UNESCO Chair in ICT4D’s contributions to UNESCO’s first Partners’ Forum

SindiIt was great to be able to participate as a UNESCO Chairholder in UNESCO’s first Partners’ Forum on 11th-12th September in Paris, and to contribute as a panellist in the session arranged by Indrajit Banerjee and his team on Responding to Opportunities and Challenges of the Digital Age.  Much of the Forum focused on the successes of existing UNESCO partnerships, but our panel yesterday instead addressed practical issues where UNESCO’s Knowledge Societies Division could make a difference.

AudienceOur panel also consisted of:

  • Moderator: Indrajit Banerjee (Director, Knowledge Societies Division, UNESCO)
  • Marcus Goddard (Netexplo Observatory)
  • Marie-Helene Parizeau (Chair of World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology)
  • Dr. Davina Frau-Meigs (Professor of Media Sociology at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, and Chairholder of UNESCO Chair for “savoir-devenir le développement numérique durable: maîtriser les cultures de l’information”)
  • Octavio Kulesz (Teseo, Argentina).

Our multilingual session had five themes, and there was a great audience who contributed hugely through their smiles!  I note below some of the contributions that I sought to make:

Introductory comments

I focused on two main issues:

  • We must avoid an instrumental view of the world. AI, the Internet of Things,  5G… do not have any power to change anything themselves.  They are created by global corporations – be they failing USAn ones, or rising Chinese ones – and by individuals in them who have particular interests.  AI, for example, will not change the world of work.  Those who are creating AI are doing so for a very particular set of reasons…  We are responsible for the things we create.
  • Use of the term 4th Industrial Revolution is highly problematic. I guess there are two kinds of people – those who see the world as being revolutionary, and those who see it as evolutionary.  The “revolutionary” people like to see the world as shaped by heroes (perhaps they want to be heroes themselves) – elite people such as Turnip Townsend or Thomas Coke of Holkham in the “agricultural revolution”, or Richard Arkwright who invented the water-powered spinning mill, Jean Baptiste Colbert here in France, or George Stephenson – people who led the so-called industrial revolution. However, the reality is that these changes evolved through the labour of countless millions of poor people across the world, and their lives were shaped by fundamental structural forces, most notably the driving forces and interests of capitalism – money bent on the accretion of money – that sought to reduce labour costs and increase market size.  These forces still shape today’s world.  There is no 4th Industrial Revolution

How can UNESCO leverage digital technologies to achieve SDGs?

I sought to raise challenging questions about the relationship between digital technologies and the SDGs, particularly around notions of sustainability:

  • First, most ICTs and digital technologies are based on fundamentally unsustainable business models – and there are therefore real challenges claiming that they can contribute positively to “sustainable development”. Just thinking about it.  How often do you replace your mobile phone, or have to get new software because you have bought some new hardware with which it is incompatible, or instead need new hardware to run the latest memory and processor demanding software.  Such obsolescence is a deliberate ploy of the major technology companies.
  • Second, the use of most such technologies is damaging to the environment – this is hardly sustainable – think about the satellite “waste” in outer space, or the electricity demands of server farms, or take blockchain; do you realise that Bitcoin mining consumes more electricity a year than does the whole of Ireland?
  • And then, the SDGs have failed already – most countries have not set their targets, and for many the baseline data simply do not exist. It is therefore not going to be possible to say whether many targets have been met or not. Take UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics date on SDG 4.  In most parts of the world less than a third of countries have data for the educational indicators and targets. [http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/sdg4-data-book-2018-en.pdf].  Indeed, it is often said that the SDGs purely exist to give UN agencies something to do!
  • But being positive, the answer is simple – we need to concentrate our efforts first on the poorest and most marginalised. These new technologies have rapidly been used to make the world a more unequal place.  It is good that we now have SDG 10 focusing on inequality, but few people ever mention it in the context of digital technologies. No-one else has mentioned it in any of the sessions at which I have yet been during this Forum. We should not always be talking about connecting the next billion – but instead of connecting the first billion – yes, the first and most important – those who are poorest and most marginalised – people with disabilities, street children, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies.  We need to work with them, to craft new technologies that will help them achieve their empowerment.

How can we de-risk digital interactions and counter online challenges to privacy, human rights and freedom of expression?

