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Taking stock: SDGs and the potential of digital


SDG Digital was held successfully in United Nations Headquarters, New York, USA, on September 17th. This event attracted over 500 attendents and 50 speakers from companies, institutions, and organizations all over the world, sharing concrete examples of digital technologies that facilitate the achievement of various SDGs and of public institutions’ efforts that enlarge the influence of such digital technologies.

Authors: Zinan Yue (UC Berkeley) and Yunfei Xu (Davidson College), GLY Youth delegates to the conference who reported from the conference site.


The event began with the opening speeches by the representatives of ITU and UNDP, the hosts of SDG Digital. Achim Steiner, the administrator of UNDP, pointed out the global situation of “poly-crisis” since the pandemic and how digital technology is the biggest factor of putting the SDGs back on track. Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the secretary-general of ITU, gave an overview of the 17 technological solutions that would be covered during the conference to address each of the 17 SDGs. She also emphasized the importance of digital inclusion as 2.6 billion people around the world are disconnected to the internet. This ideal of digital inclusion was mentioned repeatedly in the following speeches with the slogan “Leave No One Behind!”



The following speakers used statistical data to further illustrate that the progress in achieving SDGs was lagging in the first half of the 15 years, so the goal at present is utilizing digital transformations to accelerate towards the SDGs by 2030. As Maikel Wilms, partner and director of Boston Consulting Group suggested, the three main purposes of data and digitalization are to connect people over distance, to increase efficiency through analytics, and to foster innovation. Other discussions of Act1 include the collaboration between governments and organizations in fostering digital transformation, and the significance of incorporating youth in decision making.

A distinguishing feature of SDG Digital is the direct demonstration of robotics and Artificial Intelligence on stage. Sophia the Robot, a human-shaped robot created by Hanson Robotics was placed next to the stage to listen to the presenter’s questions on the topic of SDG Digital and give an instant reponse just as a professional. As the kick off to the Prosperity sector of digital solutions, a robot dog came on stage to show off its complicated movements and reponses to commands. In the Planet sector, the CEO of Rainforest Connection demonstrated their technology in using AI to identify different rainforest species from audio recordings by showing the identification results of a clip just played to the audience.

Act Ⅰ:

Showcasing Solutions to achieve the SDGs through digital technologies

There are four categories of SDGs, People, Planet, Prosperity, and Peace, in which each SDG is addressed with one digital solution to be showcased in the conference. In addressing SDG2, Zero Hunger, a smallholder farmer services platform called “Jiva” was developed to increase farmers’ revenue through all angles. To address the goal of Good Health and Well-being, the DHIS2 team developed a data-driven health services system to record patients’ disease, track patients’ progress, and do analysis on the disease based on the recorded data. The goal of Quality Education was demonstrated with the digital learning platform “atingi” and online education platform “Khan Academy.”

The Planet sector focuses a lot about mathematical modeling and AI as digital solutions in this category are largely related to natural sciences. “The Ocean Cleanup” is a company that uses AI to monitor plastic on the surface of the ocean and uses computer modeling to decide which rivers to deploy next by analyzing the quantitative properties of the rivers. Nithio, a climate finance platform for enabling the clean energy transition in Africa, uses AI-driven models to understand payments and predict risks on climate change adaptations. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with the support of Japan, built up a project called “Countermeasure” that uses computer vision to track plastic leakage sources in those highly polluted rivers in Asia. This project is especially significant for China as the speaker pointed out that in Yangtze and Yellow river, 93% of plastic pollutions end in the Ocean. Finally, as mentioned earlier, Rainforest Connection record sound samples from the top of the tree in rainforests and the AI detection results help them understand biodiversity and plan on actions to protect biodiversity.

The category of Prosperity has the main topic centered around digital inclusion. Pamela Coke-Hamilton, the executive director of International Trade Center (ITC), pointed out that connectivity has now become a basic human right, which is especially manifested during the pandemic as the children from the households without internet connections were unable to receive education. The company “Giga” actively searches for new schools around the world, creates the school connectivity map, and try to reduce the price of connectivity. The CEO suggested that such school connectivity will also have a positive impact on GDP per capita. Another essential topic of Prosperity is building a feminist digital future. Women are disproportionally left out of the AI industry and 2 times less likely to know a computer language than men. Thus, ensuring that women can become leaders and actors of digital technologies is the key to building women’s rights and economic empowerment in the current society.

Technologies in addressing SDGs in the Peace sector includes “Audiopedia,” an Encyclopedia that uses audio only to increase the literacy of women and the minority people that are unable to read or write; digital family cards to identify family problems and proactively notify families in need to seek assistance from the government; and online court to offer users follow-ups on their cases and the opportunity of making payments at home.

Act Ⅱ:

Way Forward: Accelerating progress towards the SDGs

The second half the conference shifts the attention from specific technologies of private companies to policies, plans, and actions of UN and other public institutions. The first big project of ITU is Partner2Connect Digital Coalition, a cooperation in which ITU will mobilize, track, and monitor commitments and pledges to assist P2C in further identifying the keys to sustainability issues. In SDG Digital, 9 speakers from public policy departments of tech companies and technological government institutions represented the Partner2Connect Digital Coalition to make the announcements.

