Back in 2015, all 192 United Nations member states came together to commit to tackling 17 ambitious global goals – the Sustainable Development Goals – by 2030. While ambition and momentum to tackle the goals has grown, there is so much still to do. The real challenge lies where progress is not so easily achievable, including complex systemic global issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss, and frankly we are running out of time.

We are soon entering a "decade of action", from 2020 to 2030, where ambitions and plans must turn into reality. Traditional policy and market responses simply won’t get us there fast enough, particularly at a time when society is increasingly fractured. Just take a look at the climate: it’s been four years since the global Paris Agreement, but national pledges still take us to a dangerous world of 3ºC global warming by the end of this century. Getting to the “net zero emissions” economy that governments around the world have signed up to will require radical transformation of every sector of the economy. Heavy industry, our energy grids, transport, food and agriculture, buildings and cities, and production and consumption will need to undergo rapid decarbonization.

Transformative change and disruptive innovation across all sectors of our economy is needed. But this is also what we humans do well and have done many times before.

Harnessing the digital age

We are, after all, in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), a global era characterized by rapid advancements in new technologies and global connectivity. Artificial Intelligence (AI) now forms part of our everyday lives – optimizing and customizing what we see, choose and learn. Ubiquitous sensors are collecting more data than ever before, with connected devices simplifying our lives.

Autonomous vehicles, drone delivery and, soon, drone transport are set to transform global mobility. Even immersive reality guided surgeries, 3D printing of body parts and affordable biohacking are here or on their way. With ready access to powerful computing and breakthroughs in AI techniques, computers can now mimic how people learn, see, hear and understand, making today’s digital age also an age of unprecedented discovery and innovation.

New technologies are rapidly transforming all aspects of our society, sectors and markets. We are being taught to plan for the unexpected, as disruption becomes the new norm. The life expectancy of a Fortune 500 firm has fallen from 75 years in the early 20th century to only 15 today.

An estimated 70% of new value created in the economy over the next decade will be based on digitally enabled platforms – and leading innovators are re-imagining how we innovate, create, distribute and capture value in the new systems that are emerging. Taking AI alone, estimates at PwC are that AI could increase global GDP by US$15.7 trillion by 2030.

Technology is not a silver bullet, but it holds the incredible potential to transform sectors rapidly and globally: to increase the productivity of systems while lowering emissions and waste; to enable us to monitor and manage the Earth’s surface and resources at a speed and scale we couldn’t have dreamed of before; to collect and harness vast amounts of data; and make breakthrough advances in areas like healthcare, agriculture, energy, education and mobility.

We’re already seeing how AI-augmented computing can help doctors reduce medical mistakes, farmers improve yields and minimize inputs, teachers customize and spread education, and researchers unlock solutions for climate and weather modelling, or advanced material generation for clean fuels.

For all the potential technology offers, it could also put greater stress on our society. Each day, more questions arise with media headlines on the risks of privacy, crime and security, the growing market power of the tech giants, risks to democracy and human rights from misuse of technology, and the potential impact of automation on jobs and inequality. One thing is certain: governments and businesses need to work together to make sure that technology is actively managed to align with societal needs, and address its most urgent goals - our SDGs.

Transforming Markets

During the last 50 years there has been unprecedented progress in human indicators – life expectancy has increased to record levels; infant- and maternal mortality has fallen; more girls are staying in school; more people have been lifted out of poverty than ever before; and inequality between nations has narrowed. The market system has served us well.

But deep fractures are beginning to show: gaping inequality within almost all countries; record environmental degradation and species loss; and the broader impacts of irreversible climate change. Our markets are unsustainable – and we need a new economic model.

To tackle these challenges,Transforming Markets is one of four focus areas at the World Economic Forum's 2019 Sustainable Development Impact summit. A range of sessions will bring stakeholders together to take action that places human and environmental health at the core of market systems and value chains. These include building sustainable markets, responsible supply chains, moving beyond disposability, circularity and scaling solutions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, among others.

Across healthcare, for instance, there has been $145 billion in investment in healthcare startups since 2010. However, many areas need focus and rapid attention if we are to come close to achieving SDG3 on health and wellbeing. Across agritech, while new technologies show great promise for improving our food systems and tackling hunger, there has only been $14 billion investment in technology startups over the same timeframe.

