Report of the Expert Group Meeting on “Socially just transition towards sustainable development: The role of digital technologies on social development and well-being of all”

By adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Member States committed to achieving sustainable development for all nations and peoples and for all segments of society. The Agenda is based on the ideals of inclusiveness and shared prosperity and Member States pledged to leave no one behind and to endeavor to reach the furthest behind first. With 10 years remaining to achieve the 2030 Agenda, addressing the inter-linkages between social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development will require pursuing a socially just transition that is people-centered and grounded in the principles of social justice.

The economic and social fallouts of the COVID-19 pandemic are having a dramatic impact on social development and well-being worldwide. The crisis risks reversing decades of progress in the fight against poverty and exacerbating already high levels of inequality. At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis provides the opportunity to rethink existing socio-economic policy frameworks in order to ‘rebuild better’. It has sparked a global dialogue on ways forward out of the crisis to build more inclusive and equitable societies by aligning policy frameworks with the vision and overarching objectives of the 2030 Agenda.

In this context, the expert group meeting was organized virtually from 4 to 7 August 2020, by the Division for Inclusive Social Development of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Development (UNDESA), in collaboration with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), with the cooperation with the United Nations Regional Commissions.

Over 80 experts with diverse backgrounds from the five United Nations geographic regions participated in the virtual Expert Group meeting, to review and formulate concrete recommendations on what it takes to enable a socially just transition towards sustainable development and examine the role of digital technologies in facilitating a transition that is inclusive and more equitable. The following is the outcome of the meeting, which will provide substantive input to the Secretary-General’s report on the priority theme of the Commission for Social Development to be held in February 2021, and is expected to assist Member States in implementing various SDGs, including Goals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 16.

Click here to read on UNDESA’s website

Key issues addressed

Inequality: The current context of high and widening inequality, with an increasing concentration of wealth and influence on policy, were identified as pressing global challenges. Inequality in all its dimensions – in income, wealth, access to education, healthcare, safe drinking water and sanitation, sufficient, safe and nutritious food, social protection or ICTs – is harmful to society in multiple ways. High inequality is associated with lower productivity, reduced prosperity, and negative impacts on poverty reduction. It further widens the digital divide, and lowers public support for environmental protection. High inequality also fuels discontent and distrust in governments, thus weakening the social contract and eroding democracy. The COVID-19 crisis has not only exposed pre-existing inequalities and the weakness of current systems, but had also exacerbated them, with many more people being left behind.

Technology has great potential to promote social progress but can also exacerbate existing inequalities. Technological advances are not neutral with respect to their impact and depend on by whom, for whom, and for what purpose they are developed and deployed. They provide a plethora of opportunities as well as risks. On the one hand, digital technologies hold the promise of facilitating a transition towards sustainable development and advancing living standards and well-being for all. On the other, the rapid expansion of digital technologies gives rise to risks and unintended consequences in the context of a political economy of high market concentration and dominance by a few companies. While internationally agreed laws and treaties exist, they are not properly/effectively implemented or enforced to mitigate risks. The increased pace of digital transformation and automation risks further polarizing the labour market in both advanced and emerging economies, providing greater opportunities for highly qualified workers who can meet the new skills requirements, while those employed in more routine work are expected to be at greater risk of automation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating impacts on social development, including an increase in poverty (especially in the number of working poor) and unemployment. Those now being lauded as “essential workers” in health, care, distribution, cleaning, maintenance, food and retail who are keeping society functioning, are disproportionately represented by the poorer segments of the population, including the low paid with poor working conditions, or disadvantaged groups such as youth and women. They are also particularly vulnerable because their work is not suitable for remote working, thereby exposing them even more to the pandemic. The Internet is not easily accessible to all people, leaving many behind, notably in access to education and healthcare. The pandemic is expected to further accelerate digital transformation, which will impact jobs and involve inter-sectoral changes in labour demand.