I responded briefly, since other speakers addressed this at greater length and with more sophistication:

  • Ethics is incredibly important – Most people tend to think that new technology is necessarily good. But it is not.  Technology is neither good nor bad – it simply “is”.  But technologies can be made, and used, for good or bad purposes.
  • Two examples on which I have recently been working are:
    • Sexual harassment through mobile devices – Pakistan, India and Caribbean
    • Is it too late for “pure humans” to survive – or will we, are we already, all cyborgs?
  • How might we respond to these challenges
    • We need to focus as much on the negatives as on the positives of technologies in our education systems and media.
    • We need more open public debate and discussion on the ethics of digital technologies – governments tend not to trust their citizens to engage in these very difficult issues.

What forms of multi-stakeholder mechanisms/government frameworks will foster global dialogue around the use of advanced ICTs?

Again, towards the end of the session, there was little time to discuss this, but I noted:

  • Everyone talks about partnerships, but few actually succeed
  • Back in 2005 I actually wrote about multi-sector partnerships as part of UNESCO’s contribution to WSIS – and most of what I wrote then still applies!
  • We must stop competing and instead work together creatively and collaboratively in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised. This applies particularly both within and between UN agencies!

Concluding remarks

This is what I think I said:

I have huge admiration for many of the staff in UNESCO; the organisation has the most important mandate of any UN agency – focusing as it does on Education, Science and Culture.  There are three simple, and easy things that UNESCO could do, but they require a fundamental change of mentality:

  • Focus on understanding the needs of the poorest and most marginalised
  • Work with, not for, the poorest and marginalised
  • Develop digital solutions that will serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

And of course, UNESCO could take much more advantage of the expertise of the many Chairholders in its UNITWIN and UNESCO Chairs networks!

Thanks again to all those in UNESCO who made the Forum such an interesting event.

SDG Stories: UNESCO Chair contributing on sustainability of ICT systems

e_sdg-goals_icons-individual-rgb-09In the run-up to this year’s UN General Assembly, the Office of the DG of the UN Office in Geneva has launched a novel initiative on big conversations driving the big goals of the SDGs as part of their Perception Change Project.  The UNESCO Chair in ICT4D is delighted to have been invited to participate in this initiative, alongside other leading figures in the ICT4D world including Houlin Zhao (SG of the ITU, and one of our Honorary Patrons), Kathy Calvin (President and CEIO, UN Foundation), and Nicholas Negroponte (Founder MIT Media Lab).

Our stories are about the question “What are the biggest hopes and challenges we face in providing reliable ICT access to communities as we work towards improved sustainable development?

This was my response:

Seeing the eyes of a group of street children in Ethiopia light up when I let them play with my laptop in February 2002 convinced me in an instant of the potential of technology to be used effectively for learning by some of the poorest people in the world.  However, the plethora of global initiatives that have been designed to use ICTs to contribute to reducing poverty through economic growth over the last 15 years have had the consequence of dramatically increasing inequality at the same time.  The poorest and most marginalised have not benefited sufficiently from the promise of ICTs.

Few people pay appropriate attention to the dark side of technology, and yet we must understand this, and change it, if this potential is fully to be realised for all.  In the context of the SDGs, there is a fundamental challenge.  To be sure ICTs can contribute to the achievement of the SDGs, but few people sufficiently highlight their unsustainability: ICTs have seriously negative environmental impacts, and their usual business model is built on a fundamentally unsustainable logic.  In terms of environmental impact, for example, they have contributed to substantially increased electricity demand, and the amount of waste in space is now presenting very serious threats to future satellite deployment.  The business model, whereby people are encouraged to replace their mobile phones every couple of years, and new hardware often requires the next generation of software, which in turn then requires new hardware, is good for business, but not for sustainability.

If we are serious about using ICTs for sustainable development, we must do much more to address negative aspects such as these, so that the poorest individuals, communities and countries can indeed benefit.

Follow the stories at: http://www.sdgstories.com, or on Twitter using #sdgstories.

Symposium on SDGs and sustainable supply chains in the post-global economy

It was great to participate in today’s symposium on the SDGS and sustainable supply chains in the post-global economy today, convened in the School of Management at Royal Holloway, University of London, by The Centre for Research into Sustainability (CRIS) at Royal Holloway University of London, the University of Twente, and the Greening of Industry Network.  Several of the keynotes and papers specifically addressed the role of ICTs in delivering the SDGs, and enhancing sustainability in supply chains.

