- Technology can accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals – or exacerbate inequalities.
- Responsible technology governance can help ensure innovation is inclusive.
- More work needs to be done to provide universal and affordable access to the internet and close the digital skills gap.
Technological innovation…it’s complicated.
On the one hand, technology can accelerate progress on all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Technology can help level the playing field for even the smallest businesses in the least-developed countries, helping them reach new markets and access finance. It can make job training faster and more effective, providing workers with new skills needed for the jobs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It can allow more people to access education, pandemic or not. Blockchain can create greater transparency, security and efficiency in supply chains. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics can help us better prepare for and respond to pandemics – and better screen for, diagnose and treat disease.
But, if we’re not careful, technology can exacerbate inequalities, too. Responsible technology governance is needed to protect against discriminatory algorithms, unethical use of data and job displacement – especially in the midst of a global pandemic, when we’re relying on technology more than ever to work, learn, buy food and necessities, even see the doctor. And with this increased dependency on the internet, cyberattacks are up – so cybersecurity is more important than ever, especially for companies handling private data.
As a recent World Economic Forum report explained, COVID-19 has sped up digitization – and “exposed even more clearly the gaps that still exist in digital access.” While we’re building new technological capabilities, it’s equally important to build technological skills and access – or we risk widening the gaps further.
Sustainable Development Goals driving tech for good
Technology – and specifically, ensuring technology is inclusive – is covered by three SDGs:
SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth. Achieving this goal requires boosting economic productivity through diversification, technological upgrades and innovation. Tech can help achieve other targets, too, like supporting job creation, entrepreneurship and the growth of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises and expanding access to banking and financial services.
SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. Targets include upgrading the technological capabilities of industrial sectors in all countries, supporting domestic technology R&D and innovation in developing countries and increasing access to information and communications technology, specifically universal and affordable internet access in LDCs by 2020.
SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. Targets include reducing waste, making procurement more sustainable and strengthening scientific and technological capacities in developing countries to move towards more sustainable consumption and production. Tech can also play a role in helping companies adopt sustainable practices and report that information.
How much progress has been made?
We’ve seen substantial growth in investment in R&D – up to $2.2 trillion in 2017, from $1.4 trillion in 2010 and $741 billion 2000 – and we have new innovations every day to show for it.
However, we still have work to do in order to ensure everyone can access and benefit from them.
Internet access is one indicator of progress. In 2019, 97% of the global population lived “within reach of a mobile cellular signal” and 93% “of a mobile-broadband signal,” according to the UN SDG Progress Report 2020. This growth includes LDCs, where access to mobile-broadband signals has increased rapidly in recent years, from 51% in 2015 to 79% in 2019.