The UN's Sustainable Development Goals - IT challenges and opportunities

Profile picture for user cmiddleton By Chris Middleton September 19, 2017

Following Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff's call to re-evaluate the UN's sustainability goals in light of new tech,  the second of two reports looking at the role of IT and innovation.


What needs to be done to create innovation hubs worldwide and transfer skills from Silicon Valley? And, how can governments partner with innovators to meet global challenges?

Those were the questions in New York this week as Miroslav Lajčák, President of the United Nations General Assembly, offered a “special welcome” to innovators at the opening of a forum on how new technologies will impact on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and help organizations to achieve them.

We are all here today because we share a common interest: the people of the world and their future. Without much exaggeration, I can say that you hold our future in your hands. Everything that we do at the UN is about people and is rooted in our common humanity.

That human element has often been missing from discussions about the rise of technologies such as robotics, AI, and automation. These have tended to focus on the cost and efficiency benefits of replacing workers, with Moore’s Law describing a productivity growth curve that no human can match. That focus needs to change, and broaden out to consider every type of societal impact, both good and bad.

The stakes are high, said Lajčák. Poverty, climate change, and mass migrations of people are already among the challenges facing the SDGs, but they also provide unparalleled opportunities for leadership, innovation, and disruption. Technology is about action, he said:

The world is changing and we need to adapt. The world today is much different to when the United Nations was founded. We now operate in the face of rapid technology advances in a hyper-connected world, but one thing is clear: we cannot solve today’s problems with yesterday’s thinking.

We need to work together, for people and for a sustainable planet. The solutions must involve everyone: governments, the private sector, youth, civil society, and innovators like you. We now have a clear framework to guide our collective work. The SDGs provide us with a people-driven plan, with timelines.

They could also provide us with a legislative platform, but only if governments and technology companies are willing to be flexible and imaginative. At the recent The Crowd forum on the Rise of the Machines, it was suggested that the UN’s SDGs could form the basis of a legal framework for regulating robotics and AI.

This would force innovators to release products that meet the SDGs’ aims, rather than worsen sustainability problems worldwide. More, it would overcome local cultural obstacles, such as the risk of robotics or AI automating biases against minority groups within some countries or legal systems.

Yet Lajčák suggested that the solution lies in broadening access to the technologies themselves, rather than forcing vendors to toe the line – a perspective that risks handing all power to their developers. But Lajčák is right to say that everyone should benefit from innovation; the alternative would be escalating inequality:

We need fair access to technology and innovations. While breakthroughs are happening across the world, they are often unequally distributed. We must ensure that technological advances are accessible to all, and focus on building a better future for all people and the planet. Particularly, we need to ensure access to technology and training for the young generation.

Wise words. But how can legislators join with innovators to address these challenges, when governments are often at odds with providers’ aims, and vice versa? Witness the increasingly adversarial stance of the EU towards some US suppliers, and the regional arguments over data protection, transfer, and sovereignty. Or the UK’s repeated challenges to end-to-end encryption, a technology that underpins trust in the digital economy. Lajčák urged global partnership:

We want to partner with [innovators] to address our most intractable problems. But you also have questions, such as how can you achieve the greatest impact without the lengthy bureaucratic procedures that the UN is famous for? And how can we work better with all stakeholders when our working methods seem worlds apart? Yes, we are aware of these questions, and it’s our challenge to provide credible answers to you. And let me assure you we are working on that!

To counter any perception that partnership may simply mean caving in to companies’ demands – an inbuilt challenge to sustainability goals – Lajčák offered three takeaways to guide the discussion, which he described as “platform, global spread of information booth [sic], and engaging all people”:

First, we need to facilitate greater dialogue and partnerships between governments and technology innovators. We can do this by providing forums to share cutting-edge ideas, shape policy, and inspire action.

Second, we need global innovation hubs all around the world, and to transfer skills from current epicentres to the rest of the world – and vice versa.

And third, let me stress that we must engage all minds in every part of the world. Innovation and technology enables collaboration across boundaries and time. Let us unleash innovations to unlock the potential of every person everywhere, especially young people.

Great ideas that few would argue with. However, as noted last week, governments also need to invest in education, training, and skills in order to prevent new technologies from widening the economic divide.

My take

The relationship between politics and technology has always been fascinating. Take the space race, which has not only helped mankind to watch the stars, but also to look back at Earth and tackle its problems from space – by monitoring climate change or the destruction of natural habitats, for example. But the space race is not always as collaborative as it seems.

At last year’s Space Innovation Forum in London, I asked a panel of NASA astronauts about China’s achievements in space exploration. Not only did the three eminent gentlemen refuse to comment, they explained that they were not allowed to talk about a country of over a billion people. These are some of the walls that need to come down.

Of course, the terrestrial tech community has already taken great strides to unleash global cooperation: take Facebook, the world’s collaboration platform, which has brought together nearly a quarter of the planet’s population – ironically via millions of walls.

Or take Google, which – to Western eyes, at least – might appear to be the world’s search engine, the pinhole through which we view a planet of data. Most of us ignore even page 2 of a search, but it’s a start.

But Facebook and Google are arguably as much the problem as they are part of the solution. Despite excellent global initiatives such as, which deploys Alphabet’s global resources to track storms or the emergence of new viruses, these massive corporations tend to present a US- or Western perspective on the world. These are world views, certainly, but filtered through American IP, via campuses in California that are full of evangelists, flat whites, and primary colours.

Facebook’s response to terrorist incidents or natural disasters have sometimes revealed the depth of the problem. When explosives have detonated in Paris or other Western cities, Facebook has been quick to share tools that allow users to express their safety, sympathy, or solidarity with the victims. But similar tools have often been conspicuous by their absence when similar incidents have occurred elsewhere, such as the Middle East or North Africa.

This raises serious questions about any platform that claims to be global. Global platforms demand a global perspective, as otherwise they not only leave our geopolitical barriers standing, they reinforce our differences – to keep Western advertisers happy, perhaps.

Lajčák’s proposals are only part of the solution, therefore. Western technology companies need to adopt a truly global perspective, and not just a global sales and distribution model. And Lajčák should be bolder: this is the UN, after all, an organisation that has the power to direct on the world’s behalf, as well as to listen and to ask, “What should we do now?”

So his opening remarks could have been stronger. While telling a room full of powerful corporations that the future is in their hands, he should also have said, “But your future is in our hands, too, on behalf of the planet.”