The potential economic and societal impact at stake is substantial. As a recent study by Microsoft and PwC UK demonstrates, using existing AI applications across agriculture, energy, transport and water could conservatively boost global GDP by 4% by 2030, while at the same time reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by 4% – equivalent to the projected 2030 annual emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan combined.

Here's how technology can advance the SDGs:

Zero hunger – SDG2

Around 45% of deaths of children under 5 are linked to undernutrition, and the challenge of zero hunger is only set to grow. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization forecasts that agricultural production needs to at least double by 2050 to prevent mass food shortages.

AI, sensors, robotics and synthetic biology in particular are demonstrating great promise for improving crop productivity and resilience, and optimizing food distribution. For example, NRgene is using machine learning and genetic sequencing to identify and sequence optimal gene profiles based on crop performance, while Phytech is optimizing crop production with its “Plant Internet of Things”, which sends insights and warnings to farmers’ smartphones.

Lab-grown meat, insect protein and microbiomes are also finding a firm position in the food market to help address protein needs. The US-based firm Beyond Meat, for example, which makes vegan meat out of pea protein isolate, floated in 2019 and has been valued at around $3.8bn.

Bond's top 10 sustainability technologies.
Bond's top 10 sustainability technologies.
Image: Bond.org.uk

Good health and wellbeing – SDG 3

Advances in technology, including AI, blockchain, sensors and biotechnology, can advance human medicine along with healthcare information, services and access. Some 18,000 healthcare startups have attracted $145 billion in investment since 2010, in addition to becoming a major focus sector for the largest tech companies, including players such as Alphabet, IBM, Amazon, Apple and Alibaba.

Huge strides have been made in AI systems for earlier and higher-performance diagnostics for disease detection, from cancers to brain injuries or heart disease, and AI-enabled wearable devices can already detect people with early signs of diseases such as diabetes. Longenesis, for example, uses AI and a blockchain-based platform to overcome challenges in health data storage across Africa. Patients can track their health on an app that also offers them the opportunity to monetize that data using cryptocurrency.

Affordable and clean energy – SDG 7

There are nearly 800 million people without access to reliable and affordable electricity. Rapid advancements in AI, blockchain, advanced materials for solar panels and battery technology (specifically lithium-ion batteries) means that renewable energy mini-grids now have the potential to be the cheapest solution to connect 290 million people to power.

Emerging technologies have huge potential to accelerate electrification, particularly in areas with fewer centralized network power grids, including Africa. Powergen, for example, has installed solar-powered mini-grid projects with battery storage across Kenya and Zambia, providing electricity to rural areas at rates equivalent to that spent currently on kerosene.

More broadly, AI, blockchain and IoT technologies have the potential to enable a much greater proportion of renewables on centralized power grids as well as optimizing decentralized energy systems worldwide. AI and IoT combined can offer smart monitoring and active management of an energy system, for example, optimizing energy use by automating price responsiveness to market signals; or coordinating operations of a cluster of decentralized energy networks to improve operational efficiency and reduce waste.

These solutions will improve efficiency, bring cleaner energy options to global markets, and reduce costs. Blockchain solutions can also be layered into decentralized solutions to provide a platform for peer-to-peer energy trading, such as LO3 and its microgrid solutions.

A way forward

With only a decade left to tackle the SDGs, business as usual is not an option. We may be in the early days of the digital age, but we stand at a critical juncture to make decisions and put in place a policy and governance architecture with profound and lasting impacts on society. Collaboration and coordination internationally and across multi-stakeholder groups will be critical.

The positive scenario of a technology-enabled sustainable future for all won’t emerge unguided. There will be trade-offs and challenges, as well as opportunities. A number of elements need to come together across jurisdictions for these technologies to become widespread - from strong ethical frameworks to the evolution of legislation, the importance of education and training for new skill, and even labour market reforms.

Tech companies, governments, industry, civil society and researchers alike must be involved in unlocking the potential of these technologies for the SDGs. We need to move beyond celebrating a smattering of use cases, to investing money, time and expertise into this agenda, and to find new ways of working and innovating to unlock and scale.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.