Amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic, the intersecting challenges of health and sustainability have never been more apparent. Therefore, the 2020 edition of the G-STIC conference came at the right time to underline the urgency to identify integrated technological solutions and promote multi-stakeholder cooperation to address this health crisis, mitigate its longer-term impacts, and prepare for future challenges that can threaten the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Working together to safeguard our common future
3700 participants and 200 world-renowned speakers and sustainability thought leaders from 140 countries joined us for this fourth conference of our Global Sustainable Technology & Innovation Community. Among them was Gro Harlem Brundtland, who highlighted during her keynote that the COVID-19 pandemic is a stark illustration of how we need to work together for inclusiveness, equality, empowerment and sustainability to safeguard our common future.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in turn, emphasised that breakthrough technological innovations are crucial to address the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and the growing inequalities throughout the world. He considers this pandemic to be a wake-up call for a better relationship between science and policymaking and more effective international technology cooperation. He explicitly recognised the critical role that our Global Sustainable Technology and Innovation Community plays in this.
Even if the focus during the past nine months has been on the economic consequences of the pandemic and the development of vaccines, our community should continue to look further ahead. Not losing sight of the longer-term goals agreed upon in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is crucial in preparing for future challenges that can threaten the achievement of the SDGs.
Implementing sustainable healthcare systems and technologies
Far from undermining the case for the SDGs, the root causes and uneven impacts of COVID-19 demonstrate the urgency of implementing the 2030 Agenda. COVID-19 is forcing us to mobilise scientific and technological actors for a new area of technological development that balances economic, social and environmental progress to build a greener and more inclusive future.
The first major pandemic of our century has heightened awareness that a collaborative effort is needed to fight health emergencies and tackle determinants of health such as air pollution. And as health plays a central role in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, it needs much more interaction with different areas such as climate, energy, nutrition, and water, for the development of sustainable healthcare systems and the overall achievement of the SDGs.
Which technological innovations are helping the fight against COVID-19? We spoke with Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist of the World Health Organization. Listen to the inspiring insights of Soumya Swaminathan during the plenary session “Looking beyond COVID-19: Integrated pathways to address health, economy and climate”.
A collaborative network for technological innovation
Many participants in the G-STIC conference discussions and roundtables emphasised that collaboration is also vital for the development of breakthrough solutions for achieving the SDGs related to climate, education, energy, food, oceans and water, and for implementing circular economy strategies. After all, the SDGs represent the common will of all countries to make economic growth on a more sustainable path.
Technological transformations have to be collaborative because no single country or region can manage by itself the many daunting challenges related to climate change and the exhaustion of the Earth’s resources, and there are lessons to be learned from each other’s experience. Strengthening international cooperation is therefore essential to move forward and accelerate the implementation of the SDGs, as the members of the United Nations Technology Facilitation Mechanism’s (TFM) 10-Member Group of High-level Representatives rightfully pointed out during the plenary roundtable on Science and Technology advice for the SDGs.
Collaboration and the will to learn from each other will also be crucial to bringing about changes in the attitudes and behaviours of millions of adults. Training and educational programmes such as the ones supported by the UN Climate Change Building Platform can be instrumental in reaching those adults and trigger attitudinal and behavioural changes on a large enough scale. In this regard, it is essential to recognise the innovation that young people can bring to the table. Mainly as they have grown up with new technologies, young people can do a lot in terms of overcoming the multitude of technological challenges ahead of us.
Digital innovation empowering sustainable progress
During the High-level inaugural session, H.E. Jairam Ramesh (Former Minister of Environment, India), H.E. Paolo Gentiloni (EU Commissioner for Economy), H.E. Abdulla Bin Touq Al-Marri (Minister of Economy, UAE) and H.E. Jan Jambon (Minister-President, Flanders) provided their perspective on the profound changes that are needed, how they can be enabled and deployed to work for the benefit of all. During the thematic sessions and deep dives, speakers and panellists zoomed in on concrete examples of technological innovations, and digital innovations in particular.
Digital innovation, for example, creates opportunities for all challenges related to the production, marketing and consumption of food. In particular, emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things or Big Data can help develop monitoring capabilities and platforms to support sustainable food systems that improve cultivation management, automate farming operations, increase production, and save energy in harvesting and distribution.
Digitalisation programmes for continuous learning, training and reskilling are equally important because the transition to a carbon-neutral world will be inclusive, or it will not be. Novel educational frameworks are needed to prepare students to become life-long learners through a variety of learning approaches including experiential learning, inquiry-based learning, challenge-based learning and interdisciplinary problem-based learning.
Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of Telecommunications Development Bureau, UN-ITU, made a strong point during the special IEEE session, highlighting that the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of global digital connectivity for families to stay in touch, for information, and for entertainment. Technology is the most powerful tool to connect us and break down barriers, yet 3.6 billion people are still denied this opportunity. As the goal of the SDGs is to leave no one behind, we need to make sure that the digital transformation leaves no one offline. Connectivity technology should be accessible, actionable and affordable for all.
The European Green Deal
Breakthrough digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things or digital cleantech are indispensable to realise circular value chains. During the Circular Economy closing session, experts from the industry and the European Commission discussed the innovation challenges to bridge the gap between digitalisation and circular economy, and the need to decrease the digital sector’s dependency on imported and critical raw materials.
Along with the decarbonisation of the energy system and a farm-to-fork strategy for a fair and environmental-friendly food system, the acceleration of universal access to digital technologies and the transition to a circular economy are key components of the European Green Deal. Calling for a dramatic transformation on a well-defined timeline, this Green Deal is a template for what we should do to achieve the SDGs.