POST TIME: 8 October, 2018 10:40:49 AM
ICT and the Sustainable Development Goals
Mobile phones have already allowed for dramatic breakthroughs in e-finance and e-health, overcoming long-standing gaps in access to facilities such as bank branches and clinics
Mohammed Abul Kalam, PhD

ICT and the Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs, call for several bold breakthroughs by the year 2030, including the end of extreme poverty (SDG1) and hunger (SDG 2), universal health coverage (SDG3), universal secondary education (SDG 4),universal access to modern energy services (SDG7), sustainable cities (SDG 11), combatting climate change (SDG13), and protecting marine (SDG14) and terrestrial (SDG 15) ecosystems. To many, these goals will seem utopian. They are definitely “stretch” goals that will require a transformation of societies that is far deeper and faster than in the past. If they are to be achieved, these goals must leverage existing and widely deployed technologies, such as broadband, but also require new innovative services and improved reach of technological solutions; economic growth in a business-as-usual (BAU) context will not be sufficient for success.

In my view, the broad application of information and communication technology (ICT) is a profound reason for optimism, since the rapid development of ICT-based services and systems offer the possibility for the needed deep transformation of the world economy and societies more broadly. ICT will play a special role in today’s low-income countries, a point strongly and cogently emphasized by the UN’s Broadband Commission. In essence, ICTs are “leapfrog” and transformational technologies, enabling all countries to close many technology gaps at record speed. High productivity growth in the ICT-producing

industry, driven by Moore’s law, has resulted in considerable price decreases which have enabled a rapid diffusion of ICT-products. The nearly universal uptake of mobile telephony is a case in point. Mobile subscriptions in Africa have gone from almost no subscribers in 2000 to around 900 million today.

Mobile phones have already allowed for dramatic breakthroughs in e-finance and e-health, overcoming long-standing gaps in access to facilities such as bank branches and clinics. ICT today is in many parts of the world enabling transformation of the most expensive public services such as education, health care and also advance low income countries’ economies such as agriculture, trade/ecommerce, and transportation. This transformation needs to be scaled up. It is also our assertion that future advances in ICTs—including mobile broadband, the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics and artificial intelligence, 3-D printing, and others—will provide the tools for additional, unprecedented advances in healthcare, education, energy services, agriculture, and environmental monitoring and protection.

One of my key points, however, is that governments, academic and other institutions, businesses and people in the developing countries must prepare themselves for this ICT-enabled transformation; many of them are not ready today. While private-sector applications of ICT have soared, many of the challenges of sustainable development—health, education, infrastructure, and environmental sustainability—require a deep role of the policymakers and the public sector. This, in turn, puts a spotlight on institutions, which are in general important determinants of the success or failure of development. Governments and policymakers more broadly have a special responsibility to ensure that key public –sector agencies, institutions and policy frameworks are reformed to support ICT-enabled transformation.

Every government process—payments, tax collections, procurement, training, human resources, programme design, public deliberation, information management, analytics, legislative drafting, even voting—should be upgraded with the ICTs’ transformative capability in focus. Institutional quality will matter, but will be increasingly defined by the extent to which it usefully incorporates cutting-edge solutions to facilitate the provision, transparency, openness, and efficiency of public services. The governments need to ensure that the entire public sector, including service delivery in health, education, and infrastructure, is fully supported by high-quality ICT infrastructure. This includes:(1)  Broadband connectivity of all public facilities by 2020, (2)  ICT training of all relevant public officials and service providers, (3)  ICT-based delivery systems for healthcare, education, and infrastructure, (4) Deployment of the Internet of Things (remote sensing and control of connected devices) for the public infrastructure and environmental management, (5)  Encouragement of universities to scale up education and incubation of ICT solutions, including through partnerships with the business sector, (6)  Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) for ICT-enabled systems, (7) Deployment of an ICT-based SDG information system that connects public services, public facilities, the business sector, and the public.

My core observation is that ICT has the potential to increase the rate of diffusion of a very wide range of technologies, applications, and platforms across the economy. Key sectors in which technology diffusion can be accelerated include: healthcare, education, financial services, electrification, and high-yield agriculture. The accelerated uptake of ICT-based services constitutes the key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by their target date of 2030. In fact, ICT not only empowers other technologies and services, it in itself is also one of the technologies that can accelerate uptake. If we consider the uptake of a technology (such as electrification, secondary-level education, or primary health coverage), the diffusion (or uptake) of the technology will typically follow an S-shaped curve. The use of the technology will start at a very low level, and initially will increase only gradually. After some time, the uptake of the technology will accelerate. Later on, as the coverage rate approaches 100%, the growth will slow again and finally come to a halt when coverage is complete.

As noted earlier, many of the SDGs call for the economy to reach universal coverage of some core service by 2030, e.g. healthcare (SDG 3), pre-primary up to secondary education (SDG 4), access to safe water and sanitation (SDG6), and access to reliable electricity (SDG 7). In most low-income countries, the Business-as-Usual (BAU) path will not be sufficient to achieve these universal coverage goals by the target date of 2030. The BAU path will support partial achievement of the goals but will not be sufficient to facilitate full achievement. The path to the universal coverage must be accelerated, as shown by the SDG path.

