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Here's how governments can mobilize technology for the SDGs

Brazilian forestry student Mateus Sanquetta separates material collected in the Amazon to check how much climate-warming greenhouse gas a small plot of the rainforest can contain, at the Center of Excellence in Research on Carbon Fixation in Biomass at the Federal University of Parana in Curitiba, Brazil, December 1, 2020. Picture taken Decemer 1, 2020 REUTERS/Rodolfo Buhrer - RC2O5L9AW3LH

Using technology to measure greenhouse gases in samples collected from the Amazon is an instance of leveraging tech to create impact at scale for the world's big challenges. Image: REUTERS/Rodolfo Buhrer

Dr Celine Herweijer
Group Chief Sustainability Officer, HSBC
Antonia Gawel
Director, Sustainability and Partnerships, Google
Jessica Shannon
Global Government & Public Sector Leader, PwC
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • COVID-19 has shown the central role that governments can play in addressing society-wide challenges.
  • In 2021, leaders across the public sphere need to integrate technology solutions into the heart of wider rebuilding and recovering efforts.
  • Doing so will also help reach our Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

As the global community continues to grapple with the wide-reaching impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic the hope is that, over the course of 2021, vaccine rollout will finally enable countries to transition from crisis response to 'recover and rebuild'.

New technologies have played a crucial role in governments eliciting cooperation during the crisis, keeping societies functional in a time of rolling lockdowns, and underpinning solutions across sectors and borders.

The pandemic has further accelerated the pace of digitisation of enterprises and supply chains, connectivity, automation, intelligent solutions and the deployment of tools such as 3D printing, drones, and virtual reality.

And yet, the positives have also brought a social cost: those less digitally ready have been disadvantaged and data privacy and cybersecurity risks have become more prevalent.

As attention, policymaking and investment turns to rebuilding our economies, it is vital that the laser focus on, and cooperation around, technology and innovation continues.

In the latest collaboration between the World Economic Forum and PwC – Harnessing Technology for the Global Goals: A framework for government action – we examine how governments and public sector leadership can drive the uptake of advanced technologies to tackle the wider systemic challenges defined by the UN’s Global Goals (or 17 SDGs) and help us build forward stronger.

This proactive leadership approach will be critical to fostering long-term, sustainable growth and resilience for the 2020s.

A public sector more than capable of mobilizing

'Governments, perhaps previously and unfairly perceived as slow movers, have showed during the pandemic how quickly they can pivot to meet immediate needs, leveraging the frontiers of technology and human ingenuity in the process.

Examples include Colombia’s rapid distribution of pre-programmed laptops to remote-working students. Then there's Sierra Leone’s swift development and deployment of a mobile app to monitor deliveries, admissions, discharges and support services at quarantine facilities, in real-time.

The experiences of 2020 showed us that key characteristics that governments need to foster in the months ahead include:

Adaptability: While the global health crisis continues, technological solutions should be designed for resilience and adaptability. The problems of 2021 aren’t yet truly known, but this sense of adaptability can already be applied to challenges on the horizon such as economic recovery and climate change. At the same time, we must build resilience into economies and communities, to future-proof us from more crises.

Swiftness: Governments will need to apply the same fast-paced action to long-neglected problems such as hunger, poverty and job access, and explore how technology can be leveraged to dial up action and swiftly so. We must keep in mind that COVID-19 is not the only social and economic problem associated with health issues, loss of life and economic hardship.

Collaboration: Governments will need to continue building and maintaining the partnerships that have been central to combating COVID-19, whether these are within the public or private sectors. They need to reflect and build on lessons learned during the pandemic, which include supporting innovation and long-term thinking, strengthening supplier relationships, investing in breakthrough R&D, and simplifying procurement processes.

Continued collaboration across all sectors will be essential in leveraging technology to create impact and systemic change at scale for wider challenges, from climate change to biodiversity loss.

So, how can this happen?

In the new Forum and PwC report we outline an action‐oriented checklist to support governments and public sector leaders in enabling the use of technological advancements to deliver progress towards the Global Goals.

There are six key leadership areas vital to unlocking the potential that technology offers, and to manage potential downside risks that can arise.

1. Vision and strategy

Governments need to be proactive in the area of developing and deploying technologies at scale. Any solutions put in place, even with limited resources, can trigger systems-wide change during a time of heightened emergency and tackle multiple social, economic and health issues at once.

To do this, governments need to set an agile, adaptable vision and strategy on what they are hoping to achieve and how they will realise those outcomes with deliberate planning and coordination.

2. Governance and accountability

Delivery of a ‘tech-for-good’ vision and strategy should be supported by the clear assignment of governance and accountability to effective members of leadership teams across government. Developing flexible action plans, offering transparent collaboration groups, and facilitating sandboxing under leadership oversight should all form a part of this.

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3. Innovation, and research and development (R&D)

As many novel, technology‑driven solutions for the Global Goals will not be immediately attractive to private-sector investment, governments also have a huge role to play in fostering a supportive innovation and R&D environment.

This can include creating incentives for innovative research and commercial scaling, ushering entrepreneurs through unfamiliar and unique regulatory environments, and investing in sandbox-type enabling environments.

4. Finance for commercialisation

Off the back of successful innovation and R&D, carefully designed finance approaches can create the right conditions for successful deployment into the market. Governments can consider developing new financial approaches to commercialisation, including investing in foundational infrastructure, transforming government procurement policies, and updating financial and market policies.

5. People and skills

The development of people and their skills is an essential supporting aspect in governments’ pursuit of deploying technology for good. Failure to adapt could mean that changes across economies and societies create disruption and dislocation for people and labour markets.

Measures that support the smooth transition of the workforce from slow-growing to fast-growing sectors, while in parallel tooling the right people with the right skills, will reinforce support for change.

6. Collective action and collaboration

Last but not least, collective and collaborative action is essential in driving progress towards the Global Goals. Governments could consider a shift away from disconnected agencies tackling disparate problems in different ways, at both the national and international level.

For example, focusing on solutions such as digitisation can simultaneously bridge accessibility gaps in education access, the digital economy and the shift to telehealth.

Governments would therefore be wise to explore opportunities to establish partnerships and alliances to be able to act jointly, to exchange resources and to deliver the complexity and scale of changes required.

Fostering change

The pandemic underscored the power of a crisis to reveal our capacity for ingenuity, agility and urgency. Let’s not let these characteristics fade as the threat of the ongoing pandemic begins to retreat.

Rather, we can look to apply them over the long-term to develop technologies and solutions that strengthen global resilience and make up lost ground in tackling wider urgent challenges like climate change and nature loss.

Only that approach – that cohesive, concerted approach – can move the needle towards the Global Goals and help us truly ‘build forward stronger.’

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