Keeping Pace with an Accelerated World: Bringing Rapid Technological Change to the United Nations Agenda

The President of the seventy-third session of the General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, chairs the Assembly meeting on the impact of rapid technological change on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 18 October 2018, New York.                                                                                                              ©UN Photo/Manuel Elias

 

Humanity is at a crossroads: we face both the opportunities and challenges of a range of powerful and emerging technologies that will drive radical shifts in the way we live. The accelerated pace at which technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology, robotics, automation, advanced materials and quantum computing are developing, is already transforming the systems that we take for granted today. From how we produce and transport goods and services to the way we communicate, collaborate or even elect our governments, rapid technological change—which often happens at an exponential pace—is reshaping how we experience the world around us.

The good news is that this period of rapid technological change is in its early stages and is still under our control. Standing at this crossroads means that we bear a huge responsibility, since new technologies can increase inequality among and within countries, replace obsolete labour forces, affect vulnerable groups, foster a concentration of critical knowledge and wealth, and pose significant ethical questions. However, such technologies can also be used positively to accelerate achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their 169 targets.

According to the World Bank, the proportion of jobs at risk of automation is higher in developing countries than in developed countries. From a purely technological standpoint, two thirds of jobs in developing countries are susceptible to automation in the coming decades. However, the effects of that process could be moderated by lower wages and slower adoption of technology1 in those countries. Using an adjusted measure based on technological feasibility, the share of employment that is susceptible to automation by country ranges from 55 per cent in Uzbekistan to 85 per cent in Ethiopia,2 while the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development average is 57 per cent.

On the other hand, using smart grids, big data and the Internet of things can help reduce energy consumption, balance energy demand and supply, and ensure and improve the management of energy distribution, while increasing the role of renewable sources by allowing households to feed surplus energy from solar panels or wind turbines into the grid. The cost of solar cells has dropped by a factor of more than 100 in the last 40 years, from $76.67 per watt in 1977 to $0.029 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in 2017. Solar energy is now the cheapest generation technology in many parts of the world.3

National and international institutions are challenged to keep pace with the economic and social consequences of new technologies, which is why there is a growing need for a discussion on this issue. The United Nations, valued for its normative and impartial standard-setting role, provides a unique platform for important orientation on this phenomenon. To achieve the 2030 Agenda and ensure that no one is left behind, Member States, along with the private sector, academia, civil society and other relevant stakeholders, must develop international frameworks to promote and ensure that the benefits of this revolution are evenly shared.

 

General Assembly Resolution 72/242 on Rapid Technological Change and The Third STI Forum

In 2017, in the light of the aforementioned transformations, Mexico organized and launched the core group on exponential technological change, which, by December 2018, comprised 34 countries from different regions. The idea was to bring together a group of Member States interested in this topic and introduce it to the United Nations based on interaction with relevant actors, such as the private sector and academia. In October 2017, following internal deliberations, Mexico presented a resolution on the “Impact of rapid technological change on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals”. It was adopted as resolution 72/242 by the General Assembly in December 2017.

The resolution recognized the impacts of rapid technological change. It emphasized that a multi-stakeholder approach was necessary to allow States to benefit from opportunities presented by such change and address challenges derived from it. Areas in which science, technology and innovation play a role were identified, including food security and nutrition, agriculture, energy efficiency, health, education, productivity and competitiveness. Resolution 72/242 further recognizes that growing digital divides remain between developed and developing countries, as well as along gender lines.

Using current United Nations structures, resolution 72/242 serves as a foundation to start a collective reflection that could help us understand the phenomenon of rapid technological change.  For this reason, special mandates were given to the Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM) established by the 2030 Agenda, as well as the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), a subsidiary body of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) based in Geneva.

TFM comprises the Inter-Agency Task Team on Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs (IATT), which includes a group of 10 representatives from civil society, the private sector and the scientific community; the Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (STI Forum); and an online platform that provides access to information, knowledge and experience, as well as best practices and lessons learned on science, technology and innovation facilitation initiatives and policies.

The resolution requested TFM and CSTD to consider the impact of rapid technological change on the achievement of the SDGs. It asked IATT to present its findings in this regard in a special session of the 2018 STI Forum. Furthermore, it opened the possibility of retaining this topic on the agenda of the General Assembly, thus establishing the foundations of the discussion on rapid technological change.

Mexico, along with Japan, was appointed by the ECOSOC President to co-chair the Third STI Forum. For Mexico, this represented a recognition of its leadership in bringing the topic of rapid technological change to the General Assembly agenda in 2017. The STI Forum, held from 5 to 6 June 2018, addressed for the first time the impact of rapid technological change on the achievement of the SDGs as a follow-up to the mandate contained in the 2017 resolution promoted by Mexico.