Digital divide: The Digital divide is a major issue that urgently needs to be addressed. Digital technologies are rapidly transforming all facets of our lives. While increased adoption of digital technology help advance social progress, it can also be harmful to human rights and security, and bring grave threats to personal privacy, dignity and freedom, and, if appropriate policies to mitigate risks are not put in place and/or implemented, it could contribute to a growing divide between haves and have-nots.

Socio-economic (income and non-income) inequalities are closely associated with digital inequalities, as in general the former shape the latter, which, in turn, reinforces existing inequalities thereby creating a vicious cycle. Tackling socio-economic inequalities through digital technologies, therefore, can only address the symptoms but not the root causes of inequalities. Policies to reduce the digital divide need to be multidimensional: technological, economic, social and educational (creating awareness) and should address both socio- economic and digital inequalities simultaneously.

Until recently, policies aimed at closing the digital divide mainly focused on physical access to ICTs. Now, issues such as improving digital skills, affordable access, better Internet usage opportunities or benefits, and building awareness of positive attitudes towards the Internet and regulating negative uses, are becoming increasingly important. The digital divide is a moving target, and cannot be closed completely. Even when universal access to the Internet is achieved, new challenges will emerge, including control over the technology and its design, inequalities in digital skills, usage and outcomes or benefits brought by digital technology will remain and may become wider.

Digital inclusion is fundamental to promoting equality and equity; the increasing digital divide and gender gap need to be addressed. Elements for digital inclusion are accessibility, affordability, availability, physical and digital infrastructure, and digital skills and use. There should be minimum standards and agreed measurements for digital inclusion. Online contents should be inclusive and representative of diversity in language and culture. A participatory approach is key for inclusive design, based on the needs and opportunities identified by and with specific social groups. Early engagement with universities, research institutions, civil society organizations, and the private sector can help embed multi- stakeholder approaches in the development of inclusive design.

The interlinkages between innovation, structural change, and inclusion need to be rethought. Innovation can be disruptive and its benefits unevenly distributed. While inclusion has a positive impact on innovation, structural change and achieving the SDGs, it is not necessarily the case that innovation and structural change lead to inclusion. There is a need to carefully examine how innovation can feed into structural change and inclusion.

Science-technology-innovation policy interface

While science, technology, and innovations (STI) contribute both to solving and creating societal problems, there has been an uneven distribution of STI advances. There is weak alignment between the prioritization of STI initiatives and the distribution of the societal benefits they bring. This needs to be addressed urgently, as the world is currently undergoing a new technological revolution more rapidly than previously. The global alignment between STI-focused initiatives and all the SDGs – especially the interlinkages between economic, social and environmental dimensions – should be strengthened.

It is crucial to better and more directly link STIs to policymakers. Bringing more tech expertise focused on the SDGs into government can support building digital governance capacity and that this better represents the diverse communities that STI will impact. STI Policy Fellowship programs take place throughout the world today. They typically bring junior (and sometimes senior) STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) scholars and professionals, typically with graduate degrees, who are willing to take time out of their professional careers for public service into public policymaking at all levels of government for 1-2 / to focus on a particular societal initiative. These programs can target their recruitment to individuals from groups underrepresented in STEM, including women, to diversify the perspectives brought into the technology decision-making processes.

For the SDGs, a group of interdisciplinary STI policy fellows could be brought together in a team to focus on a challenge such as misinformation in energy, environment, health, education, etc. The “A” in STEAM could be expanded beyond the “arts” to include “anyone”. For example, the team might include a representative from a local village so the cultural aspects of a region could be incorporated into an analysis.

Digital governance

In addition to algorithmic bias, competition/anti-trust, privacy and surveillance, important values such as human rights, the rule of law, trust and transparency are critical to guide digital governance. Ensuring data privacy and countering misinformation is essential for building trust to facilitate technology adoption. International mechanisms and coordination are necessary to protect/assist those who are left behind or negatively affected. A multi-stakeholder/social dialogue on what the moral and political obligations are, as well as mechanisms to facilitate them, will be crucial to combat both socio-economic and digital inequality.

