Closing Digital Gap Vital to Attaining Sustainable Development, Speakers Stress, as Economic and Social Council Opens Forum on Science, Technology, Innovation

ECOSOC/6980
14 May 2019
Multi-stakeholder Forum, AM & PM Meetings

Closing Digital Gap Vital to Attaining Sustainable Development, Speakers Stress, as Economic and Social Council Opens Forum on Science, Technology, Innovation

Closing the digital divide between the “haves” and the “have nots” — notably the billions of people who lack Internet access — will require coherent policies and frameworks that keep pace with a fast-changing landscape, speakers said as the Economic and Social Council’s fourth multi-stakeholder forum on science, technology and innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals opened today.

The forum — part of the Technology Facilitation Mechanism mandated by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda — facilitates partnerships to identify technology needs, notably through scientific cooperation, innovation and capacity-building.

In opening remarks, Council President Inga Rhonda King (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) said no one can ignore the vital contributions of science, technology and innovation to human life.  Yet even with their quick development, they are not yet fast or deep enough to respond to the complexity of today’s challenges.  Constant dialogue across stakeholders — and in and across countries — is needed to ensure the world delivers on the 2030 Agenda.

“Only together can we find solutions to poverty, inequality and climate change,” said Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, calling for broader involvement of civil society, the private sector, government and academia in those efforts.  He drew attention to the significant potential of online platforms to serve as gateways for connecting solution providers with those who seek them.

Keynote speaker Romain Murenzi, Executive Director of the World Academy of Sciences, said closing such gaps should be a central theme in all efforts to achieve the Goals.  Often discussions centre on broadband, artificial intelligence and big data.  But for developing countries, the focus must be on technologies for delivering water, electricity and food storage.  Attention to Goal 4 (quality education) is most important, he said, as children must be encouraged at all levels of education to pursue, fail and discover.

Keynote speaker Claudette McGowan, the Bank of Montreal’s Chief Information Officer, said even multibillion-dollar companies — with all their abundant tools and technologies — are finding it hard to keep up.  For the 3 billion people who lack connectivity, she said it is natural that many feel a sense of excitement, but also fear, confusion and anxiety.  Through partnerships “we can solve this challenge together”, she said, touching on the potential of 5G technology to bring high-speed connection into homes around the globe.  “Opportunity and access are gamechangers”.

Also today, the forum held three interactive sessions on:  “Emerging technology clusters and the impact of rapid technological change on the Sustainable Development Goals”; “Science, Technology and Innovation for education and decent work for the future (Goals 4 and 8)”; and “Gender and Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals”.  The day also featured a ministerial segment on strengthening capacity and policy for the development of science, technology and innovation road maps, in which ministers presented national initiatives and explored potential support to international partnerships in those areas.

The Economic and Social Council will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 15 May, to continue its fourth multi-stakeholder forum on science, technology and innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Opening Remarks

INGA RHONDA KING (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), President of the Economic and Social Council, opening the fourth annual multi-stakeholder forum on science, technology and innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals, said no one can ignore the vital contributions of science, technology and innovation to human life.  They shape the development of society, helping the world both address global challenges and advance towards sustainable development.  Mobile phones allow people to stay in touch and transfer money, and remote sensing enhances communities’ awareness of natural hazards.  While rapidly being developed, they are not yet fast or deep enough to respond to the complexity of today’s challenges.

Against that backdrop, she said the forum will explore how to fully realize the potential of science, technology and innovation, as well as deploy them at scale and at great speed to respond to shared challenges.  Constant dialogue across stakeholders is needed to ensure the international community is developing the knowledge needed and the solutions to deliver on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Efforts must be stepped up, with action-oriented cooperation in and across countries and communities.  The forum brings together a wide and diverse representation of policymakers and regulators, entrepreneurs and civil society representatives — “the real change makers”.

