As prepared for delivery.
Let me start with a frank confession: I am a passionate believer in
the potential of technology as we make sustainable development and
inclusive societies a reality.
My faith in technology’s potential is grounded in solid evidence and
personal experience. My generation witnessed how mobile phones, for
instance, profoundly changed the daily lives of billions of poor people
within a single generation in both developing and developed countries.
Cognitive computing, blockchain, robotics, the Internet of Things and
all things ‘smart’ and ‘digital’ hold great promise as new, potentially
disruptive, technologies which are likely to have the same profound
impact on development.
Nanotechnology, 3D and 4D printing, virtual, augmented and mixed
reality, sophisticated digital assistants, autonomous vehicles, and
cutting-edge genetic technologies - the list of technological megatrends
just keeps growing at an unprecedented pace in what is now often
referred to as “the 4th industrial revolution”.
Over the next ten years, artificial intelligence is expected to be
the most disruptive of technologies due to the enormous computational
power deployed, amounts of data collected, and advances in deep neural
networks. This presents us with unprecedented potential in
problem-solving and harnessing data to tackle the targets under our 2030
Agenda for Sustainable Development, agreed by UN member states in
It is important to note that, as a promoter of innovation, and often
as the innovator itself, government has been a key actor in
technological progress. Research has highlighted how it was “public
funding that drove both the IT revolution and other fields such as bio-
and nano-technologies and today’s green technologies.” Where
Governments decide to put support and create conducive policy and legal
frameworks, they can continue to foster tremendous innovation for
Between Governments and the international community, we need to keep
an informed conversation going, understand the interplay between
technology and sustainability, and stand together to maximise the good
that technology can bring.
I am therefore convinced that the judicious use of technology will be
a key accelerator and enabler for many, perhaps all, of the seventeen
Sustainable Development Goals – the SDGs.
Indeed, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognises that
"the spread of information and communication technology and global
interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to
bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies".
Technology is explicitly referred to in Goal 9 (industry, innovation
and infrastructure). Its target 5, for example, calls for the
international community to: 'Enhance scientific research, upgrade the
technological capabilities of industrial sectors in all countries, in
particular developing countries, including, by 2030, encouraging
innovation and substantially increasing the number of research and
development workers per 1 million people and public and private research
and development spending.'
Various other SDG targets have a significant technology component.
For example, there are benefits of digital technologies and services
in health (SDG 3): e health applications can provide the opportunity for
rural patients to benefit from remote diagnosis and improve their
adherence to treatment. Innovation in low-cost health technologies, such
as neonatal incubators or solar-powered vaccine refrigerators, can save
lives in resource-constrained settings.
But perhaps the most interesting story is how technology will help to
promote peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG 16). Around the
world, digital technologies are promoting access to public information
and improving transparency of public institutions. The results are
helping the public sector become more efficient and effective. Achieving
the targets set in SDG 16 is crucial for all aspects of the 2030
SDG 16.9 calls for the provision of legal identities for all,
including birth registration. Proper and secure identification is a
precondition for people to be citizens in their countries. Legal
identity is the key to the exercise of political rights, such as the
right to vote.
But some 1.1 billion people, nearly one in six individuals globally,
usually the poorest and most marginalised members of society, more than a
third of them children under 18, are not registered as citizens.
Identification is the first and most fundamental prerequisite for
government to be able to interact with, and provide services to, its
citizens. Without identification, citizens are likely to be excluded
from public services, such as healthcare, education, welfare and
For the developing world, electronic identity (eID) schemes offer the
potential to overcome existing barriers to citizen registration, such
as inadequate physical infrastructure, illiteracy and corruption. One
outstanding example is India’s Aadhaar programme that provides
authentication primarily based on fingerprints or an iris scan. Many
Governments in the developing world are currently implementing or
considering technology-enabled identity schemes.
Government interacts with technological innovation on multiple
levels. As users and as regulators, governments must ensure that the
applications of new technologies adhere to the rule of law and are in
accordance with the central tenets of good governance, legality,
transparency and accountability.
