How the Tech Sector Must Partner to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

Fresh from the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Dominic Vergine, the Head of Sustainability at Arm, explains why the technology sector must form closer, more genuine partnerships to drive progress on the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 - and shares the key topics discussed.

A number of developments relating to digital and advanced technologies enabling the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) coincided in June 2019. 2030Vision convened events at CogX to discuss how technology can catalyse progress on the SDGs and launched its report AI for the SDGs: The State of Play. The World Economic Forum (WEF) and the UN signed a Memorandum of Understanding outlining key areas in which to deepen engagement and accelerate progress on achieving the 17 SDGs, including digital cooperation. Moreover, the UN High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation published a report that shared Jack Ma, Melinda Gates and other panel members’ recommendations for how digital cooperation can contribute to the achievement of the SDGs.

As Head of Sustainability at Arm, Dominic Vergine, has been actively involved and monitoring these developments. SustainAbility caught up with him on his return from the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos to hear his reflections on what needs to happen to galvanise concerted action amongst the technology sector towards achieving the SDGs by 2030 and what the core areas of focus were.

What developments around technology enabling the SDGs stood out for you at Davos this year?

Over the last three years, it is clear that the level of engagement with this area has increased significantly. Not only is there a lot more interest in technology and the SDGs, there is also a higher-level of interest as well. C-suite executives are increasingly getting involved.

One development that I believe has great potential is Frontier 2030. The World Economic Forum (WEF) launched this initiative at an event chaired by Achim Steiner from the UNDP and Simon Segars, CEO of Arm, at Davos this year. There was a broad mix of big technology companies, governments, start-ups and NGOs in the room and we had a productive discussion.

The initiative aims to develop a new WEF Action Platform to facilitate the mobilization of a more concerted and cooperative effort to apply fourth industrial revolution technologies to the SDGs. It aims to bring together disparate groups such as the UN system, governments, experts in AI and data policy, NGOs and companies. A report that WEF released to mark the launch found that these advanced technologies, including AI, could have a high impact across 10 of the SDGs in particular and could enable 70% of the 169 targets underpinning the goals. Bringing together these groups is a vital starting point to tacking some of the challenges inherent in the SDGs.

The question for all of us now is how can we turn this engagement into action?

What is preventing digital technology from truly accelerating progress towards the SDGs?

A major roadblock remains around partnerships. In order to apply emerging technologies effectively to the SDGs all actors need to develop much closer and more genuine partnerships. That means partnerships across different companies, cooperation across governments (and between government departments), and better cooperation among UN agencies. These partnerships need a pre-competitive environment and require improved communication.

At the moment there are lots of examples of governments, non-profits and commercial organisations putting their logos on the same reports rather than productively working together. What we really need is a step change - a marked shift - in the way we collaborate with one another. We have the tools, the technology, and the capital. It is human behaviour that could mean that the SDGs are not achieved by 2030.

What one thing would you like to see happen in 2020 for technology to help accelerate progress on the SDGs?

I would like to see true collaboration amongst the technology sector in deed as well as word. I would like this collaboration to move beyond competitive and geographic boundaries. There are clear opportunities, for instance opening up data sets to allow actors to work more closely together.

I think this kind of collaboration will happen, but will it happen in time to deliver the SDGs? I think we will see a dawning realisation amongst companies that they will have to partner with one another to ensure long-term value and commercial value as well. Companies will have to come together if AI technologies are to be trusted, used widely and really effectively. If there are multiple different AI systems working in silos, I can’t see how this tool will be able to deliver on its promise. If technology companies collaborate however, then in the future there will be a bigger market to compete over.

What about collaborations with the public sector? How can these be more effective? Are there examples of companies that are collaborating effectively with the public sector on the SDGs?

Public-private partnerships are more common now but require trust – and the only way that companies can build trust is by earning it. There is still understandable scepticism amongst the public sector about the private sector’s motivations. Companies need to earn their trust.

At Arm we are proud of our collaboration with UNICEF which is now entering its 5th year. If you talk to people at UNICEF they will say it is a true partnership. In setting this up, we worked out what we could not do separately and identified each other’s strengths.

The success of this partnership is also partly due to a good cultural fit. UNICEF is quite unusual because its innovation team takes an entrepreneurial, start-up approach to solving problems. They have been brave, taken risks and tried new things. This attitude means they are much more agile, exploratory and easy to work with.

What were the main technology-related topics discussed at Davos?

The two big areas that came to the fore were artificial intelligence (AI) and data. These are different but related issues. The discussion on AI was about how to use a very powerful new tool for the goals. Whereas the data discussion was focused on: use of data; open data; willingness to share cross-industry and subject area data; and the policy issues and enabling or disabling frameworks that surround data. To achieve effective AI solutions, we will need to solve these problems around data.

These are big topics of conversation and are not even close to being resolved. The work that 2030Vision and WEF are doing could be a vital starting point in tackling some of these challenges as these initiatives bring many of the right actors together. It is important that this work gathers pace and increases in scale if we are to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

2030Vision is a partnership that connects businesses, NGOs and governments with the technology and expertise they need to contribute to the SDGs. Founded by Arm and supported by a broad range of partners, 2030Vision’s ambition is to transform the use of technology so that all people can live their lives to their full potential by 2030.

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