High-level roundtable on impact of rapid technological change on the achievement of the sustainable development goals

15 May 2018 02:00h

Event report

The high-level Roundtable of the 21st Session of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) addressed two main topics:

  1. The role of science, technology and innovation in increasing the share of renewable energy by 2030.

  2. Building digital competencies to benefit from existing and emerging technologies, with special focus on gender and youth dimensions.

The session was opened by Ms Isabelle Durant (Deputy Secretary-General, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)) and moderated by Mr Andrew Revkin (Strategic Advisor for Environmental and Science Journalism, National Geographic Society). In her opening remarks, Durant spoke about the benefits of technological change and the increasing speed at which technological innovation is spreading. She further identified policies lagging behind technological development as a key issue, especially for developing countries that run the risk of being left out of the 4th industrial revolution. Additionally, she mentioned the increasing concentration of market power with a few companies and spoke about the challenges that the UN and the CSTD will face in finding solutions to these problems, supporting developing countries in embracing technological change while preventing the setbacks related to it.

The opening remarks were followed by a video featuring the voices of the youth regarding new technologies, introduced by Mr Donovan Guttieres (United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth). Guttieres said that technological advancements will only have a positive impact if the benefits are shared equally. There is no single answer to the challenges faced by humanity. He further noted that there is more and more privatisation of knowledge while the risks associated with technological change are a collective burden. Given the task at hand, he urged states to take on an intergenerational approach to face the challenges and opportunities of technological change.

Mr Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford) explained that we are living in the data-age. While data and information technology (IT) might be viewed as a toolbox by some, the data age is actually about a new perspective on reality. According to Mayer-Schönberger, it offers a new look at the world and new insights on how the world functions, and it is a chance to make more informed and thus better decisions. Additionally, technology can help reinforce the market as a social mechanism for coordination.

Mr Danielle R. Wood (Assistant Professor, Space Enabled Research Group, MIT Media Lab) stated that space technology already supports the achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Through satellite earth observation, satellite positioning and navigation, satellite communication, human space flight, space technology transfer and the inspiration provided through its research, these technologies are being actively used in the private sector as well as by civil society.

Mr Musa Mhlanga (Principal Researcher and Technical Manager of the Biomedical translational Research Initiative, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa) argued that big data and technology have profound implications for the achievement of the human-centric SDGs. Genome technology and bio technology have implications on almost all the SDGs. He argued that biotechnology is now what the Silicon Valley was in the 1970s. Researchers are working on creating the first purely synthetic organism, while genome editing has profound implications. Today, it is possible to make changes on the genus of every species on earth. Furthermore, there is a huge amount of information that we have access to which will play the greatest role in how we mobilise these technologies. It will involve doing a deep research into what it means to be human and it will challenge the conventional concept of intelligence.

Mhlanga then moved to the implication of such developments for Africa. He predicted that the first expected effects will be in agriculture. Moreover, when it comes to genome editing, he noted that it is today possible to manage epidemics: for instance, it is possible to permanently remove the genes of infected mosquitoes, but it raises ethical questions: are we killing an entire species? Who makes these decisions? It represents a non-linear impact. Coming back on the above-mentioned parallelism, biotechnology is evolving faster than the Silicon Valley in the 1970s, from big data to ethical issues, to the extent of intervention in modifying species. It is part of the 4th industrial revolution.

Mr Ikka Turunen (Special Government Advisor at the Cabinet of the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland) stated that policymakers need to have a multistakeholder approach and involve all experts in order to tackle the issues in the most effective and comprehensive way. It is important to have structures for anticipation and funding structures for strategic research purposes. However, this requires international co-operation. He then moved to the question, ‘what kind of skills and competences do citizens need in the future?’ There is a broad consensus on the foundational cognitive and social emotional skills. Shaping the world needs robust skills. The crucial aspect is how to organise the education system. Personalised and customised educational paths are possible within the framework of supporting continuous education learning. Finally, on the issue of democracy, he stressed the importance of research and critical thinking.

Mr Rana Tanveer Hussain (Minister of Science and Technology, Pakistan) argued that the economic development of Pakistan is currently knowledge based. The 4th industrial revolution has created opportunities and challenges. The integration of SDGs in the national development plans has become a framework for development. The minister further recalled the specificities on access to clean water, clean green energy and environmental friendly production.

