Building post-pandemic resilience through science, technology and innovation

12 May 2021

UN leaders, led by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, and experts meet to examine how new technologies can improve people’s daily lives as the world recovers from the COVID-19 crisis.

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The pandemic has underscored the need for everyone to have access to the benefits of new technologies, including vaccines. / © UNICEF/UN0415226/Reddy

UNCTAD will bring together experts to explore how science, technology and innovation (STI) can contribute to a sustainable and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, during a meeting of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) from 17 to 21 May.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed will lead speakers in examining how STI can help rebuild health-care systems and socioeconomic structures post-COVID-19, while reducing inequalities laid bare by the pandemic.

“Indeed, science and technology have been central in the global fight against COVID-19,” Ms. Mohammed said. “Significant financial resources, strategically invested, will be required to ensure that development gains are not reversed.”

Ms. Mohammed said the recovery from the pandemic provides an opportunity to focus on three key transitions that are highly dependent on STI: speeding up the transition to renewable energy, transforming the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food, and ensuring an inclusive digital future.

Other speakers at the 24th session of the CSTD will include the president of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Munir Akram; the president of the 75th UN General Assembly, Volkan Bozkır; the secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, Houlin Zhao; a Nobel laureate in chemistry, Jennifer Doudna; and a senior vice president of BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals, Katalin Karikó.

Need to prioritize science, technology and innovation

“The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the pressing need to prioritize STI in terms of policymaking, resource allocation and international cooperation,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD's director of technology and logistics, who also heads the CSTD secretariat.

“But governments also need to make sure that the development benefits of STI translate directly into the daily lives of people all over the world,” Ms. Sirimanne said.

Moreover, Ms. Sirimanne added, it’s vital for all countries to have equal access to the benefits of life-saving treatments, not only for the pandemic but also for poverty-related diseases, future health emergencies and infectious disease outbreaks.

Closing the gap on good health and well-being

This year’s CSTD session will first address the theme “Using science, technology and innovation to close the gap on Sustainable Development Goal 3, on good health and well-being.”

Experts will examine opportunities offered by frontier technologies, some of which are used to respond to the pandemic – such as artificial intelligence, big data and robotics.

While these technologies can enable developing countries to leapfrog previous technological paradigms and transform their economies and societies, these nations – especially least developed ones – are generally not ready to apply them due to resource and capacity constraints.

Also, there is a serious risk that frontier technologies may exacerbate existing inequalities or create

new digital divides between technology haves and have-nots, according to the UNCTAD Technology and Innovation Report 2021.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has already highlighted many manifestations of profound digital inequalities within and among countries,” Ms. Sirimanne said.

She said proactive policy interventions, the mobilization of all stakeholders and international cooperation are needed to set the direction of STI advances towards a sustainable and resilient recovery from the pandemic.

Blockchain for development

The CSTD session will also address the theme “Harnessing blockchain for sustainable development: prospects and challenges.”

In an increasingly digitalized economy and society, the security and accountability of data transactions are critical elements for creating trust and enabling breakthrough innovations in the digital world.

In this regard, blockchain technology could be a game-changer, with the potential to revolutionize processes from finance to pharmaceutical industries, from government public services to humanitarian work and development aid, says an UNCTAD paper.

Blockchain serves as the base technology for cryptocurrency, enabling open (peer-to-peer), secure and fast transactions. The application of blockchain has expanded to include various financial transactions such as online payments and exchange platforms, as well as Internet of Things (IoT), health systems and supply chains.

However, the UNCTAD paper says issues associated with scalability, privacy concerns, uncertain regulatory standards and difficulties posed by the technology in integration with existing applications are some of the potential market constraints.

“While we have seen a few examples of blockchain’s potential to address sustainable development challenges, we need to avoid hype and make sure we understand how the potential of blockchain can be turned into effective answers to the needs of developing countries,” Ms. Sirimanne said.

Progress on summit on information society

The CSTD session will also review the progress made in the implementation of the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

Last year was a testing ground for progress towards the implementation of the WSIS outcomes.

Digital technologies have played a crucial role in addressing the pandemic and enabling resilience in many ways. These include the use of big data and artificial intelligence for public health interventions and the use of digital services to expedite infection monitoring and testing.

Other trends include the use of the internet and videoconference platforms for work and education and the expanded use of e-commerce and online entertainment platforms.

“On the other hand, those who lack affordable connectivity have been severely disadvantaged during this pandemic,” Ms. Sirimanne said.

She said other challenges that have emerged include widespread misinformation and disinformation, privacy and data protection and cybersecurity.

The CSTD session will include a round-table discussion for high-level policymakers to exchange experiences, lessons learned and good practices, and to discuss challenges faced at national, regional and international levels, as well as those affecting specific groups.

Science, technology and innovation policies for development

The commission also seeks to raise awareness, stimulate a policy dialogue among stakeholders about the role of STI in national development and encourage stronger linkages among them.

It will include a session entitled “Applying a gender lens to STI policies in the 21st century” and presentations of science, technology and innovation policy reviews of the Dominican Republic, Uganda and Zambia.

About the CSTD

The CSTD is a subsidiary body of ECOSOC and the UN focal point for STI for development, in analysing how STI, including information and communications technologies, serve as enablers of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

It acts as a forum for strategic planning, sharing lessons learned and best practices, providing foresight about critical trends in STI in key sectors of the economy, the environment and society, and drawing attention to emerging and disruptive technologies.

Participants at this year’s session will include ministers and representatives of governments, civil society, the business community, academia and international and regional organizations. Most UN member states will be represented by high-level delegations.