Standards Build Trust: How the International Telecommunication Union Supports Inclusive Sustainable Development

Standards connect us with reliable modes of communication, codes of practice and frameworks for cooperation. Diverse communities, rich in unique skills and means of production, find mutual benefit in trade and the larger marketplace it creates, but this can only be achieved through the application of common standards. International standards speak to the diversity of our interconnected world, introducing uniformity at the interfaces where we need to be certain that we are all on the same terms.

Standards build trust. They are at play in almost every product we consume and every process that readies them for consumption. Products or services conforming to international standards are imbued with trusted symbols of quality, safety or compatibility. Information and communication technologies (ICTs)—such as mobile phones, tablets and personal computers—possess a wide variety of features, but all connect and function using the common language provided by international standards. The ICT industry relies on technical standardization to an extent rivaled by few other industry sectors. Technical standardization establishes engineering norms for complex systems and is crucial in capturing and stimulating innovation, providing the lifeblood of ICT networks. Such networks require common standards to enable interconnection and interoperability.

Standards bodies such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) are a primary means of enabling the collaboration and cooperation required to establish international standards. ITU rules and procedures promote openness and transparency, providing an environment where innovators from competing companies can come together to develop international standards that meet their need for common platforms for ICT growth and innovation.

Standardization is of great service to the public interest. International standards create efficiencies enjoyed by all market players. They lower the costs of starting a company or developing a product, and they enable new firms to enter a market, increasing competition and innovation. Interoperability improves as more standards-based products enter a market, which in turn encourages the adoption of standards by more market players. This ultimately results in lower costs for producers and lower prices for consumers.

The Importance of Open, Inclusive Standardization

Standardization has been at the core of the ITU mandate since the organization’s inception in 1865. Estimates suggest that 95 per cent of international communications traffic runs over fibre-optic networks built in conformity with ITU standards. Video accounts for over 80 per cent of consumer Internet traffic, the majority of which is coded using ITU standards. This achievement has been honoured with two Primetime Emmy Awards.

The global ICT ecosystem is a remarkable feat of engineering and international collaboration. ITU standardization has built trust among the myriad countries and companies that collaborate to bring cohesion to ICT innovation worldwide. Technical standards were traditionally most prevalent in ICT and consumer electronics, but they are finding new relevance in supporting ICT-enabled innovation in areas such as energy, transportation, financial services, smart cities and health care. This is reflected in the increasing attention devoted to standardization by policymakers and regulators.

The European Union has emphasized standards and interoperability as a key pillar of the Digital Agenda for Europe. Standardization is also a key component of innovation strategies in the United States. Other countries are attributing similar weight to standardization; this is especially true of China, a country of increasing prominence in the standardization world.

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through Information and Communication Technologies innovation

ITU standardization has gained a range of new stakeholders as other industry sectors have scaled up their use of ICTs as enabling technologies to innovate their service offerings and gain efficiency and sustainability. The ITU standardization platform, for many years central to building trust in the ICT sector, is now helping build trust among its many new collaborators. This is reflected in ITU membership. The standardization arm of ITU has welcomed 44 new members in 2018, including mobile virtual network operators and enablers (MVNOs and MVNEs), over-the-top (OTT) service providers, manufacturers of unmanned aerial vehicles, telematics and automotive companies, energy utilities, and companies specializing in quantum cryptography and quantum communications.

The technical and business dynamics of the ICT industry are transforming rapidly. The resulting advances in ICT are enabling similarly pronounced transformations in our societies and economies.

In Asia, we speak of “innovation of ICT” and “innovation by ICT”. Innovation of ICTs is creating highly reliable, highly flexible networks that are able to meet the requirements of an extraordinarily large number and diversity of ICT applications. Such applications—innovation by ICT—have the potential to make invaluable contributions to our pursuit of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Goals emphasize the importance of partnerships, a principle that ITU is pleased to support.

The United Nations Secretary-General’s Strategy on New Technologies calls on the United Nations system to protect and promote global values; foster inclusion and transparency; work in partnership; build on existing capabilities and mandates; and be humble and continue to learn. This is exactly the spirit in which ITU is contributing to sustainable development.

ITU member States convened at the Plenipotentiary Conference 2018 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from 29 October to 16 November. The Conference is the top policymaking body of ITU; it is held every four years to review and refine the organization’s strategy. The meeting offered evidence of the great optimism surrounding the ability of ICTs to advance sustainable development. But this optimism was tempered with great humility, as the Conference recognized the need to build trust among the expanding array of interests that now hold a stake in the future of ICT.

Capitalizing on convergence: New partnerships to achieve global goals 

Once disparate industries are moving into new, shared territory, and they find themselves becoming competitors as well as collaborators. There has been an associated convergence in the responsibilities of different regulatory authorities. ITU is building bridges between communities within the ICT industry, as well as between that industry and the many others innovating with ICT. ITU offers a neutral platform to build the mutual trust necessary for shared technological advances.

Connected vehicles and automated driving are quickly moving onto public roads, holding great promise for increased road safety and personal mobility, and for decreased congestion and emissions. ITU is supporting the development of intelligent transport systems in partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the body responsible for global vehicle regulation.

ICTs have enormous potential to extend the reach of the financial system. 1.7 billion adults are still without a bank account, but 1.1 billion of them have a mobile phone. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ITU is advancing digital financial inclusion in partnership with the World Bank Group, and the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures of the Bank for International Settlements.

Our cities are home to the majority of the world’s people. They are powerful engines of economic productivity but equally powerful engines of energy consumption and emissions. ITU has built an alliance with 15 other United Nations bodies in support of smart sustainable cities, a collaboration that has led more than 50 cities worldwide in measuring their progress using Key Performance Indicators for Smart Sustainable Cities, which are based on ITU standards.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) will come to influence a broad scope of social and economic activity. ITU has taken the lead in promoting the inclusive dialogue necessary to ensure that AI proves to be a force for good. The AI for Good Global Summit, organized by ITU in partnership with XPRIZE Foundation, the Association for Computing Machinery and 32 sister United Nations agencies, is the leading United Nations platform for dialogue on AI. The Summit focuses on impact, generating new AI projects to accelerate progress towards the SDGs. The 2018 Summit, held in Geneva from 15 to 17 May, was influential in calling for the establishment of a new collaboration initiative led by ITU and the World Health Organization to support the contribution of AI to clinical and public health. The initiative is working towards the standardization of a framework for the performance benchmarking of AI for health algorithms. It aims to deliver evaluation methods for assessing the degree to which AI for health use cases have achieved proof of concept.

Welcome to the ITU standardization community

The ultimate goal of ITU standardization is the establishment of high-quality international standards, developed using an open, inclusive process, meeting the needs of ICT innovators in a wide variety of industry sectors. The contribution-led ITU standardization process is beholden to a longstanding commitment to consensus-based decision-making. The principles underlying the process ensure that all voices are heard, that standardization efforts do not favour particular commercial interests, and that resulting standards have the consensus-derived support of the diverse set of stakeholders that constitute the membership of ITU. The inclusivity of the standardization platform is supported by the ITU Bridging the Standardization Gap programme, which assists developing countries in improving their capacity to participate in the development and implementation of international ICT standards. By safeguarding the principles that guide ITU standardization, and welcoming new communities as members, ITU is supporting the emergence of a trusted ICT environment able to support social and economic development in all regions of the world.