She said it aims to facilitate interaction, matchmaking and the establishment of networks and partnerships across stakeholders; identify and explore technology needs and gaps, including on scientific cooperation innovation and capacity-building; and to facilitate the development of relevant technologies for the Sustainable Development Goals.  “Clearly, this is a vast agenda,” she said, recalling that its deliberations will inform the high-level political forum on sustainable development.  Welcoming this year’s focus on the contributions from youth, women and indigenous peoples, and the diversity of side events, she said that, taken together, “they will inspire us to action and success.”

LIU ZHENMIN, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, delivering a statement on behalf of Secretary-General António Guterres, described the adoption of the 2030 Agenda as a victory for international cooperation and the world’s people.  In the wake of that agreement, the United Nations system created the Technology Facilitation Mechanism as well as the multi-stakeholder forum on science, technology and innovation and several other instruments to help people — especially young people — harness technology for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.  Noting that 2019 will see several high-level meetings aimed at reflecting on lessons learned and identifying ways forward, he said initial assessments reveal that much remains to be done.  Hunger is on the rise and inequality is becoming more entrenched, while biodiversity loss and other environmental challenges threaten the planet’s sustainability.  However, in many parts of the world, access to medication and renewable energy are increasing.  Spotlighting the important role science, technology and innovation played in those positive trends, he added that they will be equally crucial in areas where progress has not yet been registered.

“Only together can we find solutions to poverty, inequality and climate change,” he stressed, adding that collaboration will be crucial to mobilizing the innovations required to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.  Global aspirations cannot be met through a “business-as-usual” scenario, he stressed, noting that the Technology Facilitation Mechanism demonstrates the effectiveness of the United Nations “delivering as one” model.  He outlined the Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ work to strengthen and streamline collaboration across the United Nations system and promote a special focus on women in science.  Calling for broader mobilization across various segments — including civil society, the private sector, Government and academia — he also drew attention to the significant potential of online platforms to serve as gateways connecting providers of technology solutions with those who seek them.  Meanwhile, sustainable funding and partner support will be crucial to carrying out all such activities, he said.

Keynote Addresses

ROMAIN MURENZI, Executive Director, World Academy of Sciences, focused on how science, technology and innovation can ensure inclusivity and close the gaps between the “haves” and the “have nots”, stressing that since 1956-1957 it has been an accepted fact that investment in science, technology and innovation is required for long-term economic growth.  Government investment in research, strong intellectual property laws and financial capital are among the reasons that the United States has been able to transform ideas into successful businesses.  How to harness science, develop technologies and close the gaps between the “haves” and the “have nots” should be a central theme for all those working to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Citing data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), he said least developed countries have vastly less scientific development production, and thus less opportunity to reduce poverty.  There is a divide between the global North and global South, as well as between least developing countries and emerging economies.  Changing those facts requires innovation at the national, regional and international levels.  Often, technology discussions centre on broadband, artificial intelligence and big data.  However, from a developing country perspective, it must address where to plug into a computer when there is no regular access to electricity.  Thus, the focus must be on technologies for delivering water, electricity, housing materials and food storage.

Of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, he pointed to Goal 4 (quality education) as the most important.  Noting that the World Academy has worked to develop scientific capacity in developing countries, he said the approach to doing so must be holistic.  Making several recommendations, he said children must be encouraged at all levels of education to pursue, fail and discover.  A high priority must also be placed on encouraging girls and women to enter into science, technology and innovation, he said, stressing that women often have different dimensions of creativity, yet represent only 30 per cent of the global scientific community.  Policy shapes education at every level, and among other things, determines investment in research — all of which has a bearing on scientific advances.

He encouraged a focus on international cooperation and the use of both “science diplomacy” and science academies, especially in countries where they are weak or non-existent.  Indeed, countries need a healthy innovation ecosystem for their people.  Education, the inclusion of women and international cooperation are just some of the factors that must work in concert to build a new generation of problem-solving scientists.  Failure to open that pathway means countries may continue to face instability, poverty, poor health, war and migration.  “The repercussions can reach into every country, poor and rich,” he said, stressing that developing nations must help themselves by investing in their own scientists to reduce the gap between the global North and South.  “Science and technology are the keys to a prosperous future,” he said.