Democratizing digital governance is necessary, through for instance, involving artists and researchers in the humanities and social sciences (beyond the traditional STEM fields), and civil society organizations, including those who are often left behind. “Democratizing technology” also involves shifting the frame of engagement from “users” or “producers”, towards “people”, as technology governance affects everyone. Democratizing technology means the control of technology should ultimately rest with people, and that technology should be transparent and held accountable. Digital governance systems will need to deploy tools to address the unequal distribution of income, wealth and control of technologies.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is revolutionizing the way we live and work. There is a need to better forecast possible scenarios of how these technologies could be used, the skills they might require, and the policies and regulatory frameworks needed at the national and international level. There is a pressing need to ensure transparency, trust and accountability in how technologies and data are managed and used. Opacity in relation to the collection and use of data threaten personal freedoms and individual rights. Algorithmic biases threaten to widen inequalities. Discriminative data collection (unintended or intended) can harm vulnerable populations without access to proper recourse mechanisms. Currently, these mostly take years and are often out of reach of many people, so new independent and effective mechanisms that directly represent ordinary people subject to AI decisions should be established, for example in the form of a digital ombudsman. This is important as AI is qualitatively different from most other technologies as it is often difficult to understand why and how it makes decisions, even for the developers themselves and certainly by most of those applying it. Technological design can exclude people with limited connectivity or hardware access. These risks call for a transparent and robust regulatory framework with accountability mechanisms that can assess the impact of technology on people over their life cycle.

In addition, contextual technology assessment is necessary prior to adoption, incorporating measures for transparency, for example, periods for public comment, and consulting stakeholders during the problem framing and development process. Establishing robust procurement procedures for technologies supplied by private corporations can increase trust and accountability by using audits to address ‘black box’ proprietary systems. Inclusive assessment procedures help answer questions like: “What is the identified problem?”, “Is technology the best solution and use of resources?”, “Is the technology sustainable?”, “Who receives the benefits and who is harmed?”, “What accountability procedures need to be in place?”.

COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities of current systems, and some surveys show a decline in public trust in both digital technology and in government. On the other hand, it has created a space for radical rethinking with a mass support. Societies are ready for new ways of thinking and accepting bold policy changes. The next five years are critical to redirect the course, but the momentum is now before the COVID-19 crisis phases out. We are at a critical juncture to take action if we are to realize a socially just transition towards a new paradigm.

Key Messages

Digital technology should be at the service of people, rather than people being at the service of technology”. Although digital technologies can help advance social progress, they can also pose grave threats to personal privacy, dignity and freedom, so a people-centred approach to digital transformation is critical.

The digital divide should be seen as one of many dimensions of socio-economic inequality, all of which are inter-linked and mutually reinforcing. Addressing socio- economic inequality solely using digital technologies may not bring the intended results, as digital technologies are widening the gap between the “connected” and the “un- connected”, which exacerbates existing inequality between “haves” and “have nots”. We need to address both socio-economic and digital inequality simultaneously.

Tackling the digital divide is complex and requires a multi-dimensional strategy that not only focusses on improving physical access and the affordability of ICTs, but also includes investing in digital skills, promoting better internet usage to increase opportunities or benefits, building awareness of positive attitudes towards the Internet, and regulating negative uses.

One-size does not fit all. There is a need for flexibility in policy choices and context- specific approaches (taking into account regional, national, local and community contexts) when approaching the issues linked to digital transformation, including the digital divide, digital governance, digital inclusion, partnerships and innovative approaches.

The Covid-19 crisis is accelerating the pace of digital transformation. The world is at a critical juncture. We must act now, if we want to realize the socially just transition towards sustainable development. Societies are ready for a new way of thinking to redirect their course, and to accept bold policy change for this purpose.

Consult the link provided above for the complete report.