UN helps nations tap technology for development

09 May 2019

The United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development weighs the opportunities and risks that emerging technologies bring to the sustainable development agenda.

The pace, problems and promises offered by rapid technological change is the central discussion point for ministerial representatives meeting at the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva from 13 to 17 May to explore the benefits of science and technology for sustainable development.

They will be joined by eminent scientists, leading innovators and technology thinkers for the 22nd annual session of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) at the Palais des Nations.

They will discuss the sustainable development implications of science, technology and innovation (STI), including information communication technologies, at a time when rapid technological change offers unprecedented opportunities to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


The CSTD has renewed significance at a time when innovation needs to be harnessed to manage the world’s most challenging problems, including climate change.

Yet this potential comes with a caveat.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted in his 2018 report to the CSTD that frontier technologies offer unprecedented opportunities to transform the practice, implementation and monitoring of sustainable development.

However, the report observed, these technologies also pose profound questions regarding how legal, social, ethical and cultural norms could be affected in various aspects.

These aspects range from the integrity of human life to the safety of the natural environment and from the respect for personal privacy, security and safety to the prevention of any form of discrimination.

This premise forms the backbone of all CSTD discussions.

A conversation with great minds

On the opening day of the CSTD, three distinguished scientists will set the scene in a session entitled “A Conversation with Great Minds.”

The trio will frame the future directions for international cooperation on frontier technologies for sustainable development.

The “great minds” include:

  • Carlo Rubbia, former director-general of CERN, the European organization for nuclear research, and joint Nobel prize winner in physics for his contributions to particle physics, which led to the discovery of the field particles W and Z.

  • Dame Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at the University of Southampton. Dame Wendy has been awarded numerous accolades for her services to science and technology. In addition to playing a prominent role in the development of computer science, she also helps shape science and engineering policy and education. She co-authored the United Kingdom’s artificial intelligence (AI) strategy review with Jerome Presenti of Facebook. She also co-founded the Web Science Trust with World Wide Web founder Sir Tim Berners Lee and others.

  • Jürgen Schmidhuber, co-founder and chief scientist at the AI research company NNAISENCE, and director and professor at the Swiss AI Lab IDSIA. He is also a professor of artificial intelligence at the Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) and the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI). His work played a pioneering role in the field of long short-term memory (LSTM), which created the building blocks for speech recognition technologies used today in digital devices, including Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.

The event will take place from 11am (CET) on 13 May in Room XVII at the Palais des Nations, moderated by award-winning journalist Didi Akinyuelure and livestreamed on Facebook (@UNCTAD)

Impact of rapid technological change

Also on the opening day at 4pm a high-level roundtable discussion will focus on the first priority theme of the CSTD – “The impact of rapid technological change on sustainable development.”

New and emerging technologies can be deployed as tools for boosting progress towards the SDGs.

At the same time, people risk being left behind as technology and innovation outpaces both their and government’s ability to keep up.

“There is great risk of the digital divide widening further, and with it the ability of developing countries to harness science, technology and innovation for their own development,” said UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi.

The UNCTAD chief underscored the need to help developing countries – and all people who lack access and opportunity – to benefit from and use science, technology and innovation to address their own development challenges – and innovate within these.

Equally important is addressing the unintended consequences that threaten the shared prosperity, social inclusion, gender balance and environmental sustainability that we hope to achieve.

“For example, only 12% of leading machine-learning researchers are women, and only a third of entry-level positions in technology companies are being filled by women,” said UNCTAD’s director of technology and logistics, Shamika Sirimanne.

“We also have a leaky pipeline. Today less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women. UNESCO data between 2014 and 2016 shows only 30% of all female students going into higher education select science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-related fields.”

The increasing rate of technological change may widen the existing gender digital divide and exacerbate the lack of representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.

The roundtable’s panel will include experts in the fields of AI, genome biology and 3D printing. The discussion will be moderated by FRANCE24 journalist Julia Sieger, the presenter of Tech24. The session will be livestreamed.

Building resilient communities

The CSTD’s second priority theme is “The role of STI in building resilient communities, including through the contribution of citizen science.”

Heads of Geneva-based international organizations as well as experts will share their perspectives in a discussion moderated by award-winning writer and journalist Andrew Revkin of the National Geographic Society.

Frontier technologies open new pathways for building resilience, a crucial factor in sustainable development.

Citizen science, which uses new technologies to engage volunteers to carry out tasks such as data collection in support of science, is a new development.

At the same time, there are key challenges in adopting inclusive policies in formulating STI initiatives for community resilience, and the need for responsible use of data acquired during citizen science projects.

The CSTD will also include an update on the progress made in the implementation of the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society and first insights from UNCTAD’s science, technology and innovation policy reviews of Ethiopia, Uganda and Panama.

Side events

Six public side events will flank the CSTD meetings.

In one, solar pioneer Bertrand Piccard, UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Isabelle Durant and the Ethiopian State Minister for Science and Technology Shumete Gizaw will discuss the role of start-ups in addressing today’s most pressing development challenges at 9am on 14 May.

That evening, the inaugural CSTD public lecture with Richard Baldwin, professor of international economics at The Graduate Institute, Geneva, will discuss how globotics (globalisation and robotics) is transforming development journeys. He is the author of a new book: “The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics, and the Future of Work.” The event will be held on 14 May at 6:15pm.