CLAUDETTE MCGOWAN, Chief Information Officer, Bank of Montreal, Canada, described the fact that 3 billion people around the world lack access to the Internet as incredible.  Outlining some of the many transformative initiatives on which she has worked during her technology career, she said the Bank of Montreal is currently building a modernized urban campus and pursuing an initiative to improve its digital dexterity.  Indeed, in their daily work, technology leaders discuss the “fourth industrial revolution”, 5G technology and artificial intelligence, as well as the critical ethics frameworks needed “to do things the right way”.  Noting that even senior leaders of multibillion-dollar companies — with all their abundant tools and technologies — are finding it hard to keep up, she asked what the unprecedented rate of change, which will only increase, means for the 3 billion who lack connectivity.  It is natural that many people not only feel a sense of excitement, but also fear, confusion, contempt, isolation and anxiety, she said.  Noting that many people use the phrase “data is the new oil” to underline the value of technology and information, she posited that speed — equally critical, and a potential game-changer — can be seen as “the new water”.

Artificial intelligence now simulates human cognition, she continued, noting that in some cases robots already seem indistinguishable from humans.  “The future is here,” she stressed.  Canada is a leader in that sphere, hosting a range of artificial intelligence clusters, some 650 artificial intelligence startup companies and dozens of related incubators and accelerators.  Describing national efforts to make that sector more inclusive and close access gaps, she said some 1.5 million students across Canada — including many girls, rural-dwellers and indigenous youth — have been taught to code.  Autonomous robots operate in homes and schools, helping with everything from vacuuming to teaching children math.  However, she said, those working in that arena should ask themselves:  “Just because a robot can do a task, should it?”  She recommended reframing the common conception of “humans versus robots”, describing the latter as serving primarily the function of assists.  Turning to the potential of 5G technology — which will bring high-speed interconnectivity into homes around the globe — she spotlighted various unknowns and potential costs, including health risks and a widening gap between haves and have-nots.  In addition, the unrestricted exultation of speed and financial success may have impacts on young people, she said, urging the sector to “proceed with caution, but to proceed”.

Session I

Ada Yonath, member of the advisory group of 10 experts to support the Technology Facilitation Mechanism, Nobel Laureate and Director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, moderated a panel discussion on “Emerging technology clusters and the impact of rapid technological change on the Sustainable Development Goals”.  It featured presentations by:  Abby Shapiro, Vice-President, United States Council for International Business; Isabel Guerrero Pulgar, Member, Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, and Director, IMAGO Global Grassroots, and Lecturer, Harvard Kennedy School, Chile; and Amir Dossal, President, Global Partnerships Forum.

Alexander Trepelkov, Officer-in-Charge, Division for Sustainable Development Goals, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, presented the findings of the Technology Facilitation Mechanism, per General Assembly resolution 73/17.

Mr. TREPELKOV, noting that the Mechanism’s initial findings were presented in 2018 and focused on the impacts of rapid technological change on the Sustainable Development Goals, said the inter-agency task team brings together experts from 42 United Nations system entities, who work with the 10-member advisory group, representing science, technology and the private sector.  While views are highly diverse, consensus is growing on many points.  The team’s approach has been to document the debate, evidence and recommendations put forward.

He first discussed “the great potential”, stressing that robotics, artificial intelligence, automation, biotechnology and nanotechnology all have far-reaching effects on the economy, society and the environment, which can be felt in all countries.  They hold great potential for achievement of the Goals.  “We cannot afford not to make wise use of them”, he said, stressing that because technological change creates winners and losers, such inequalities could be exacerbated without taking proactive measures.  The United Nations has an important role to play in that regard.