Innovation will cause profound change. Without effective
institutions, technology could undermine relations between citizens and
the state by infringing on privacy and human rights. Without doubt,
innovation and technological change on scales forecasted promise to
alter the way power is distributed and used within societies. States
with effective institutions, however, will be better able to adjust to
the effects of disruptive technologies, including on jobs, and
strengthen the social contract through the constructive capacity of
social media to mobilise collective action.
All this calls for competence in foresight – the art of considering
alternative futures and gleaning insights for today’s actions. Deploying
strategic foresight methods in Government enables decision makers to be
proactive rather than reactive in handling this rapidly changing
environment, empowering them to take advantage of emerging opportunities
and to become more resilient in the face of disruption and emerging
The use of new technologies – both in the public and private sector –
profoundly affects citizens’ trust in government. That in turn shapes
the legitimacy of the state, the political foundation of the social
stability on which sustained economic growth and development depend.
With this in mind, the UN System is already supporting Governments in accelerating SDG implementation through technology.
For example, the UNDP in Kuwait is supporting the Government of
Kuwait in establishing a Behavioral Insights Policy Appraisal Lab, with
the aim of applying behavioral economics in public policies. The UN has
similarly supported governments in Armenia, Bangladesh, Moldova and Sri
Lanka with designing and launching policy innovation labs, helping to
engage citizens as co-creators of public services.
The UN is working in places like Lebanon, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan
and Yemen to harness decentralized solar solutions to ensure energy
supplies, empowering communities, helping to ensure resilience and
recovery from crisis.
Similarly, UNDP’s Solar for Health initiative supports several
African, Central Asian and Arab State governments to increase access to
quality health services by equipping health centres with solar panels.
Ensuring reliable and cost-eﬀective access to electricity in this way
not only saves lives but also reduces CO2 emissions. Partners include
solar panel producers, local governments and communities.
In partnership with the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation
(GAVI), the UN is also supporting India’s Ministry of Health and Family
Welfare to roll out an innovative mobile application that provides
real-time information on cold chain temperatures and vaccine stocks and
is significantly helping India’s progress towards universal vaccine
coverage. With UN support, the Ministry of Health in Indonesia are in
the process of replicating this innovation.
These sort of opportunities, offered by disruptive technologies,
could help developing countries to leapfrog obsolete generations of
technology and become digital leaders of their own development
But the dividends of using digital solutions to promote development
will only be achieved if the ‘digital divide’ is overcome. Internet
connectivity can empower people and provide access to education and
other public and private services. But it may also create new
dependencies on developed world technological expertise, and
vulnerabilities, such as to hacking.
We are all struggling to keep up with the knowledge, skills and tools
required to harness the opportunities and mitigate the risks of
disruptive technology innovations. Artificial intelligence can assess
national development strategies many times faster than UN experts,
possibly putting me out of a job in the not too distant future.
Cybersecurity will be an increasing concern. The collapse of critical
infrastructure, such as power grids or air traffic systems, due to
cyberattack could have catastrophic consequences for development.
All countries will therefore need to adapt to ensure that governments
are prepared for this ‘4th Industrial Revolution’. Governments must
also help business adapt to digital global competition, and workers’
skills to the demands of the emerging digital economy. Safeguarding
people against risk, by ensuring adequate social protection, skills
training and education, is not an easy task. But the UN system can help
by ensuring that key lessons and best-practices about managing shocks
and technological disruptions are shared between countries and sectors.
So let’s be frank about the challenges it will cause as technology
advances at an unprecedented pace. Technologies do not come without
risk, and not all technologies and risks are equally shared.
Technology-driven growth can have a disproportionate impact across countries, industries, and workers.
These are valid worries. I believe the UN will play an important role
in addressing such dangers by working with its partners in government,
the private sector and civil society.
Uncertainty is at the heart of technological change and innovation.
Governments must provide an enabling policy and regulatory environment.
But, while innovation and new technologies can be powerful tools to
accelerate the pace of development, to be successful, investment in
technological innovation must be guided by political leadership, and
underpinned by a skilled workforce capable of reaping the “digital
dividend”, and, above all, effective public institutions.