Digitalization can help to tackle sustainable development challenges

25 June 2020

Written by
Olga Algayerova, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

The world is facing significant challenges: climate change; continued threats to social cohesion; unrelenting environmental pressures…These have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exposed existing fragilities, forcing us to devise creative policy responses. This unexpected turmoil has opened our eyes to the urgency of anticipating and dealing effectively with risks. A strong preventative dimension goes through the 2030 Agenda, which provides a comprehensive blueprint to guide the necessary transformation. But progress has been falling short of what is required, and some past achievements are under threat.

Digitalization has already radically altered our economies and the way we live. It makes it possible to reduce environmental pressures while delivering efficiency gains and facilitating cross-border interaction. This is very relevant to UNECE’s mandate to support economic development and integration in the region. In this regard, I would like to draw attention to three areas:

Olga Algayerova
Olga Algayerova, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

De-materialisation in border crossings procedures has been useful in the fight against COVID-19. The UN eTIR/eCMR systems allow to exchange electronic information without physical contact and facilitate the flow of goods across borders. Trade facilitation instruments, as those developed by UN/CEFACT, largely rely on the use of electronic tools based on a common language. Digitalization can offer a way to offset the powerful fragmentation forces that are emerging and reap the benefits of international trade and mobility in support of the 2030 Agenda.

The disruption of supply chains brought by COVID-19 has increased the value of the circular economy as a way not only to reduce resource use but also to enhance resilience. Such an approach requires instruments that allow traceability, reduce waste and facilitate concerted action across the lifecycle of products. These instruments can be developed through digitalization and related technologies, thus enabling advances towards a circular economy. UNECE is promoting this promising approach across different sectors, including initiatives in the textile and food industries.

Transforming our cities – fighting pollution, introducing new forms of mobility, lowering resource consumption, avoiding social exclusion... – is essential to deliver on the 2030 Agenda. ICTs can greatly improve the way in which cities are managed, increasing efficiency and facilitating new forms of public participation and services delivery.  UNECE, ITU and partner organisations have been fostering sustainable smart cities, an area of activity that will contribute to the achievement of many sustainable development goals.

And this brings me to the final point I would like to make: the role of digital tools in allowing new forms of collaboration and information sharing among multiple actors.  This has proved critical during the COVID-19 crisis but it will remain essential if we want to make rapid progress in delivering the 2030 Agenda. This spirit of collaboration, which informs the work of the UNGIS, also animates the reform of the UN Development System. The establishment of regional knowledge management hubs as a result of this reform will rely on the use of ICTs, thus facilitating and encouraging coordinated actions.

And, this is, ultimately what we need: actions that deliver transformative, effective change.

The United Nations Group on the Information Society (UNGIS) has initiated this Dialogue on the Role of Digitalization in the Decade of Action to raise awareness of both the importance of digitalization in achieving the SDGs and of the unique opportunity that UNGIS presents for more effective collaboration in this area within the UN System.