Rethinking sustainable development and Tech for Good after the pandemic

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a guideline for “Tech for Good”

In recent years, the world of digital social innovation has expanded exponentially, giving rise to a rich series of interpretations regarding the meaning of the expression “Tech for Good”. Of course, different contexts give different meanings to the concept of adopting technology for the social good.

As we defined in a previous article, Nesta Italia conceives Tech for Good solutions within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Indeed, the potential positive impact that digital technology can have on the social challenges of our time is considered through the possibility of using digital tools in order to achieve one or more of the objectives identified in the UN Agenda 2030. 

What are the SDGs?

With a time horizon of 15 years, the SDGs are the global plan to defeat poverty and hunger, combat social inequalities, tackle climate change and achieve a sustainable development system at a national and international level. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which include 169 targets and 230 indicators, represent a common language for connecting and sharing strategies and knowledge, as well as a transformative tool to address today’s challenges through an intersectoral, holistic and inclusive lens.

The SDGs follow the MDGs, or Millennium Development Goals, approved in 2000 and also conceived within a timeframe of 15 years. The MDGs consisted of 8 targets, 21 targets and 60 indicators. More specifically, they were characterized by their attention to the field of international development and therefore referred specifically to the so-called “developing countries”.

On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the MDGs, the international community once again came together to consider the new challenges, thus establishing that the path to social and economic prosperity must necessarily be based on a sustainable paradigm. Unlike the MDGs, which mainly referred to the so-called developing countries, the 2030 Agenda has a universal character and specifically aims to consider each objective in a holistic and transversal way.

Indeed, each Objective is interconnected to others, and conceived through a paradigm that unites social, economic, and environmental dimensions. Social/economic objectives are therefore always considered in an interdependent and integrated way, with particular attention to the environment. 

Where we are now

In 2020, the international community saw the global pandemic of COVID-19 having a dramatic impact on the global development process. In fact, the health crisis presented new and important challenges compared to the path set by the SDGs, causing the first increase in poverty rates ever seen since 1998. According to an estimate by the World Bank, in fact, the total number of people in states of extreme poverty (less than US$1.90 per day) will increase by 40-60 million in 2020 compared to the previous year. In addition, research indicates that the percentage of the world’s population living with US$3.20 per day could grow by 23%, rising from 40 to 150 million people.

From an increase in the unemployment rate to an increase in prices and the interruption of services such as health and education, the pandemic has had and will have particularly damaging consequences for the most disadvantaged populations. 

Circumstances of this kind represent a serious obstacle to the completion of the international collaboration plan studied in 2015 at the United Nations, thus making it particularly difficult to reach the SDGs by 2030. Predictably, the Objective most seriously affected by the pandemic is the third, which aims to ensure the health and well-being of every citizen and citizen.

The United Nations, however, stresses that the coronavirus is not only a health crisis, but above all a social and economic crisis. In fact, as reported in a recent research, the global pandemic could increase global poverty by as much as one billion people, or 8% of the total world population, with consequences on health, access to water and sanitation, to the point of having an impact on education and human rights and, in the most severe cases, food security and nutrition.

Nevertheless, the pandemic is also an important opportunity to change the anthropocentric paradigms that have characterized modern societies for centuries. In fact, the unprecedented circumstances that animated most of 2020 have shown us how it is actually possible to build a social order that questions the paradigm of consumption and production on which most social systems are built contemporaries. 

What is needed now

The pandemic has tragically demonstrated how much we are all connected and how the actions and conditions of one inevitably affect the actions and conditions of others. Consequently, efforts for international and global collaboration seem ever more necessary and essential. In addition, COVID-19 has been and still is an expression of an environmental crisis that is becoming increasingly evident. This has therefore attracted the attention of the international community, especially following the testimony of numerous scientists who have stressed the connection between the unsustainable, blind, and intensive exploitation of land and natural resources and the danger of global pandemics.

In response to global challenges here briefly presented, the United Nations have identified a number of measures needed to achieve the SDGs by 2030. In particular, five main areas of action have been identified to focus on:

  1.  Health First: Protection of Health Services During the Crisis: Over the course of the past year, health systems have been overwhelmed by the demand for services generated by the COVID-19 pandemic. When health systems collapse, both mortality from the pandemic and other conditions increase dramatically. The UN therefore proposes to facilitate and support (a) supplies and data in support of essential clinical services, (b) the reduction of financial obstacles for essential services and the acceleration of access to emerging technologies such as diagnostics, and (c) a particular focus on the most vulnerable in society.
  2. People Protection and Basic Social Services: This is a critical time for the implementation of a social protection plan and the opportunity to reach all groups in society with basic services. The UN Development System (UNDS) will thus support governments in making policy that enable them to provide social and economic protection to people in need in an efficient and effective manner, thus preventing an increase in the poverty rate and providing economic stimulus. In particular, the UNDS will support solutions that ensure that the needs of the affected persons are met in a timely and effective manner. The actions will be guided by a constant participation of the city body, in support of the importance of collective intelligence.
  3. Protection of the Labour Market and the Economy: In order to protect the jobs and incomes of the most vulnerable workers, including SMEs, self-employed, day-to-day employees and migrant workers, the United Nations propose three pillars for action: (a) active fiscal and monetary policies to stimulate the economy and employment as a whole, developed alongside investment in the welfare economy––such as the health and education sectors, where women account for three-quarters of total employment; (b) immediate financial support to SMEs and the self-employed, through measures such as grants, loans and tax relief, and (c) the protection of the most vulnerable through specific social insurance mechanisms and access to assistance services for essential workers who must continue to work during lockdown periods.
  4. Macroeconomic Response and Multilateral Collaboration: The economies of the vast majority of the world’s countries will need fiscal space to finance the COVID-19 pandemic response measures. However, countries already heavily indebted will not be able to raise the necessary resources. 44% of the poorest countries were already at high risk of debt suffering before the pandemic. At national level, the Integrated Funding Frameworks (INFF) provides a set of tools to better link planning and financing processes. In addition, the UN has already put forward innovative initiatives and instruments to release resources for SDGs and investments in the fight against climate change. For example, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has proposed to convert the Caribbean foreign debt into annual payments into a resilience fund, which can be a source of financing for investment in response to the crisis and the achievement of the Sdgs. It therefore seems that the time has come to implement proposals such as these and to consider similar initiatives for other regions of the world.
  5. Social Cohesion and Resilience: Communities will be direct victims of the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and, at the same time, they will have the key to flatten the curve, thus responding to the pandemic and ensuring a long-term recovery. The United Nations therefore recognises that, in order for them to participate in the achievement of the SDGs, it will be necessary to make a series of investments in their recovery. The ability to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will depend to a large extent on local governments and on tailor-made solutions and responses, led by communities and involving women, young people, and socially and economically marginalised groups. It therefore seems essential to encourage the provision of community-based services, participatory planning and local supervision of services.

The vision of Nesta Italia

For each of these areas, emerging technologies may represent an important opportunity. The Tech for Good area of Nesta Italia is therefore positioned as an initiative of connection, promotion and dissemination of all those tools aimed at achieving the objectives presented here.

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