Another big project of ITU is SDG Digital Acceleration Agenda, which was created together by UNDP and ITU as a plan for future global actions to win the race of rescuing SDGs in the second half of the 15 years. According to Wendy Woods, Managing Director and Senior Partner of BCF, public policies should be made to prevent digital solutions from stopping at the local level. Governments are responsible for scaling proven solutions, elevating collaborations among stakeholders, expanding funding approaches, and unlocking private sector potential. Other speakers in this section also emphasized the importance of providing appropriate financing to increase digital inclusion.

UN High Impact Initiative on Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI)

Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) was not conceptualized until last year although some countries have already proposed relative ideas. During the accelerating progress toward the SDGs, it serves as a catalyst for inclusive digital transformation. The advocacy and mobilization of international organizations and the exploration and practices of different countries will contribute to turning this uniform expression into actionable localized cases in different parts of the world to preset 2030 SCGs.

Achim Steiner, Administrator of UNDP argues that it is crucial for countries especially developing countries to leverage their own advantages and grasp the opportunities to get ahead of this rapidly evolving technological curve. Using the cases of India and Ukraine, he further clarified the growing populations including those in the last mile are benefiting from the connectivity provided by DPI. Given that we are standing at a crossroads of DPI construction, he encouraged knowledge sharing, financial support, and safe and inclusive innovation so that the initiatives today could have a long-lasting and wide-ranging impact.

A common framework and standards for issuing public infrastructure and services with the collaboration of diverse stakeholders are required. “It will be a concrete manifestation of how the global digital compact can address the growing digital divide and accelerate progress on the SDGs,” said Achim Steiner.

In terms of financing DPI for sustainable development, President of Interamerican Development Bank Ilan Goldfajn pointed out three areas that we need to have more impact on — identifying digital infrastructure gaps, capacity building for sustainable digital infrastructure and other international solutions. He suggested scaling up both public and private sector resources for digitalization and identifying the optimal infrastructure mix.

This section brought together the voices from different countries and regions such as India, Togo, Brazil, Singapore, and Germany, demonstrating the localized initiatives on DPI from the aspects of financing, sustainable & green, last-mile inclusion, and affordable & open. Most representatives pointed out that digitalization is about people, and Margus Tsahkna, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Estonia highlighted digital personalization in different daily scenarios including healthcare. With the perspective of people-centric, Lew Chuen Hong, Chief Executive of Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore also said “Digitalization is more about talents”, claiming that providing relative skill sets makes this ecology more permanent and sustainable compared with simple tool access. During the fireside chat, Founder of Indigenous in AI/ML Michael Running Wolf responded to the importance of talents as he looked at community wisdom, indigenous people’s agency, and dignity.

Then, Vice President for Infrastructure in World Bank Group Guangzhe Chen summarized the digital access problem into multiple aspects including affordability of services and devices, language, and basic skills which require further investment as part of DPI. He also added that all this global recognition of the importance of the digital hub infrastructure is reinforced during the COVID.

At last, Doreen Bogdan-Martin summarized the agenda of the event and thanked all the partners and participants. “We turn to the future with the launch of the SDG Digital Acceleration Agenda, which is a call to action that contains a roadmap for navigating challenges as diverse and critical as digital skills, governance, regulation, financing, infrastructure, and security,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin. “Remember the urgency of our mission and our collective responsibility to rescue those SDGs.”

With a deep commitment to sustainable development, China has already recognized the tremendous potential of digital innovation in accelerating progress towards the SDGs. China’s digital transformation journey has been underpinned by robust infrastructure development. The Chinese government in collaboration with relative companies has made significant investments in building all-dimensional connectivity, paving the way for the widespread adoption of digital technologies across various sectors. China’s engagement in the global digitalization construction has a long history with initiatives like the Digital Silk Road (DSR). Following that, many China-based tech giants such as Alibaba have invested enormous capital into global cyberspace. The participation of private-sector stakeholders brings additional benefits to developing countries, facilitating policy implementation. At the stage of digital transformation, it is advisable for China to start to make plans beyond temporary needs and problems based on the dynamic needs of various stakeholders. Furthermore, with the large population and wide application of digital technology, China is required to frequently tackle the issues of people, allocating resources rationally and optimizing digital regulation on data privacy, cybersecurity, and ethical considerations in the future. For one thing, China’s remarkable progress in SDG digitalization could serve as a valuable experience for the world, living up to our responsibilities to use technology safely and inclusively to spread the benefits to everyone everywhere. For another, China should keep pushing the boundaries of digital welfare in collaboration with other organizations and countries around the world.

The numbers 2.6 billion and 33% representing the world’s unconnected population were mentioned a lot during the event, requiring further efforts towards the SDGs agenda. More importantly, this event gathers nearly 80 speakers and hundreds of ideas, demonstrating the potential and prospects of digitalization in delivering value and high impact across all 17 SDGs. Another thing worth mentioning about this event is that different from the traditional discussion dominated by developed countries, it provided plenty of platforms for developing countries, which highlights the huge potential and wisdom of developing countries as well as the vision of shared prosperity. As most of the speakers mentioned, we should leave no one behind. Seventeen Goals. Seventeen digital solutions. 26 billion reasons to connect the world. This is not only the joint efforts for Agenda 2030 but also a more sustainable future full of possibilities.