Joseph SarkisFollowing an opening by Professor Gloria Agyemang (Head of the School of Management at Royal Holloway, University of London), keynotes were given by Hans Bressers (University if Twente), Diane Holt (University of Essex), Shaun McCarthy (Action Sustainability), Joseph Sarkis (Foisie Business School, Worcester Polytechnic Institute), Tim Unwin (UNESCO Chair in ICT4D), and Natalia Yakovleva (Newcastle University).  Joseph Sarkis and Tim Unwin both focused specifically on ICTs, sustainability and the SDGS, highlighting both the positive and more problematic aspects of the relationships between technology and sustainable development.

A lively discussion was held during the finger buffet lunch, covering a very wide range of issues relevant to technology, supply chains, and international development, including the importance of the informal economy, the irrelevance of the SDGS, and conceptualising no-growth/low-growth economies.  Afternoon papers were grouped into five tracks:

  • Geopolitical shifts and supply chain contribution to SDGs
  • Social inclusion, CSR and business ethics in cross-border sustainability chains
  • Measuring and reporting to embed sustainability and social inclusion in sustainable supply chains policy and practice
  • Interdependencies and trade-offs between SDGs and the outcomes of environmental practices, social practices and operational practices in supply chains
  • New actors, information sharing and networks.

The Symposium was convened by Diego Vazquez-Brust (a Member of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D), Laura Franco-Garcia, and Lauren McCarthy, to whom many thanks are due.  Details of papers presented at the symposium will be available in due course, but slides from Tim Unwin’s paper are already available at The SDGs, supply chains and the ICT sector: critical reflections.

Making money from meeting the SDGs? An overarching approach to sustainable development

I am delighted to have been asked to moderate the session on “Making money from meeting the SDGs?” at ITU Telecom World in Bangkok on Monday 14th November (4:45 PM – 6:00 PM, Jupiter 10), although I wonder a little why I have been chosen for this task given my past criticisms of the SDGs!  Perhaps the “?” in the session title will give me a little freedom to explore some of the many challenges and complexities in this theme.  Following in the footsteps of the Millennium Development Goals (2000), the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) still generally focus on the idea that economic growth will eliminate poverty; indeed, they assert that poverty can truly be ended.  This is a myth, and a dangerous one. For those who define poverty in a relative sense, poverty will always be with us.  It can certainly be reduced, but never ended.   It is therefore good to see the SDGs also focusing on social inclusion, with SDG 10 explicitly addressing inequality.  We need to pay much more attention to ways through which ICTs can thus reduce inequality, rather than primarily focusing on their contribution to economic growth, which has often actually led to increasing inequality.

This session will explore the implications of such tensions specifically for the role of ICT businesses in delivering the SDGs.  Key questions to be examined include:

  • How can the ICT sector contribute to accelerating the achievement of the SDGs by providing ICT-enabled solutions and building feasible business models?
  • Is the SDG agenda relevant for the ICT industry?
  • What roles should the ICT industry, and its corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments in particular, play in working towards the SDGs?
  • Can the SDG framework provide an opportunity to accelerate transformative ICT-enabled solutions around new solutions like big data or IoT?

Underlying these are difficult issues about the ethics of making money from development, and the extent to which the ICT sector is indeed sustainable.  All too often, the private sector, governments and even civil society are now using the idea of “development” to build their ICT interests, rather than actually using ICTs to contribute to development understood as reducing inequalities; we increasingly have “development for ICTs” (D4ICT) rather than “ICTs for development” (ICT4D).  To be sure, businesses have a fundamentally important role in contributing to economic growth, but there is still little agreement, for example, on how best to deliver connectivity to the poorest and most marginalized, so that inequality can be reduced. As my forthcoming book argues, we need to reclaim ICTs truly for development in the interests of the poorest and most marginalized.

We have a great panel with whom to explore these difficult questions.  Following opening remarks by Chaesub Lee (Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, ITU), we will dive straight into addressing the above questions with the following panelists (listed in alphabetical order of first names):

  • Astrid Tuminez (Senior Director, Government Affairs. Microsoft)
  • Lawrence Yanovitch (President of GSMA Foundation)
  • Luis Neves (Chairman Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), and Climate Change and Sustainability Officer, Executive Vice President, at Deutsche Telekom Group)
  • Mai Oldgard (Head of Sustainability, Telenor)
  • Tomas Lamanauskas (Group Director Public Policy, VimpelCom).

Magic happens when people from different backgrounds are brought together to discuss challenging issues.  This session will therefore not have any formal presentations, but will instead seek to engage the panelists in discussion amongst themselves and with the audience.  We will generate new ideas that participants will be able to take away and apply in their everyday practices.  Looking forward to seeing you on the Monday afternoon of Telecom World in Bangkok!