Op-Ed: Harnessing tech innovation for the SDGs – Leaving no-one behind

PUBLISHED: Fri, 22 Sep 2017 13:32:39 GMT

By: Mary-Jean Nleya *

The 72nd United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) runs until Monday 25 September. Speeches from different heads of state commenced on 19 September. The much-anticipated debut of President Donald Trump on the world stage took place on Tuesday. He applauded the African Union and United in his debut speech for “[leading] peacekeeping missions [and] to have invaluable contributions in stabilizing conflicts in Africa”.

Among African heads of state, President Alpha Condé of Guinea was the first African to take the international stage. He was fifth on the list, directly after President Trump. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was the second African head of state to address the assembly and eighth on the general debate list.

While there are many issues heads of state have to cover in the time granted them to address the international community, the entire programme, including the side events, provides an opportunity to discuss issues that may or may not be directly addressed by the respective heads of states. One of the important topics is on bridging the digital divide and harnessing technology to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Rapid innovation versus digital inclusivity

The 21st century has brought about a significant rise in the use and advancement of technology. In recent months there have been widespread debate and discussion on the perils or conversely the advantages of artificial intelligence (AI), with tech giants painting various images on the future use of AI.

Debates on the future of technology have become so futuristic that there is a need to pause and look at the current issues surrounding existing digital infrastructure. The various debates on AI ought not to surpass the important discussions on overcoming the digital divide and the current inequalities as they relate to the basic infrastructure and access to technology, e.g. internet connectivity in some parts of the world.

While debates on the future uses of AI should be considered and genuinely debated; practical and critical issues of preventing an irreparable digital divide have to be given due recognition, too.

Therefore, it is imperative that in the midst of the headline grabbing futuristic debates by tech billionaires that actions, strategies and methods of ensuring access to the internet should be implemented to connect those that are still unconnected. We’re talking here about the use of basic internet services, through affordable methods such as the TV White Spaces spectrum. The digital divide affects certain segments of the populace, such as low-income and rural localities – due to unaffordability and inadequate skills.

Discussions on tech   

During a panel discussion on “The Digital Transformation of Social Impact”, co-founder of Xbox, Otto Berkes, said: “Technology is a powerful enabler of communication and outreach, [particularly] when internet & mobile devices come together”, and that the way to harness technology as an enabler is to “harvest the intellectual capability across the globe”.

A subsequent side event during the UNGA was the “High Level Event on Innovation and Technology: SDG Innovation”. Here, Aliko Dangote had this to say, “There is no way we can reach the Sustainable Development Goals’ targets without leveraging on technology and innovation”.

Ashish Thakkar, dubbed “Africa’s youngest billionaire”, said: “By 2020, Africa will have 700 million cellphones online”. This emphasises the importance of finding ways to ensure that mobile penetration in conjunction with access to basic internet services, especially on the African continent, is leveraged to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and break inequalities as they currently exist in areas such as access to education and healthcare.

Tech & globalisation

Globalisation as it exists in the 21st century has been credited with a lot, among others, ensuring an interconnected and vibrant world economy; maintaining multilateralism; improving the standard of living exponentially for over half a billion people in emerging economies such as China, Brazil and India; and viz-a-viz being a proponent which has reduced inequalities across nations.

Conversely, globalisation has also been critiqued for having been the cause of inequalities within nations by benefitting a privileged elite, and having been the cause of the contagion effect all over the world during the 2008 economic crisis, etc.

It is essential to find ways to ensure that technological innovation is inclusive and does not widen socio-economic inequalities that exist today in order to preempt societal unrest from taking place as seen with complexities and paradoxes of globalisation in recent years and more so in recent months.


Bridging the digital divide and ensuring that indeed access to basic internet services and access to other forms of enabling technology is equalised and available to all requires unconventional and bold steps.

To buttress this point, the president of the 72nd session of the UNGA, Miroslav Lajcak, at the “High Level Event on Innovation and Technology: SDG Innovation” session highlighted the importance of “unleash[ing] innovation to unlock the potential of every person, everywhere, especially [among] young people”.

In this regard, bold and unconventional steps are required to harness technology and innovation for the SDGs. Countries such as Estonia have moved to offer the internet as a right to all citizens and offers it to all its citizens.

The step undertaken by Estonia is indeed ambitious; however, if one country has made access to internet services possible for all its citizens, there are other approaches that can be followed by leaders of governments and business to afford opportunities to all citizens (despite social and economic strata) and “unlock the potential of every person, everywhere”.

* Mary-Jean Nleya is the founder & editor of The Global Communiqué , a current affairs online magazine. She has been selected as a 2017 UNLEASH SDG Talent and is a G20 Young Global Changer. Mary-Jean is attending the SDG Media Zone at the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York City and will be covering the event. Twitter handle: @thegloco.

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