What are the challenges in making tech more sustainable?

  • Technology can accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals – or exacerbate inequalities.
  • Responsible technology governance can help ensure innovation is inclusive.
  • More work needs to be done to provide universal and affordable access to the internet and close the digital skills gap.

Technological innovation…it’s complicated.

On the one hand, technology can accelerate progress on all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Technology can help level the playing field for even the smallest businesses in the least-developed countries, helping them reach new markets and access finance. It can make job training faster and more effective, providing workers with new skills needed for the jobs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It can allow more people to access education, pandemic or not. Blockchain can create greater transparency, security and efficiency in supply chains. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics can help us better prepare for and respond to pandemics – and better screen for, diagnose and treat disease.

But, if we’re not careful, technology can exacerbate inequalities, too. Responsible technology governance is needed to protect against discriminatory algorithms, unethical use of data and job displacement – especially in the midst of a global pandemic, when we’re relying on technology more than ever to work, learn, buy food and necessities, even see the doctor. And with this increased dependency on the internet, cyberattacks are up – so cybersecurity is more important than ever, especially for companies handling private data.

As a recent World Economic Forum report explained, COVID-19 has sped up digitization – and “exposed even more clearly the gaps that still exist in digital access.” While we’re building new technological capabilities, it’s equally important to build technological skills and access – or we risk widening the gaps further.

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 help achieve other targets, too, like supporting job creation, entrepreneurship and the growth of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises and expanding access to banking and financial services.

SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. Targets include upgrading the 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, specifically universal and affordable internet access in LDCs by 2020.

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.

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

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

Internet access is one indicator of progress. In 2019, 97% of the global population lived “within reach of a mobile cellular signal” and 93% “of a mobile-broadband signal,” according to the UN SDG Progress Report 2020. This growth includes LDCs, where access to mobile-broadband signals has increased rapidly in recent years, from 51% in 2015 to 79% in 2019.

Proportion of population covered by a mobile-broadband signal and using the internet in 2019

Proportion of population covered by a mobile-broadband signal and using the internet in 2019

Image: UN

Still, there’s work to do to reach the goal of universal and affordable internet access in LDCs: 19% of people in LDCs actually use the internet, compared to 87% of people in developed countries, the progress report continues. This affects our ability to meet other goals, too, as COVID-19 has required us to move many economic, educational and social activities online. Those with quality and secure internet access are able to continue daily life, and even thrive – while those without it risk falling further behind.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is another area where skills and access matter. To ensure everyone can access and benefit from AI, and avoid “disruptive impacts” on jobs, the UN says we need “further investment in AI research, expanding available data sets, especially where their use would drive wider benefits for society, and encouraging greater AI literacy among business leaders and policy makers.”

Another thing we need to think about: e-waste. It has grown from 5.3kg per capita to 7.3kg per capita between 2010-2019, but recycling hasn’t kept up, according to the progress report. Even in wealthy nations, e-waste collection rates are below 50%; lower-income countries don’t yet have the infrastructure to manage it. This is yet another example of how the tech revolution can exacerbate inequalities: “The waste is mostly handled by the informal sector through open burning or acid baths, both of which pollute the environment and result in the loss of valuable and scarce resources. Moreover, workers and their children, who live, work and play on those sites, often suffer severe health effects,” explains the progress report.

Electronic trash burn at a garbage dump near a rice field in Vinh Phuc province, Vietnam, July 1, 2020. Picture taken July 1, 2020. REUTERS/Kham - RC2PKH959AQJ

E-waste burning at a garbage dump near a rice field in Vietnam


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 Cybersecurity Learning Hub is a joint initiative to address the global deficit in cybersecurity workforce, providing free cybersecurity skills training and career information. The Forum is also participating in projects to develop cybersecurity strategy for the global financial system and to develop recommendations for companies to better fight cybercrime.

The EDISON Initiative (Essential Digital Infrastructure and Services Network) is the Forum’s cross-industry network working to accelerate adoption of digital technology and close the digital divide.

The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.

The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.

The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.

Want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.

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.