• The accelerated rate of digital transformation has opened new opportunities for creating greater value, helping build sustainable economies for better lives and the environment.
  • Intelligent automation can carve a new pathway toward achieving both sustainable economies and energy transition, be it in healthcare, manufacturing or even logistics.
  • Maximising the implementation of automation technologies in such industries can be key to achieving sustainable economies sooner than one can imagine.

While sustainability is in question amidst the raging COVID-19 pandemic, we have had a few rays of hope – communities’ resilience, the helping hands of governments, and worldwide collaborations to develop and distribute vaccines. We are also on the verge of a technology renaissance.

The accelerated rate of digital transformation has opened industries and societies to new opportunities for creating greater value. Now it’s time to use these opportunities to build sustainable economies for improved governance, better lives for citizens, and reduced pressure on the natural environment.

Toward sustainable goals

Today, several countries still lack basic hygiene, are deeply affected by political conflict, suffer from pollution, and experience exploitation and abuses. The pandemic has further exacerbated these issues, posing a significant challenge for nations to build fairer economies. In a recent report, the UN revealed that the global economic downturn has again increased the extreme poverty rate from 8.4% in 2019 to 9.5% in 2020, after having considerably decreased since 2015.

In such a scenario, achieving the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) 2030 agenda would be nigh-on impossible. But there is still hope – if the leadership takes significant steps and cooperates with each other. For example, the countries in the EU have been working toward common sustainable economy goals to achieve their climate and financial ambitions since 2018. Recently, they adopted and applied several initiatives and regulations to support sustainable economic activities and ensure they become a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.

Image: Factsheet: EU Sustainable Finance Strategy

Among their many new actions, notable ones include supporting endeavours that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, exploring digital technologies for sustainable finance, and incorporating sustainability risks in banks’ risk management systems. Clearly, leaderships with the EU are bringing citizens, businesses and climate factors together to build sustainable economies.

Achieving sustainable goals require leaders to determine ways to respond to the critical challenges. For instance, how to ensure GDP growth puts lesser strain on ecosystems, adopt fair trade practices, and enable equitable profit and resource distribution, among others. Leaders will also have to re-design welfare systems that will help provide universal basic income and social protection to the entire workforce, including the temporary and migrant workers. International Geneva (UNRISD) proposed transformative actions that involve technology to address such challenges.

The catalysing power of technology

The COVID-19 pandemic compelled businesses to reimagine processes and operations that could reduce dependence on labour and reach customers without physical contact. Digital transformation initiatives across industries are helping companies operate like never before. For instance, telehealth is helping healthcare workers engage with patients at scale, cloud and predictive analytics are allowing energy and utilities businesses to develop a digital customer model, and machine learning is enabling automotive companies to introduce usage-based insurance.

Image: Industry Digital Initiatives, WEF

Technology is also acting as a multiplier through the creation of a platform economy. As a collaborative sharing platform, it is enabling different groups of people to work together toward common goals – be that to ensure food gets to its destination or money is transferred without visiting a bank. Platforms have the capabilities to contribute to the SDGs by ensuring economic transparency, data integrity and labour rights.

The ultimate focus for technology should be to facilitate quality of life for everybody, enable resilient operations and ensure minimum pollution. Forward-focused economies are already leveraging smart technologies such as AI, ML, IoT, and NLP. Human-machine cognition has become a norm and has created an intelligent ecosystem that has enabled humans to nurture their creative faculties and be more productive, while bots perform the rule-based repetitive tasks.

To drive our efforts towards building a sustainable economy, increased productivity and a futuristic workforce based on intelligent automation can augment economic growth while counterbalancing the effect of the waning working-age population across some nations. In agriculture, for example, technology is helping farmers automate decision-making by analysing the variability of the soil, weather and labour, among others. This will contribute to the SDG of providing food to a larger number of people.

The combined power of supporting technologies – such as IoT, ML, blockchain, digital twins, and AI – has further advanced the scope of intelligent automation. These might not have been in place five or 10 years ago. For example, along with automating power distribution along the grid, creating a virtual replica of the grid could enhance plant maintenance and operations, and allow operators to further reduce the cost of electricity. This could help a country better utilise its energy resources, contributing to the SDG of providing affordable and clean energy. Several such innovations are being introduced to promote a circular economy, where sustainability is the goal.

Image: WEF Future of Jobs Report, 2020

Future perspective

Intelligent automation can carve a new pathway toward achieving both sustainable economies and energy transition, be it in healthcare, manufacturing, or even logistics. Maximising the implementation of automation technologies in these industries can be key to achieving sustainable economies sooner than one can imagine. And with the transformative technologies, governments will also need to reskill citizens to be job ready for the future. The job landscape is poised to change with the automation of routine work.

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.

Technology is also poised to change governance in the future. With the focus on data, values and ethics, leaders will be making decisions for their regions taking into account all the citizens and environmental factors. In the long term, it is through these decisions that leaders will be able to achieve their SDGs and run a resilient and sustainable economy.