opportunities of specific technologies. For example, broadband can be a key enabler to boost connectivity and prevent ‘digital isolation’ [Maria Theofili (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Greece). Blockchain has the potential to drive progress in fields ranging from education and energy to trade and food safety. Mobile technology provides access to online tools and information to billions of people, and can gather unprecedented insights into populations.
The potential of technology was also discussed in relation to the SDGs that were under review during this year’s HLPF. The review of SDG 9 (affordable and clean energy) demonstrated that digital technology can help integrate renewable energy sources and digitise manufacturing processes. The review of SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) provided a chance to explore the potential of smart cities, in which the combination of digital connectivity, data, and citizen knowledge generates opportunities for public services to become better adapted to the needs of populations. In fact, the Ministerial Declaration adopted at the end of the conference stated the pledge to ‘embrace innovation-driven development, digitalization and new technologies, especially information and communication technologies, in managing cities more effectively and holistically’.
SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) was connected to the social and environmental repercussions of the information and communication technology (ICT) and smartphone industry, such as the generation of e-waste and the labour conditions in the extraction of minerals that digital devices are made of. At the same time, ICT can also be an enabler of sustainable consumption and production, as indicated in the Ministerial Declaration, which urged for ‘deploying innovation in technology and standards’ to promote resource efficiency.
Technological counterproductive disruptions
The potential of STI for sustainable development and the relation between digital technology and the individual SDGs have been discussed extensively throughout the last few years. However, this year there was a growing sense that the impact of technological change on development could be more profound, as the speed of innovation causes social and economic disruptions of which the consequences are not yet clear. The emergence of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and blockchain, and especially their convergence, will be the driving force of radical change. New policies and measures may be needed to steer this change into a direction that benefits the SDGs, demanding considerable awareness and adaptability by governments, and adding even more complexity to the implementation of the SDGs.
In the midst of these uncertain forces of innovation, there are concerns that the advent of new technologies could lead to counterproductive impacts on society, setting back, rather than moving forward, progress towards the SDGs. Technology is often available only to the wealthy and could further exclude the most vulnerable in society. With the SDGs’ pledge to ‘leave no one behind’, there is a considerable risk that that is exactly what will happen, with society becoming increasingly dependent on digital technology, and its data being used for decision-making.
In addition, many were concerned about the effects of new technology on the labour market, particularly considering the automation of the labour market, which is likely to lead to the disappearance of jobs. Moreover, new and more flexible ways of working could infringe on social and economic rights. While some indicated that new technologies also create new jobs, for example in computer and data science, this will require a considerable re-skilling of large parts of the population. In particular, the Ministerial Declaration pointed at the role of the private sector to ‘improve skills sets in alignment with new technological breakthroughs’.
Steering technological change in a sustainable direction
Taking all of this into account, it becomes clear that technology provides the SDGs with a difficult paradox: new technologies could increase inequalities and generate negative externalities; and at the same time, they might be essential for achieving the SDGs. How to make sure that technological change is being harnessed for the benefit of sustainable development and mitigate their counterproductive effects?
Many indicated the need to scale up innovations that drive positive change. This also requires proper coordination; while there is often no shortage of technology companies that provide solutions, these solutions are typically implemented in siloed areas. While all the pieces of the puzzle might be there, they are usually not coherently organised. Therefore, it will be important to co-operate and to use society’s ‘collective intelligence’, involving all the stakeholders and citizens from the first step. At the same time, to be able to effectively do so, it will be imperative to generate common understanding and mutual trust.
In addition, there should be greater awareness and capacity among policy-makers. This is required not only for changing mindsets within the public sector, but also for driving investment in science and technology, and for designing action plans, road maps, and policies under which technologies could help reduce inequalities and address gaps in the SDGs.
Digital technology will play a critical role in the achievement of the SDGs, although innovation will most likely affect progress in both positive and negative ways. The deployment of new technologies could be essential for achieving the SDGs, considering the need for accelerated progress to fulfil the goals by 2030. At the same time, as new technologies are usually unavailable to marginalised populations, it will be a key challenge to ensure that no one is left behind in the fourth industrial revolution, as new innovations often exacerbate existing divides in society between those who can benefit, and those who are left behind. In addition, with the current speed of innovation, there are many opportunities and risks that are still unknown, but could rapidly crystallise, without regulators being able to respond in a timely manner. Therefore, it is imperative for decision-makers to be aware of, and to understand technological change as much as possible. In the words of the Ministerial Declaration, ‘the introduction of new technologies should never blind us from our pledge to leave no one behind’.