In this era of digitalization, digital economy is emerging as one of the key driving forces behind economic development. While the growth of digital economy can extensively benefit global economies, it has raised questions regarding the social and environmental wellbeing driven by automation and disruptive technologies.
Digitalization and sustainability are two of the most powerful influences in today’s economic landscape. Each has generated massive amount of research on how it influences different aspects of people’s lives. However, the impact and intersection between the two remains largely untapped research area.
Let us review the impact of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) on sustainable development, and explore how we can harness the power of ICT to achieve each of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) . In the process, we see correlation between ICT and sustainable development.
1. Digital Economy is referred to as “a global network of economic and social activities enabled by Information and Communication Technology (ICT)”.
In 2015, 193 countries around the globe agreed to the United Nations agenda on sustainable development by 2030 in a summit held in New York. In the summit meeting a new framework with 230 indicators and 169 targets was proposed. The 17 sustainable development goals and their associated targets are based on a comprehensive framework to tackle a wide range of environmental, social and economic issues which include climate change, energy, water conservation, poverty, food security, healthcare, education, gender equality and fostering economic growth.
Social Sustainability. Another important impact of digitization, yet unexplored enough, is its impact on social welfare. Several studies showed that the increase in the level of digitization boosts societal well-being. One way of achieving societal well-being and improving the quality of people’s lives is by making cities smarter through the integration of digital technologies within different sectors.
- Recent research examined the importance of big data technologies to build smart and sustainable cities. In addition, it was found that internet adoption, introduction of broadband and using personal computers yielded significant increase in household income.
- Digital technologies help in better informing citizens of government's activities and hence open new paths for participatory democracy, as well as improve public sector efficiency. This is usually accompanied with a stronger demand for e-Government services.
- Finally, digital identification facilitates conquering barriers to participation. Several countries have launched digital identity schemes to streamline government processes.
- These together with digital systems for elections aim to avoid post conflict transfers. Moreover, mobile phones enable citizens to report instances of violence and voter intimidation, thus improving electoral participation.
2. Critical Pathways for Countries to Use ICT as Enabler for Sustainability
Digital technologies can accelerate human progression towards sustainable development by increasing access to information, driving innovation and enabling highly efficient processes. Achieving all three can be quite challenging thereby hindering the progress towards sustainable future. Following are the proposed three critical pathways for countries to fast track their progression towards SDGs achievement.
2.1 Increase access to information and services:
ICT infrastructure coupled with the availability of devices such as smart phones, computers and tablets have allowed the individuals and organizations to gain access to information and communication services. This has really allowed both the developed and under developed countries to achieve substantial amount of progress on SDGs. Before this unequal access to resources, information, education and services led to disparities among the nations and aggravated the issues of inequality worldwide.
Although there are numerous challenges associated with the access to high quality ICT
infrastructure but the affordability of devices in recent years is helping least and developing countries to empower society and reduce inequalities.
2.2 Increase connectivity between people and organizations:
Increased access to information and communication leads to better connectivity and communication between individuals, and organizations at all levels. This can greatly result in the increase in productivity and innovation in wide range of sectors and provide critical real-time communication which is essential for rapid growth and expansion at all levels. According to the statistics by International Telecommunication Union (ITU), youth is at the forefront of today’s digital economy. About 70% of the world youth aged between 19-24 use internet which is significantly high as compared to the total population using the internet (48%).
One of the keys to achieve progress on the SDGs is to bridge the gender divide in connectivity. While the adequate availability of internet and communication services have narrowed the gender gap in internet usage lately, proportion of men using the internet still remains higher as compared to the women. ITU figures estimate that the global internet penetration rate for men was 50.9% compared to 44.9% compared to women in 2017.
Increasing digital skills is another major factor that determines the pace of digital connectivity.
It is quite evident that it is mainly the least developed economies that suffer the most from lack of advance digital skills, which poses risk to be left behind in the race to digital economy.
Increase productivity and resource efficiency:
ICT holds immense potential to raise the productivity level through an increased access to information and communication. Rapid advancements in digital technologies assist us to harness the true potential through efficient ways to collect and analyze large sets of data with the help of big data and analytics.
The private sector will play a key role in these productivity gains, however to achieve a substantial progress on SDGs, these solutions will be spearheaded by public sector. Some estimates suggest that active involvement of public sector would result in substantial cost saving benefits and free up significant resources in key sector: healthcare, education and other major areas of societal well-being.
Luis Neves, Chairman, Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI)
Rose Stuckey Kirk, Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer & President, Verizon Foundation
Sigve Brekke, President and Chief Executive Officer, Telenor Group
carbon economy. And much more is possible by 2030.”
Gavin Patterson, Chief Executive, BT Group
Nicholas Davis, Professor of Practice, Thunderbird School of Global Management and Visiting Professor in Cybersecurity, UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy
Derek O'Halloran, Head of Shaping the Future of Digital Economy and New Value Creation, World Economic Forum
Dr. Hesham O, Dinana, The American University in Cairo (AUC) School of Global Affairs and Public Policy (GAPP)