unctad.org | The Impact of Rapid Technological Change on the SDGs
Statement by Mr. Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary-General of UNCTAD
The Impact of Rapid Technological Change on the SDGs
[Virtual Meeting]
11 Jun 2020

At the start of this decade of action to achieve the SDGs, we already seeing many examples of how rapid technological change & frontier technologies are helping address the COVID-19 pandemic:

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are being used for the detection, diagnosis and development of treatments for COVID-19. Artificial Intelligence is also slowing the virus spread through “big data” surveillance and contact tracing. 3D printing and additive manufacturing are rapidly producing medical equipment. In some parts of the world, digitalization of work, commerce, and social relations has dramatically accelerated to respect social distancing and lockdowns.

Facing the current global pandemic, these technologies demonstrate the difference they make to people’s lives, but also how far many people are being left behind due to widening digital gaps. Such as: The winner-takes-all logic of digitalization increases inequality through market concentration, with new technologies concentrated in a few countries and controlled by few companies, the design of technology can perpetuate deep seated racial and gender inequalities. When AI uses biased data to learn how to make decisions, or when the profile of the designers is too different from the society where AI is used, then AI just replicates existing gender and racial discrimination. Frontier technologies and innovation are increasing the technological gap between countries. Technologies are applied first and more intensely in industries, services and segments of value chains in which more industrialized economies have a comparative advantage.

To overcome unequal gains from frontier technologies, we must not simply narrowly apply these technologies to individual SDGs, but broadly embrace wide-scale STI programmes to transform national approaches to technological breakthroughs. At today’s virtual CSTD session in Geneva, ministers from all regions are sharing examples of strategies they are using:

  • Creating an enabling environment, including infrastructure, regulation and cost reduction.

  • Skills development, including entrepreneurship skills & full engagement of women and girls.

  • Scaling up businesses through financing and collaboration between researchers and private sector.

  • Employing technological foresight to understand future impacts and inform STI policy.

And – as COVID-19 has shown us – we cannot ignore the importance of improving global cooperation for scientific advancement. We need to ensure that the international STI cooperation and solidarity we have witnessed in response to the pandemic remains beyond this period and is formalized in ways that ensure longevity. This coronavirus pandemic has illustrated that there is strength in numbers. We learn more, and faster, together. There is also a valuable development dimension to sharing knowledge and research. International scientific collaboration is particularly important considering the gaps in research capabilities within developing countries, and the limited ability of many countries to undertake technological horizon scanning, foresight, and risk assessment. We saw during the Ebola outbreak in 2014-15, that strengthening research capacity in developing countries is vital for preventing, responding to, and ending an epidemic.

We also must ensure that funding and resource mobilization for STI should not become a victim of budget cuts in the looming economic downturn. STI-related activities should be incorporated in all recovery packages. Not only can this spur economic activity, but it can also ensure the resilience of countries to cope with future crises. Already, some regional organizations have set targets for R&D expenditure as % of GDP, such as the European Union’s 3% and the African Union’s 1%. Commitments such as these signal the continuity and predictability of government R&D support.

As recently as 2017, less than 4% the Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitments to developing countries were reported under sectors associated with STI. These levels must increase for developing countries and particularly LDCs to build the STI capacities for achieving the SDGs.


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