Amb Miguel Ruiz Cabañas (Undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mexico) argued that new technology can improve our lives if properly developed. The 4th Industrial Revolution has affected the labour field and it must be recognised that at the national and international levels, there are no regulation patterns that address this issue. Mexico aims to create awareness about the disruptive role of technology and its ethical implications: public policy must be cantered on best practices. Finally, he stressed the need of sharing information and knowledge, and proposed four main points to achieve sustainable development:

  1. Design methods to favour a better dissemination of knowledge to avoid data manipulation.

  2. Promote technological innovation on all continents.

  3. Support education and the development of skills.

  4. Include the civil society and the private sector as crucial stakeholders.

Mr Ngaka Ngaka (Minister of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology, Botswana) recalled the government’s efforts to transform the economy by moving from commodity. Research and development in Botswana continue to grow. The country also prioritises technological developments in the field of water management, energy management, and security, among others.

Mr Dumisani C. Ndlangamandla (Minister of Information, Communication and Technology, Swaziland) stressed the role of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) in complementing the achievement of SDGs and underlined the country’s efforts and achievements in technology.

Ms Nkandu Luo (Minister of Higher Education, Zambia) talked about the challenges that the country is facing in order to design the best practices to achieve the SDGs. The country needs to restructure the educational system and its implementation, and it needs a new system to tackle the waste generated. Zambia is pushing for partnerships locally and across the African region and the North. Luo also stressed the negative aspects of some technologies in the 4th industrial revolution.

Ms Mmamoloko T. Kubayi-Ngubane (Minister of Science and Technology, South Africa) highlighted that, in order to achieve the SDGs, it is crucial to eliminate trade and economic barriers. She called upon the World Trade Organization (WTO) to take an active role on this issue.

The representative of Switzerland recalled the national strategy ‘Digital Switzerland’. Moreover, he recognised that while developing countries are making significant progress in the field of digitalisation, a large part of the global population lacks access to Internet and is left behind when it comes to the benefits of digitalisation. Governments need to develop stability in the regulation and make technology neutral (technological neutrality). Finally, he called upon governments to structure policies for their citizens to benefit from digitalisation. He furthermore stressed the role of a multistakeholder approach and the role of policy and education in strengthening the security of data.

Ms Jenny Carrasco Arredondo (Vice Minister of Science and Technology, Bolivia) stressed the importance of implementing a knowledge-based approach for health purposes and food management. While stating that the access to technology is still an issue, she highlighted that the country has undertaken enhancing renewable energy sources such as geothermal, solar, and wind energy.

The representative of Poland argued that the technological revolution affects every individual. He recalled the new regulatory strategy in its main pillars of developing critical infrastructures, promoting competition through optima regulation, working paperless, being eco-friendly, and providing knowledge to society and businesses.

Ms Marisa do Rosário Bragança Sambo (Minister of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation, Angola) recalled the efforts made by the government to promote economic diversification. In order to tackle the technological asymmetry in the country, they have established a national system for training and methodology for STI; creating laboratories in secondary schools; and training academic consultants to promote gender balance. Policies and strategies on STI should be structured in order to engage young people and women, and to promote sustainable development and societies.

Ms Patricia Appiagyei (Deputy Minister for Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, Ghana) argued that the country is ready to challenge the status quo through technology and STI. The efforts are being enhanced by the review of the national science and innovation policy; by the establishment of the Presidential Advice Council to provide scientific-based advice for policy-making decisions; and the establishment of the Ghana Innovation Centre, a strategic initiative for promoting technology transfer. Ghana is opening the doors to youth to create pathways for sustainable development.

Mr Sarath Amunugama (Minister of Science, Technology and Research, Sri Lanka) expressed the efforts and will of Sri Lanka to enable an environment to promote technological entrepreneurship. It is important that countries develop strategies that tackle the disruptive effects of technology. These technologies can be directly linked to the achievement of the SDGs. He also shared his concerns over the negative implications of technology in the market. Finally, a further concern was raised with regards to the digital divides within and between societies. Effective STI strategies may help societies in facing technological challenges.

The final comments were addressed by the representative of China, who called upon national governments to build national capacities and enable citizens, by supportive scientific and technological development. He was followed by a brief comment from the representative of the USA who stressed the positive and life changing features of technology and recalled US investments in policy research in support of innovation. Their aim is to allow the private sector to have the space to innovate, while also empowering people. He added that the USA supports multistakeholder engagement and promotes the fostering of public trust and the development of technologies. The final comment was addressed by the representative of Nepal who shared concerns and opportunities of STI in line with the previous statements.