Digital is key to achieving the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals

Justin Keeble Accenture 1Last year, 195 countries signed up to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which are intended to sustain lasting social and economic changes across rich and poor countries alike. These are the most ambitious set of development goals ever agreed to, and if they’re achieved we’ll be living in a totally transformed global landscape that is more prosperous and environmentally sustainable. But, as it stands, not a single country in the world meets all of the 169 targets set out in these 17 goals. So it’s clear that achieving the SDGs by 2030 is going to be challenging.

While the scale of the ambition is huge, these sustainability development goals can create real business opportunities on a global scale. We need to improve the quality of people’s lives, achieve equitable growth and protect the environment; and we see digital solutions as having the power to drive change. Digital solutions also make good business sense, as they contribute to new business models, create markets and help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems in innovative ways. We’ve explored these opportunities in our latest report: #SystemTransformation: How digital solutions will drive progress towards the sustainable development goals, published in collaboration with Global e-Sustainability Initiative.

Why digital solutions?

Given the tight deadline of less than 15 years to achieve these goals, there is a need for speed and impact. The report highlights three reasons that digital solutions hold the key:

  1. They can diffuse quickly across all aspects of economy and society to reach people virtually anywhere
  2. They put people at the heart of products and services
  3. They are not reliant on aid or charity.

For example: e-health could improve medical services for 1.6 billion people, smart technologies could cut carbon emissions by 20 percent and connected cars could save 720,000 lives from road accidents. Below are some of the most powerful digital solutions in addressing key SDGs:

  • Smart agriculture has the ability to improve farming and irrigation, to use precision agriculture tools could increase agricultural productivity and reduce the need for scarce inputs such as water – thereby reducing hunger, malnutrition, ensuring efficient and sustainable food production.
  • E-health has the capacity to help via remote diagnostics, videoconferencing, electronic data storage, augmented reality, wearables, biosensors, personalized medicine, DNA sequencing – thereby reducing mortality, road injury deaths, achieving universal health coverage, and improving health training.
  • E-learning – from simple videoconferencing to advanced data analytics, augmented reality, gamification, voice recognition software etc – has the potential to create equal access to education, raise vocational skill levels, achieve literacy and numeracy targets as well as increasing the supply of skilled teachers.
  • E-government and smart police involving big data analytics, open government (datasets, public apps using open data), e-identity, online voting, predictive analytics and algorithms for crime forecasting and augmented reality etc. has the potential to reduce violence and deaths, help develop better decisionmaking and accountable institutions as well as providing legal identity for all.
“By employing existing digital technologies in the pursuit of SDGs, we could cut global emissions by nearly one– fifth by 2030.”

It’s important to note that the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is vast. By employing existing digital technologies in the pursuit of SDGs, we could cut global emissions by nearly one– fifth by 2030. These examples, highlight the scope of technologies and the diversity of solutions that we already have at our fingertips. Imagine what new technologies we may have five or ten years from now to positively accelerate these changes.

A bonus boost to the ICT sector

Given the vital role of the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector in helping achieve these SDGs, it’s no surprise that the sector itself could see a huge boost in revenue by up to US$2.1 trillion by 2030. An additional $1.7 trillion could be realized from digital solutions contributing towards SDG achievement, including eCommerce, eWork, smart buildings, eGovernment , and online learning .

When we look at transformation on this scale, the reach and speed of diffusion are important. We know from experience that digital technologies can become widespread, even in some of the poorest regions of the world, in very short spaces of time. For example, just 23 years after the first mobile phone entered the market, digital networks already cover 70 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa. This is the kind of speed and reach that is needed if the world is to have any chance of meeting the SDGs by 2030. I am optimistic that digital technologies can play a key role in helping the world achieve these goals.


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