ITU has been at the forefront of advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) for 150 years, driven by one unifying goal – to connect the world. ICTs already empower billions of individuals around the world, and will be of critical importance as the global community meets to charter a new path for sustainable development in the 21st century.
This week, the international community will agree on a set goals and targets for achieving a sustainable future through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). All three pillars of sustainable development – economic development, social inclusion and environmental protection – are accelerated and strengthened through ICTs.
The vital role of ICTs as a catalyst for development is acknowledged in the SDG text, stating “the spread of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and develop knowledge societies.” Though only directly referenced in four of the 17 goals – as catalysts for education and gender balance, as a driving force for new ‘smart’ infrastructures, and as essential tools to implement the SDGs – they have a key role to play in achieving each goal.
ICTs facilitate access to key information. mHealth has the potential to deliver incredible benefits across the global healthcare ecosystem (Goal 3) by providing health workers with key diagnostic support and up-to-date information, facilitating healthcare in remote areas. Connectivity can lower the barrier to education (Goal 4) for the 60 million children worldwide who do not attend primary school, connecting teachers and students to a wealth of resources, providing access to literacy and numeracy training on mobile devices, interactive tutors and educational games through laptops and mobile devices. Additionally, basic ICT literacy is increasingly required in all sectors in both developed and developing countries: ICT skills must be prioritized for youth to ensure that inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all can be achieved (Goal 8).
Ensuring that people have equal access and use to ICTs helps to reduce inequality (Goal 10), helping to bring information and knowledge to disadvantaged populations around the world such as persons with disabilities and women and girls. Moreover, ICTs support gender equality (Goal 5), increasing women’s access to health, nutrition, education and other development opportunities such as political participation. Providing digital literacy training to women is key to ensuring that they can access key services that enable them to gain a stronger voice in their communities, their government and at the global level.
ICTs also provide a means to access innovative services. Ending poverty (Goal 1) can be accelerated through services such as mobile banking, which has already brought direct benefits to millions of people around the world who were previously unbanked. ICTs can help to end hunger (Goal 2) through crowd-sourcing efforts and new technologies which provide key information to farmers, enabling them to make informed decisions about their produce.
ICTs have the ability to transform the way that we engage with our world, making it more sustainable in its nature. Energy efficiency (Goal 7) is improved by ICTs by making energy generation, distribution and consumption more environmentally-sound. Local infrastructure will be increasingly managed through technology, building resilient and sustainable power networks, intelligent transportation systems and smart water supplies (Goal 9 & Goal 11). ICTs also foster sustainable consumption and production through product-specific improvements, increase dematerialization and virtualization (Goal 12), and can play a significant role in the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans through improved monitoring and reporting (Goal 14).
ICTs are particularly important in terms of smart water management, facilitating the measurement and monitoring of water supplies as well as necessary interventions, and enabling local practitioners to ensure the equitable and sustainable extension of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services (Goal 6). Studies indicate that up to 70% of water used for irrigation – the biggest consumer of water – can be saved through smart water management.
Data gathering and sharing is also key to monitoring the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals. Climate change (Goal 13) can be better monitored through ICT services such as meteorological-satellite services and oceanographic radars, providing better forecasting and timely information to early warning systems. ICT data can also analyse trends in biodiversity and ecosystem evolution, helping to plan mitigation services for the protection and sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems (Goal 15). The growing use of open data by governments increases transparency, empowers citizens and helps to drive economic growth (Goal 16).
We are at the cusp of an opportunity to achieve sustainable development, improving the lives of millions of people around the world – and ICTs have an important and distinct role to play in realizing this future. ICTs deliver important, cross-cutting synergies across different sectors, already delivering services such as mobile banking, e-education, e-government and mHealth; making them universally available will create new opportunities, help to protect the environment, and achieve the sustainable development that will transform our world.
Learn more about how ICTs can help achieve each of the Sustainable Development Goals here.
Follow the conversation using the hashtag #ICT4SDG.
Houlin Zhao was elected 19th Secretary-General of the ITU at the Busan Plenipotentiary Conference in October 2014. He took up his post on 1 January, 2015. Prior to his election, he served two terms of office as ITU Deputy Secretary-General (2007-2014), as well as two terms as elected Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau (1999-2006). He is committed to further streamlining ITU’s efficiency, to strengthening its membership base through greater involvement of the academic community and of small- and medium-sized enterprises, and to broadening multistakeholder participation in ITU’s work. He is married with one son and two grandchildren.