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SDIS21: Tech for Good - What are the challenges in making technology more sustainable?

Dimas Anwar Saputra, a 15-year-old junior high school student, wearing a red protective mask, studies with other students using free internet wifi access that they got by exchanging plastic waste, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at a local district office in Jakarta, Indonesia September 9, 2020. Picture taken September 9, 2020. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan - RC2WYI9OYO8J

Technology can help us respond to global crises – but if we're not careful, it can exacerbate inequalities, too. Image: REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

Samantha Sault
Writer, Washington DC and Geneva
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Technological Transformation

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit
  • Technology can help us respond to major global crises like COVID-19 and climate change.
  • While investment in R&D continues to grow, we must address challenges including universal internet access, cybersecurity and e-waste.
  • Ensuring equitable access to innovation is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • The Forum hosts its annual Sustainable Development Impact Summit on 20-23 September.

What would we have done over the past year-and-a-half without technology?

Honestly, not much.

Technology has been critical to the pandemic response – from allowing us to work, learn, shop, socialize and even see a doctor from home, to helping the world safely reopen with tools like vaccine passports, rapid testing and contact-tracing apps.

Meanwhile, medium- and high-tech manufacturing has driven the economic recovery, with tech industries growing 4% in the third and fourth quarters of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. “The growth was fuelled by the rise in demand for computer electronics due to a global shift toward working from home, remote-learning and e-commerce,” says the UN's Sustainable Development Report 2021.

Growth rate of global manufacturing production compared with the same quarter the previous year by technological intensity
Tech manufacturing fuelled economic recovery in the second half of 2020. Image: UN

But if we’re not careful, technology can exacerbate inequalities, too. While COVID-19 accelerated digitization, it also “exposed even more clearly the gaps that still exist in digital access,” according to a report from the Forum and BCG. Responsible technology governance is needed to protect against discriminatory algorithms, unethical use of data and job displacement. And with this increased dependency on the internet, cyberattacks are upand we all need to work together to fight back.

Distribution of the key COVID-19 inflicted cyberthreats based on member countries' feedback
COVID-19 caused a spike in all kinds of cybercrime. Image: INTERPOL

As we focus attention on the next major crisis – climate – we need to keep these opportunities and challenges in mind. On the one hand, things like AI, agricultural and farm apps and energy innovations can help us address climate change. But at the same time, we need to ensure we also address the proliferation of e-waste – a major environmental problem – as well as the need for secure, inclusive access to all of these innovations, now and in the future.

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 also support job creation, entrepreneurship and the growth of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises as well as expand access to banking and financial services.

SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. Targets include upgrading 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.

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.

Have you read?

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 in 2000 – and we have new innovations every day to show for it.

However, we have work to do to ensure everyone can access and benefit from them.

In 2020, “almost the entire world population lived within range of mobile networks,” with 85% covered by 4G, according to the UN's latest SDG progress report.

But unfortunately, we failed to meet the target of universal and affordable internet access in LDCs by 2020, with only one in five people online in LDCs in 2020.

This affects our ability to meet other goals, too, especially as COVID-19 has required us to move many economic, educational and social activities online. Those with quality and secure internet access have been able to continue daily life, and even thrive – while those without it risk falling further behind.

As the world emerges from the pandemic and turns its focus to the climate crisis, we have another tech-related challenge: e-waste. “In 2019, the world generated 53.6 million metric tons of electronic and electrical equipment waste, an increase of more than 20% since 2014,” says the progress report. It’s expected to grow by 0.16 kilograms per capita annually, reaching 9 kilograms per capita in 2030 (74.4 million metric tons total). Meanwhile, e-waste recycling is not growing fast enough.

What is e-waste?
What is e-waste? Image: World Economic Forum/Global E-Waste Monitor

What does this have to do with our ability to respond to climate change? “Improper disposal of e-waste causes poisonous chemicals to be released into the soil and water, putting environmental and human health at risk,” explains the progress report. “It results in a significant loss of scare and valuable raw materials, such as gold, platinum, cobalt and rare earth elements. As much as 7% of the world’s gold may currently be contained in e-waste.”

What are the World Economic Forum and its partners doing to drive tech for good?

The Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a Forum initiative to forge partnerships between governments, companies, civil society and experts from around the world to co-design and pilot innovative new approaches to policy and governance over emerging technologies. There are six areas of focus:

The Centre for Cybersecurity is leading the global effort to address systemic cybersecurity challenges and improve digital trust. An independent and impartial global platform, it’s committed to fostering international dialogues and collaboration between the public and private sectors around three key priorities: building cyber resilience, strengthening global cooperation and understanding future networks and technology.

The Platform on Digital Economy and New Value Creation helps companies leverage technology to be agile in the face of disruption and to create the new digitally enabled business models post-COVID. Key to this is ensuring long-term, inclusive access to 5G.

Part of the Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Global Public Goods, the Circular Electronics Partnership brings together leaders across industry, government, international organizations and civil society to develop a roadmap for circular electronics and address e-waste. Circular Electronics in China is a project formed to reach the Chinese government’s targets of recycling 50% of e-waste by 2025 and including 20% of recycled content in new products.

What can I do to make tech good?

  • Ensure my personal data and my company’s data and networks are secure by adhering to cybersecurity best practices and staying up to date on the latest strategies.
  • Properly recycle or dispose of e-waste.
  • When developing new technological innovations, consult with a variety of stakeholders who may be impacted by it to ensure implementation and use are ethical and inclusive.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalFourth Industrial RevolutionEmerging TechnologiesCircular EconomyCybersecurity
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