Can Tech Help Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

May 21, 2019

The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.


Kirkpatrick: Okay. Soumitra Dutta, who’s coming up now, is a professor at the S.C. Johnson School of Business at Cornell, but somebody I’ve known forever. We worked together a lot doing things at the World Economic Forum, and at the very, very first Techonomy conference, he managed a lunch time or kind of pre-conference workshop on global competitiveness, which is really his expertise. He knows more about countries and how they’re developing and how they might develop than anybody I know, so Soumitra, come on up.

Dutta: Thank you, David. Good morning, everyone.


Well, David was very generous with his introductory words, but when he invited me to say a few words to the gathering out here, I was delighted. And I didn’t know this was the cover of the magazine, because this, in effect, really is the key question he posed to me. Can technology help achieve Sustainable Development Goals? And on one side, you have “Yes.” On the other side, you have “No,” and that’s where you have the answer.

The question is, “Who will decide the answer?” Is it technology or is it us? And he knew the answer on that too. It is us. Our choices will decide on which side of the page we will land.

In January this year I was in Davos with David and I was asked to moderate a panel in which we had a discussion around the theme of how will the Fourth Industrial Revolution help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. As you probably might know, the World Economic Forum has really chosen the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a theme for the organization and for its constituent member countries for the future. In the group, we had a number of leaders of key organizations from different multinational organizations, private sector, NGOs. And the discussion was very interesting.

So the end of the discussion conclusion was actually quite simple. It said that the people in the room felt the solutions or at least many of the solutions for helping achieve SDGs were known or were existing. So it’s not that we have to go and create fundamentally new solutions for achieving the SDG goals. The real challenge they felt was how do you actually scale them up?

So scaling was the key problem that the group identified. And this is something which is quite natural given that with the Millennium Development Goal which preceded the SDGs, we already had made good progress in many areas. So poverty had been halved. Gender parity in the primary school education had been achieved. Some other areas had not achieved the requisite goals. For example, infant mortality, mother mortality rates had been halved but not reduced two-thirds level as expected. There are gaps and areas for improvement, but clearly the scaling issue is something which is very important around the world, both in developed and emerging economies. The question is how do we scale?

And the consensus, once again, in the group was technology is the answer. So technology is going to be vital in helping us scale our solutions. Not just create new solutions in some cases, but also scale the solutions. Now obviously, scaling solutions is important. Technology is a driver, and technology, in many cases, is already here amongst us. So what’s the barrier? What kind of challenge are we facing today in using technology to scale existing solutions?

And the barriers came around to issues around the infrastructure required. We often forget that even today, about one-third of the world’s population does not have connection to the Internet. So this is something that we often forget. There is a growing digital divide in countries among the rich and the poor, amongst the urban populations and rural areas. So there are huge divides in terms of access to infrastructure.

You might have heard of countries like Rwanda that have made tremendous progress in achieving their Millennium Development Goals in health. Rwanda also had—sorry. Rwanda also has these wonderful examples of Zipline in which you have drones delivering medical supplies to remote areas in the country. But what people forget is that Rwanda’s success in health is not because of drones—drones, of course, are important—but because it had invested in a whole infrastructure of health care professionals, of primary health care centers, of a community of health care professionals who work with each other, and training of the right professionals in the right areas. So there’s a huge amount of associated infrastructure and skills and other kinds of development work required to go along with the technology. And that is often not happening in many countries in many regions.

If you look at, for example, the SDG goals around education, of course technology is a very key enabler. Today we have many educational ed tech ventures like Coursera and edX and so on that provide high quality education for free for people around the world. The question really is how can we not just improve access, but improve the quality of education to people and improve the quality of teacher training, because teacher training is very important.

I work, for example, with a group in India called the EkStep Foundation, founded by Nandan Nilekani, who was a founder of Infosys. And EkStep Foundation is doing this massive work at trying to scale out improving the primary education in India. And the people out there at EkStep, they are the best people who have lived and worked in the US, looked at Khan Academy, looked at the best examples, and they basically realized that the infrastructure was just not present in Indian schools to actually adopt the same kind of technology.

So what they’re doing right now, they realized, for example, that Indian schools require textbooks, paper textbooks. They will not go away. But what they have done very cleverly is they have actually a system of putting QR codes so that when you teach with the textbooks in the schools, the teacher can actually scan the QR codes and get access on a mobile phone to other associated content linked to the content of their books. So combining and having this innovative application is very important with scaling. And right now, this whole system called DIKSHA is getting scaled out in India to millions and millions of students around the country.

Now what is the fear out here? Clearly, there’s a lot of hope of what technology can do to scale, but technology also has a dark side. And this is the important question. Part of the SDGs, for example, SDG 8 is about providing employment and decent work for all. For all. SDG 10 is around reducing inequality within and amongst countries.

Now we all talk very nicely with the gig economy and all the companies, Uber and so on, but think about the kind of work contracts being created by companies in the gig economy. It’s fairly well-known that a lot of people who work in the gig economy, yes, they have flexibility. At the same time, they don’t have a lot of employment security, a lot of benefits, and often toil at minimum wage. And the labor conditions are not actually very attractive, many of them.

If you look at, for example, inequality, there’s a big debate around is technology actually enhancing inequality around the world. Because what is happening is the rich or the richer people, the richer countries with more access to skills, more access to resources, more access to better technology are able to create higher value at a faster rate than the poorer, who have some technology but not the best, less skills, less resources, and fundamentally create smaller amounts of value. So the whole question is the value creation is getting lopsided. Also, the question is who is getting a lot of the value is creating disruption in society in terms of inequality among the rich and the poor. And a lot of important hard questions out here that we have to address.

So yes, while technology can help us achieve some of the SDG goals in many areas like technology, like health and education, there are other important SDG goals like inequality and decent employment where, in fact, technology can potentially have a negative impact. So who will make the right choices is really up to us.

So if we, as leaders in companies, if we are for example, leadership of these tech companies or in government, if we are not able to put in place the right regulations, the right kind of choices, and lead by example, fundamentally, technology will, in fact, fail us. And the fault will not be of technology. It’ll be our fault.

Thank you very much.


Kirkpatrick: Thank you so much Soumitra.

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