I had the privilege of working the annual International Corporate Citizenship Conference put on by the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship at the beginning of April. Due to this class, I was interested to learn how these corporate citizenship professionals viewed the role of technology in achieving their goals of being better corporate citizens. One of the talks from UPS discussed the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also called the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. There are a number of ways technology is being used to work towards achieving these goals.
Science, Technology, and Innovation Forum
The UN has a multi-stakeholder forum on Science, Technology, and Innovation for the SDGs. The co-chairs of this forum are Macharia Kamau, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Kenya to the UN, and Vaughan Turekian, Science and Technology Advisor to the US Secretary of State. At the UN Economic and Social Council on May 15 and 16, they said, “The integrated nature of the SDGs requires multi-disciplinary and holistic science, technology, and innovation approaches that break silos and take into account different sources of knowledge.”
When utilized effectively, technology can be used to identify barriers and to provide solutions for sustainable development challenges. Technology can help translate scientific knowledge into meaningful improvements. The Science, Technology, and Innovation Forum highlighted two important technologies for achieving the SDGs. Many countries are showing how electronic identification and payment systems can support the rolling out of social protection floors, fight corruption, and enhance synergies with other means of eradicating poverty. The Forum also called for an increased focus on building capacity, providing opportunities and fostering engagement of women and girls on science, technology, and innovation. To achieve this, they created the Exhibition Hub, which included twelve young entrepreneurs presenting their innovative solutions to achieve the SDGs.
The Exhibition Hub was designed to “provide a space for discussions on innovation cooperation, opportunities and challenges of delivering creative solutions and technologies as well as showcasing good practices and compelling examples in deploying advanced technologies with the potential to accelerate the achievement of the SDGs.” The Hub included startups like Microsoft Digital Transformation Showcase. They use OneNote Classroom to improve reading and writing for all students, Taqtile HoloMaps to display topography for city planners, and Water Risk Monetizer to help organizations better understand water use costs and risks to help with sustainable water management. Missing Maps crowdsources volunteers to map missing areas to provide humanitarian organizations and governments with the information needed to address these problems. In Pakistan, doctHERs is a digital health platform that connects remotely located (home-based) female doctors to underserved health consumers in need of quality healthcare via nurse-assisted video-consultation.
Information and Communication Technology
In 2017, The EU ICT Sustainable Development Goals Benchmark report, commissioned by Huawei, was released in Geneva, Switzerland. This benchmark assesses the correlations between ICT and progress in meeting the SDGs in 15 countries. The report found a 90% correlation between ICT investment and progress in meeting six key SDGs including Health and Well Being, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, Sustainable Cities, and Climate Change. The countries that do well in ICT also do well in progress on SDGs, while countries that underperform on ICT also lag on SDG progress. According to the report, the strongest correlation is with SDG 9, Infrastructure, Industry and Innovation. These are sectors that make societies more efficient and productive, create jobs and investment opportunities, and support technology advancement. Because most vital infrastructure is controlled by ICT, ICT infrastructure is an economic cornerstone. Broadband access enables people to obtain education, start business, create jobs, and much more.
At the conference, I heard from many corporations about their commitment to working towards the SDGs. To assist in the corporate sector’s work towards the SDGS, Impact 2030 is a private sector-led initiative, in collaboration with the United Nations, social and public sectors, and academia, with the unique mission to activate human capital investments through employee volunteer programs to advance the achievement of the SDGs. They have worked to rally corporations around technology to work towards the SDGs.
As companies transform to digital businesses, they can integrate technologies that work toward the SDGs. UPS is on the forefront of integrating the SDGs into their sustainable business goals. They argue the SDGs require the critical thinking that those in the private sector bring to work every day. They research, analyze, plan and measure, all actions needed when the most serious issues facing our planet and its people are at stake. In 2014, UPS CEO David Abney announced that UPS would achieve 20 million volunteer hours by the end of 2020. At the same time, they implemented a social media campaign where, when employees volunteer, they can post to social media with fans the company provided that have the SDG they are working towards on it. They are working to integrate new technologies into programs that work towards the SDGs, while also raising awareness around them in their company through social media campaigns like this one.
There are a number of important considerations in integrating technology to advance these global goals. Because we are living in an increasingly global and sociotechnical world, locally-informed and context-appropriate applications of science and technology are crucial to ensure long-term sustainability of development efforts. It is important to understand the social, cultural, political, regulatory, environmental, and economic factors influencing access and use of technologies. To find a balance between the validation and introduction of technologies that bring gains to society, there will have to be a deeper understanding of how to project the social, economic, and environmental impact of innovations across different contexts and countries. There are several ongoing policy agendas within the UN system to address these including intellectual property rights, technology transfer mechanisms, technology banks, and efforts to strengthen statistical capacity.
As we move towards a more digital world, it makes sense to make and incorporate these technologies with the SDGs in mind. Because of the breadth of technology, the opportunities to improve the world are many. Technology can act as a safe space for civil society and governments to engage each other at scale, for corporations to work as corporate citizens, for youth to engage with the SDGs across social media platforms, and for technology to be integrated into infrastructure and industry.