During the Forum, the initial findings of TFM were presented, concluding that countries need to act proactively towards the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda. The United Nations should assess and help countries in identifying and facilitating the implementation of good practices and public policy responses related to the SDGs, so as to mitigate the possible negative effects and harness the potential of rapid technological change.

The Fourth STI Forum in 2019, closing the four-year cycle of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), will also address the impact of rapid technological change on the achievement of the SDGs with updated findings by TFM.

 

The 2018 General Assembly debate and resolution 73/17

On 18 October 2018, the President of the General Assembly convened a session to discuss rapid technological change in order to take stock of the developments and progress generated throughout the year. Mexico argued that the debate on the topic might be the most important of our time because it permeates every aspect of life in every corner of the world. The twenty countries that participated identified increased cooperation as essential to harnessing technological advances for the betterment of humanity and for understanding the impact of those advances on the implementation of the SDGs.

The meeting was also an opportunity to hear from United Nations agencies about the work that they have already done. As a normative compass, the Secretary-General’s Strategy on New Technologies defined the principles and commitments that will guide United Nations system efforts to align these technologies with the values enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the norms and standards of international law.

After a year of researching technological change, Mexico presented another resolution—73/17—which was adopted by the General Assembly on 26 November 2018. The main objective of the resolution is to recognize the evolution of the topic and strengthen intergovernmental cooperation to continue the discussion. It also further incorporates the 2030 Agenda into the process by including its targets, and not only its goals, as the basis to proceed with the analysis. Additionally, it makes a specific reference to AI, which is one of the key technologies transforming our lives and societies.

The resolution reflects the most important developments in 2018 regarding technological change. For instance, it recognizes the findings presented by TFM and CSTD; takes into account the role that new technologies can play in achieving the SDGs, as expressed in the HLPF Ministerial Declaration; and refers to the work of the Panel on Digital Cooperation established by the Secretary-General, as well as the operationalization of the Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries in Turkey. It mentions the fact that the High-level segment of ECOSOC has been mandated to consider future trends and scenarios, such as the contribution of new technologies on the realization of the 2030 Agenda, and emphasizes the need for a multi-stakeholder approach.

Looking forward, the resolution requests TFM and CSTD to present their updated findings on rapid technological change. It reiterates the mandate of the STI Forum and invites Member States to consider science and technology as a cross-cutting issue in the upcoming review of the next cycle of HLPF. Furthermore, it requests the STI Forum and CSTD to coordinate their work and suggests that the Secretary-General incorporate the dimension of new technologies into the work of the Secretariat. Probably the most important dimension of the resolution, however, is that it invites the President of the General Assembly to convene a high-level thematic debate on rapid technological change during the seventy-fourth  session of the General Assembly, and to include the topic in the agenda of the seventy-fifth session. With this latter decision, Member States have accepted that rapid technological change should continue to be addressed by the General Assembly.

 

Conclusion

There is no doubt that rapid technological change is here to stay. Against this backdrop, Mexico has promoted various initiatives to include rapid technological change as a priority in the United Nations agenda. In 2017, we presented the groundbreaking General Assembly resolution on the “Impact of rapid technological change on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals”. In 2018, Mexico co-chaired with Japan the Third STI Forum and presented a second resolution on the topic, which built a new way to deal with the rapid technological change inside the United Nations system in a well-coordinated and forward-looking approach.

While these efforts have increased the awareness of the international community, there is still much to do. Yet the lessons that we have learned point to the fact that, through multilateral cooperation, we can minimize the challenges and foster the vast opportunities of rapid technological change. Keeping pace in an accelerated world is the only way for institutions to remain relevant. For this reason, Mexico was audacious in bringing to the agenda of the United Nations an issue of absolute relevance. Some would say it was even daring, as shaking up Turtle Bay is not an easy task. It has required a great deal of time spent learning more about science, technology and innovation, but so far, we strongly believe it has been worth every minute.

 

References

Phil Fersht and others, “Automation will trim 1.4 million global services jobs by 2021”, HFS Research, 4 July 2016.  Available at www.hfsresearch.com/pointsofview/automation-will-trim-14-million-global-... (accessed 16 March 2018).

James Manyika and others, "Harnessing automation for a future that works", McKinsey Global Institute (New York, McKinsey & Company, 2017).

Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever, The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future (Oakland, California, Berret-Koehler Publishers, 2017).

 

Notes

1World Bank, World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends. (Washington, D.C., 2016), p. 23. Available at:http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/896971468194972881/pdf/102725-PUB-Replacement-PUBLIC.pdf.

2Ibid.

3Pilita Clark, "The Big Green Bang: how renewable energy became unstoppable", Financial Times, 18 May 2017. Available at https://www.ft.com/content/44ed7e90-3960-11e7-ac89-b01cc67cfeec.