I believe that ICT-based solutions are the key to that acceleration, if governments and the private sector work in partnership towards those goals. There are five major ways in which ICT can dramatically speed the uptake of SDG-supporting services. Firstly, that ICTs themselves diffuse with remarkable speed and at a global scale. The uptake of mobile phones, computers, the Internet, and social media, have been the fastest adoptions of technology in human history. Mobile subscriptions went from a few tens of thousands in1980 to around 7 billion subscriptions in 2015. Facebook users went from zero in 2004, the year Facebook was launched, to 1.5 billion users in mid-2015. According to projections by Ericsson Mobile Report June (2015), mobile broadband coverage (3G or above) worldwide will go from almost 1 billion subscribers in2010 to 7.7 billion subscribers in 2020, covering roughly 90 per cent of the world’s population. Smartphones will go from near-zero subscriptions in to 6.1 billion subscriptions in 2020 according to projections by Ericsson (2015). And in Bangladesh the users of internet reached to 90 million very recently.

The second way is that ICT can markedly reduce the cost of the deploying the new services. In healthcare, for example, ICT makes possible a greatly expanded role for low-cost Community Health Workers (CHWs), enabling many diagnoses and treatments to be made at the community level (during CHW visits to the households)rather than at high-cost facilities; in education, ICT enables students to access quality online teaching even when no qualified teachers are locally available; and online finance allows individuals to obtain banking services even when no banks are present. These simple examples are of course just the tip of the iceberg: cost savings from ICT are already disrupting major sectors across the economy in high-income countries, and introducing vital services for the first time in low-income countries.

The third way is that ICT can dramatically speed up public awareness of new services and technologies, and therefore the demand and readiness for these. In the past, information on new technologies spread by word of mouth, local demonstrations, and the scale-up of government programmes and services. Now, with torrents of information flowing through the Internet, social media, mobile communications, and other e-channels, information travels nearly instantly around the globe, except in the few societies isolated by closed regimes. Songs, fashions, fads, personalities, and new technologies all ricochet around the world in days, not years as in the past.

The fourth way is that national and global information networks can support the rapid upgrading of new applications.

Every new technology, including ICT-based technologies, must go through a learning curve in which the technology passes through several “generations” of improvement, with each generation in principle marked by lower costs, greater resilience, easier use, and wider applicability. ICT can speed up these generational cycles.

Global information flows are enhanced, and technology developers are much more attuned than in the past to advances being achieved in other parts of the world. There is a trend toward many ICT applications becoming open source, or at least inter-operable, which allow for gains made by one developer to be picked up and improved by others. The whole process of technology upgrading has thereby accelerated, with the winners of this intense competition often carrying home the prize of a large slice of the global market.

While much of the technology development will occur beyond the borders of any single country, each country can and should speed its own learning curves and shorten the time of each technology generation, especially for ICT-based solutions that necessarily have strong local content (e.g. for education, healthcare, agriculture, and environmental management).

The fifth way that ICT can accelerate technology diffusion is by providing low-cost online platforms for training workers in the new technologies. The revolution of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), for example, enables students anywhere to gain free access to high-quality university courses, including courses in the design and use of ICTs. Special training materials are also being delivered conveniently over smart phones, tablets, laptops, and other devices.

These multiple channels for training materials are making it much easier to provide workers with real-time, in-service training that does not disrupt their work schedules, but rather builds the training right into the work itself. In this way, ICT-hosted training modules and courses offer the way to train millions of workers, especially young and under-employed workers, in the uses of new ICT applications for SDG-oriented service delivery.

The first job of every government is to place the SDGs alongside current realities and the current pace of change. They will find, with few exceptions, that the Business-as-Usual trajectory is insufficient to achieve the SDGs by 2030. Then, they must engage in a “back-casting process,” to ask what it will take to achieve success by going from the target in 2030 to the steps that are needed today. The governments will identify the need for a rapid acceleration of public investments and services in key areas, especially health, education, and infrastructure. Yet the needed pace of scale up on conventional grounds will seem to be impossible, beyond financial and logistical feasibility. This is, of course, where ICTs come in.

They offer the possibility of much faster technology upgrading, training, and service provision at low cost, but only if the systems are quickly designed and deployed. With 2030 targets looming, there will be no opportunity for a slow, gradual, cautious uptake of new approaches.

Can individual governments and the world as a whole be ready for this rapid advance? The answer is yes, if there is a shared vision of how to proceed, and if new institutions are quickly put in place.

In short, the SDGs represent a complex, global-scale problem-solving exercise that cuts across all sectors of the economy and that must engage all parts of the world. We have adopted the SDGs; now we will have to deploy all of the tools needed, including the ICTs, to make them a success.

The writer is former head, Department of Medical Sociology,

Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR)

Dhaka, Bangladesh

E-mail: [email protected]