A New SDG: Sustainable Tech

How can we use institutional mobilisation and new partnerships to secure a sustainable world with information technologies? A new UN Sustainable Development Goal for Sustainable Tech might be the answer.
A New SDG: Sustainable Tech
This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

A sustainable world with BigTech—information markets ruled by attention economy—is not only a matter of individual mobilisation through programmes of digital literacy and packages of legislation regulating the information market and services. It is likewise about finding new ways of realising the most visionary, but often enough neglected, UN Sustainable Development Goal 17: emphasising Partnerships for the goals to fulfil the remaining 16 SDGs.

Social Listening: An Example

A telling example combining individual and institutional mobilisation is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2020 initiative "Social Media Listening", which attempts to immunise global populations from misinformation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, WHO have continuously collaborated with a data-analytics company to scrutinise the weekly 1.6 million pieces of COVID-19-related information on social platforms. They then divided them into four categories via a new health taxonomy, combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning: cause, disease, intervention and treatment. In doing so, WHO attained a more intricate understanding of the themes that were trending publicly, and was thus better able to target its messaging on topics such as "When do you know that a pandemic is over?" and "How do you know when a new wave of coronavirus is about to break out?"

Artificial intelligence may help determine user emotions through automated analysis of natural language. Rather than simple sentiment analysis in the form of positive, neutral and negative feelings, it can identify how specific emotions such as anxiety, anger, frustration, rejection or acceptance come to occupy certain themes in particular populations. One of the principles implemented by the Social Media Listening initiative prioritises speed over volume, with the intent of uncovering the virality of narratives as opposed to the amount of information in circulation.

Lastly, and despite allegations of corrupt agendas and the danger of inciting mistrust and conspiracies, WHO remains principally impartial when it comes to passing judgement on which information is right or wrong. On the contrary WHO seeks to share information, the accuracy of which is verified by reliable sources. Here, users play a salient role. Instead of thinking of citizens as passive sharers of information, the organisation actively seeks to get us to search for dubious information that WHO may then factcheck and publish on its Mythbuster page. Users are therefore able to take a more active stance on the pandemic and the infodemic that’s followed in its wake.  

The UN’s 17th SDG essentially petitions institutions—private, public and NGOs—to enter into partnerships so that the 16 remaining SDGs may be addressed and realised. WHO and Meta/Facebook forged a partnership to fight misinformation during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, an example of institutional mobilisation where different agents collaborate to address one or more global challenges. Rather than attempt to maximise utility individually—and potentially get caught up in the prisoner’s dilemma—we need more of this kind of institutional mobilisation to incentivise us to collaborate for greater collective gains. That’s the message of the stag hunt game, which exactly applies to the realisation of the SDGs. The time is ripe to add a new UN SDG: Sustainable Tech.

More on the Forum Network: The Short and Winding Road to 2030 by Romina Boarini, Director, Centre for Well-Being, Inclusion, Sustainability and Equal Opportunity (WISE), OECD

More on the Forum Network: The Short and Winding Road to 2030 by Romina Boarini, Director, Centre for Well-Being, Inclusion, Sustainability and Equal Opportunity (WISE), OECD

Sustainable Tech and the Vienna Manifesto

If many NGOs and tech companies have parts to play in institutional mobilisation, so too do public education and research institutions, as was the case in the past. In 1929 a group of scientists and scholars—comprised of philosophers, physicists, mathematicians, political scientists and others— wrote an Enlightenment manifesto with the somewhat demonstrative title Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung: Der Wiener Kreis, or The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle. They met in Vienna’s cafés with the initial ambition of making philosophy scientific. They later went on to develop larger and wilder ambitions: a greater ideological and societal difference was now to be made with the help of logic, science, enlightenment and common sense.

"We witness the spirit of the scientific world-conception penetrating in growing measure the forms of personal and public life, in education, upbringing, architecture, and the shaping of economic and social life according to rational principles. The scientific world-conception serves life, and life receives it."

In 2019, a hundred years later, yet another manifesto was written in Vienna, namely the Vienna Manifesto on Digital Humanism. This new manifesto, developed by university and sector research employees and research foundation delegates from around the world, aims to steer digital technologies in a responsible, enlightened and socially beneficial direction, resting on the human condition:

“Digital technologies are disrupting societies and questioning our understanding of what it means to be human. The stakes are high and the challenge of building a just and democratic society with humans at the center of technological progress needs to be addressed with determination as well as scientific ingenuity. Technological innovation demands social innovation, and social innovation requires broad societal engagement...We encourage our academic communities, as well as industrial leaders, politicians, policy makers, and professional societies all around the globe, to actively participate in policy formation”.

The core principles of the Vienna Manifesto are central for pervasive mobilisation in the information age, particularly the following eight principles which also emphasise the scientific social responsibility of tech research:

  1. Digital technologies should be designed to promote democracy and inclusion. 
  2. Privacy and freedom of expression are essential values for democracy and should be at the centre of our activities. Tech platforms need to ensure these values are secured.
  3. Effective regulations, rules and laws, based on a broad public discourse, must be established. This ensures precision, fairness, equality, transparency and check and balances on platforms, software and algorithms.
  4. Regulators need to invoke anti-trust to break tech monopolies. Politicians cannot leave all decisions to markets or BigTech will concentrate their market power and stifle innovation.
  5. Decisions with consequences that have the potential to affect individual or collective human rights must continue to be made by humans. Decisions must not be made by automated systems that operate independently of human decision-making competencies and responsibilities.
  6. Academics as well as industrial researchers, must exhibit scientific social responsibility when developing new technologies. Researchers must collaborate across disciplines, be openly engaged with society and reflect upon their research agenda and approach. 
  7. A vision for new interdisciplinary educational curricula must be developed. The new curricula will pool knowledge from the humanities, social sciences and technology studies and bring an anthropogenic focus while educating the engineers, programmers, etc. of the future.
  8. Practitioners everywhere ought to acknowledge their shared responsibility for the impact of information technologies. It is essential to understand that technologies are not neutral, as well as reflect upon the potentials and consequences of using technology.

These principles, and more like them, may create a solid foundation for more concrete political initiatives and a greater ideological mobilisation while setting standards for new partnerships to secure a sustainable way forward in the age of information.

Read the OECD report The Short and Winding Road to 2030: Measuring Distance to the SDG Targets

Read the OECD report The Short and Winding Road to 2030: Measuring Distance to the SDG Targets

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