Can technology play a more meaningful role in meeting the SDGs?

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Chaesub Lee, Director, ITU Telecommunication Standardization Bureau


  • It is becoming clear that technical standards will play a key role in addressing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and some of the most pressing needs of the planet, like eradicating poverty or hunger and mitigating climate change.
  • Technical standards will help deploy digital infrastructure at minimal cost and environmental impact. They will also accelerate the transformation of cities and communities.
  • But sustainable digital transformation requires political will. Numerous organizations with different objectives and profiles need to work towards common goals to solve complex global problems.

Standards are a hidden part of the information and communication technology (ICT) networks and devices we all use every day. They are rarely perceived by users but are vital in enabling the interconnection and interoperability of ICT equipment and devices manufactured by hundreds of thousands of different companies around the world.

For example, 95% of internet traffic is on fibre, built on standards from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN specialized agency for ICT and we also played a leading role in managing the radio spectrum and developing globally applicable standards for 5G.

Technical standards necessary to improve SDGs

But while it is clear that technical standards are indispensable for business and society to work in our industrialized world, it is becoming clear that technical standards will also play a key role in addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Indeed, the focus of the recent ITU Global Standards Symposium which brought more than 700 industry leaders and policy-makers together, was how standards can play a role in addressing some of the most pressing needs of the planet, like eradicating poverty or hunger and mitigating climate change.

How ITU can help end poverty and hunger

​​​​​​​An ITU Focus Group on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) for Digital Agriculture is working towards new standards to support global improvements in the precision and sustainability of farming techniques.

Within an ITU WHO Focus Group on AI for Health, an open-code concept highlights the type of metrics that could help developers and health regulators certify future AI solutions, in the same way as is done for medical equipment. In addition, standards for medical-grade digital health devices – such as connected blood pressure cuffs, glucose monitors, weight scales and a wide range of activity – are helping prevent and manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

Standards are helping bring broadband to rural communities with lightweight optical cable that can be deployed on the ground’s surface with minimal expense and environmental impact. The installation of ultra-high-speed optical networks typically comes with a great deal of cost and complexity. Standards are helping to change that equation by providing a solution able to be deployed at low cost with everyday tools.

Making cities and communities smarter

Addressing SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities, more than 150 cities around the world have started evaluating their progress towards smart-city objectives and alignment with the SDGs using Key Performance Indicators for Smart Sustainable Cities based on tech standards. These cities are supported by United for Smart Sustainable Cities (U4SSC), an initiative backed by ITU and another 16 UN partners

Addressing SDGs on climate action and green energy, ITU standards for green ICT include sustainable power-feeding solutions for 5G networks, as well as smart energy solutions for telecom sites and data centres that prioritize the intake of power from renewable energy sources. They also cover the use of AI and big data to optimize data centre energy efficiency and innovative techniques to reduce energy needs for data centre cooling.

Financial inclusion is another key area of action to achieve SDG 1 on ending poverty. Digital channels are bringing life-changing financial services to millions of people for the very first time. Enormous advances have been made within the Financial Inclusion Global Initiative (FIGI) and associated development of technical standards in support of secure financial applications and services, reliable digital infrastructure, and the resulting consumer trust that our money and digital identities are safe.

Taking a multi-stakeholder approach

However, the complexity of global problems requires numerous organizations with different objectives and profiles to work towards common goals. The world’s leading developers of international ICT standards need to work together to address the SDGs, using frameworks such as the World Standards Cooperation, with the support of mechanisms such as the Standardization Programme Coordination Group, reviewing activities, identifying standards gaps and opportunities, and working to ensure comprehensive standardization solutions to global challenges.

Including a greater variety of voices in standards discussions is crucial. It is particularly important that developing countries are heard, and that a multistakeholder approach is made a priority to have a successful and inclusive digital transformation. Uncoordinated and non-inclusive standardization can spell lasting harm for countries that already struggle to afford long-term socio-economic investments. Without global and regional coordination, today’s digital revolution could produce uneven results, making it imperative that all standards bodies work cohesively.

Political will is crucial for change

Sustainable digital transformation requires political will. It was notable that last year in Italy for the first time, the G20 leaders in their final communiqué acknowledged the importance of international consensus-based standards to digital transformation and sustainable development. This very important step could not have been made by one standards body alone.

Cities, governments, and companies are on a steep learning curve as they adopt new tech as part of low-carbon, sustainable, citizen-centric development strategies as they seek to meet the challenge of addressing the SDGs. International standards, recognized around the world, are essential to making technologies in fields like fintech, digital health and 5G, combined with bigger and better data use, accessible and useful to everyone, everywhere.

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