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Are Disruptive Technologies a Panacea for SDGs?

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Four years ago, the United Nations created a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that represent a consensus-driven agenda for human progress. The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that was adopted by world leaders at the UN Summit in 2015, comprise 17 goals and 169 targets that explains the critical challenges facing humanity and how to respond. While several progresses have been made in some areas, experts believe that the world will likely fall short on delivering on most of these goals by 2030.

Indeed, right execution of disruptive technologies can lead to its progress, but a lot more needs to be considered when realizing these goals.

Challenges in sustainable progress

A new global study on corporate sustainability from the United Nations Global Compact and Accenture shows a lot more needs to be done. Many CEOs say business contribution to SDGs is not on track. The study polled more than 1,000 tech CEOs from global organizations and finds they are failing to deliver the tipping points required to achieve the global sustainable goals.

In terms of challenges, a majority of them say that business execution is not measuring up to the size of the challenge or previous levels of corporate ambition. Again some stated “absence of market pull” as a top barrier to sustainable business. Over half (55%) say they face a key trade-off in the pressure to operate under extreme cost-consciousness while seeking to invest in longer-term strategic objectives.

Tech, a double-edged sword

Indeed, Science, Technology and Innovation, together with Financing for Development, were identified by the UN as a mean to achieve the SDGs by 2030. But Mahmoud Mohieldin, Senior Vice President for the 2030 Development Agenda, United Nations Relations, and Partnerships, writes in his blog, “Of course, disruptive technology is no panacea for the achievement of the SDGs, and there are both benefits and risks which we will need to manage.

Disruptive technology can also be a double-edged sword, he believes. Take IoT as an example. Motion-sensing cameras may help scientists monitor the status of endangered species, while providing new tools to fight poaching activities. At the same time, widespread technological deployments, however, it may also lead to increased emissions and e-waste resulting from the proliferation of IoT devices.

Technologies such as AI, cloud and mobile can help contribute to sustainable, equitable, and inclusive societies, enabling basic digital access to enable financial education and empowerment; transform agriculture, city utilities, and other areas. But possible negative outcomes include continued uneven access to technology, the spread of disinformation, and loss of jobs cannot be ignored.

Moreover, concerns about privacy, ethics, cybersecurity, and respect for data sovereignty require us to assess the rights of individuals along with the benefits of the community.  Recent headlines on data breaches, new directives on Data Privacy such as the GDPR show how we have started to grapple with these issues.

The right execution

Experts however opine that disruptive technologies – when developed and deployed correctly – are powerful tools that can have a transformational effect on the SDGs. A new report by the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and Deloitte titled: “Digital with Purpose: Delivering a SMARTer 2030,”  identifies that technologies such as AI, big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) can help governments, businesses, and philanthropic organizations accelerate their efforts to achieve each of the 17 SDGs.

“Digital technologies can galvanize our efforts to confront the massive challenges we face globally,” says Sam Baker, a partner in purpose and sustainability strategy consulting with Deloitte and co-author of the report. “Company leaders have to work across organizations to use these powerful tools with a purposeful mission to enact meaningful, worldwide change.”

Several organizations are working towards  Global carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions continue to increase, environmental instabilities are growing more evident, and societal ills such as poverty, hunger, water scarcity, unemployment, and inequality plague populations around the world.

“It is not just technologies that can be disruptive, business models and processes can also change the competitive landscape. The need of the hour is to have a stronger collaboration between tech majors the UN and regional government to help accelerate progress towards the SDGs,” mentions Janelle Hill VP and Distinguished Analyst at Gartner.

Tech leaders can champion SDGs

Research shows that companies in the tech sector are already leading sustainability – through renewable energies and zero-waste models of production – and are shaping consumers’ minds on how technology companies approach sustainability. Tesla, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, General Electric, Apple, Intel and Cisco are stepping up their effort on sustainable development.

Cisco for example, is working on “Tech for Good” – a project on integrating technology in order to solve some of the world’s biggest problems like huger, health and education. As Cisco’s SVP-IT and CIO-International, V. C Gopalaratnam, opines, “As part of our commitment to positively impacting 50 million people in a decade, we focus on the three pillars of economic empowerment, education, and critical human needs. The investments we made during the last 12 months will impact about 10.2 million people by 2025. To ensure that we fulfill our goal, we have tied up with an entire ecosystem of NGOs.”

In a statement, companies from across the private sector, including Microsoft, GE, IKEA Foundation, emphasized their ongoing support for refugees, spanning from hiring to investment and funding for humanitarian response and livelihoods. They are also calling on governments to do more, starting with refugee inclusion in their SDG plans and measurement of their progress. At the same time, Amazon is looking at youth engagement through their sustainability development programs.

Needless to say, leading CEOs are looking beyond near-term profits in order to meaningfully drive forward the sustainability agenda and foster a culture of responsibility and transparency to demonstrate impact. They align sustainability with their core business strategy, operations and investments in innovation and technology.

The road ahead

Sustainability is one of the main drivers for disruption today because the world needs to deal with environmental and social issues such as resource scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, a growing and aging population and the demands of an increasingly affluent middle class.

At the same time, consumers want sustainability in both products and company strategies; as a result, business leaders are starting to pay more attention. While a lot more is left to be done, the Accenture Study can also serve as a silver lining which says 97% of organizations believe sustainability will be important to the future success of their business. A PwC report also found that three quarters of the companies are developing new products and services to respond to climate change – and a third say it’s helping them grow their business.

The need of the hour for business, governments and regulators is to come together to shape realistic, technology-enabled solutions to the global challenges and finally, redefine responsible leadership to help businesses to be a leading driver of the global goals.

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