While technology has been associated with the creation of new jobs and destruction of old ones, he said experts do not agree on whether the new jobs created will compensate for the loss of old ones this time around.  Some say computers and robots could replace half of all human jobs in the coming decades, while others dispute that idea.  “We need to be prepared for different scenarios to unfold,” he said.  Moreover, the combination of cheaper automation of production and large-scale deployment of artificial intelligence can accelerate trends towards declining operational costs and the need for workers in various sectors.  Within and across countries, this could indicate a greater concentration of wealth coupled with shrinking demand for labour.

He said such society-wide impacts in all countries require proactive thinking, planning and action.  Countries must rethink how they organize and match the supply of skills to rapidly evolving market needs, not just in the formal education system but also through lifelong learning.  Some experts proposed exploring technological unemployment insurance, guaranteed income policies and a range of compensatory social policies.  New materials, biotechnology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence all hold the promise for high-efficiency water and energy systems that could be deployed in all countries.  But they could also require ever-increasing electricity, with its associated pollution and production of e-waste, nano-waste and chemical waste — meaning that environmental considerations must be embedded into the design of these systems from the start.

More broadly, he encouraged an improved understanding of such trends as the basis for well-founded actions and policies, as there has been limited work in this regard.  Building partnerships with universities, innovation incubators and companies at the forefront of change could help fill that gap in the form of a discovery lab, network of observatories that engage policymakers and technologists and facilitating the exchange of real-time information.  Calls for more ethical deployment of technology must be balanced against concerns that excessive restraints may inhibit social benefits, he said drawing attention to the values outlined in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Finally, he advocated thinking across sectors and stakeholder boundaries.  “We are convinced more than ever of the need to foster multi-policy coherence that goes beyond purely sectoral approaches,” he said.

Ms. SHAPIRO said her organization is an advocacy group with a focus on bringing the voice of business to multilateral institutions, including the United Nations.  Describing the “tremendous” opportunity for the private sector to help foster human prosperity and bridge finance and technical capacity gaps, she said nowhere is this mission more important than in science, technology and innovation.  “We can’t achieve the promise of science, technology and innovation without the full mobilization of the private sector’s capacity and know-how,” she asserted.  All stakeholders must sit at a common table to incubate ideas, learn from each other without bias and arrive at informed, purposeful solutions.  There is also a need for a common language to calm the fears and focus on harnessing potential.  Describing technology as more an enabler than a disrupter, she said that when businesses connect social issues to their core operations, that creates “real purpose, real impact and success.”

Ms. PULGAR, presented the draft recommendations of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, chaired by Alibaba CEO Jack Ma and philanthropist Melinda Gates.  She described its broad engagement and consultation approach, launched in July 2018, which featured visits to tech hubs, online contributions, events and conferences.  “Technology is changing very fast,” she said; international and domestic frameworks have not caught up.  The Panel’s recommendations focus on three areas:  values and principles; methods and mechanisms; and illustrative action areas.  From there, it explored six other areas:  inclusive development and capacity-building; inclusive participation in the digital economy; data; human rights and human agency; digital trust; and security.  Noting that digital technologies can especially accelerate Goals 3 (health) and 4 (education), she said that when health and education are free and available, they can be considered public goods.  Thus, the first recommendation is to build alliances with Governments, the private sector, universities and civil society to create platforms for sharing these public goods.  Second, every adult should have access to digital networks and digitally enabled financial and health services.  Third, the Panel recommends the creation of digital policy help desks to build alliances among sectors.  It called on companies, Governments and civil society to agree on transparent standards to enable the interoperability of data in ways that protect privacy and foster data to flow for commercial, research and Government purposes.

Mr. DOSSAL, noting that the Technology Facilitation Mechanism’s online platform should be an interactive partnerships portal, said science, technology and innovation should be embedded into all United Nations technical cooperation programmes.  “You don’t have to look for major high-tech solutions,” he said, noting that low-tech solutions can be delivered through high-tech means, and vice versa.  Noting that telemedicine is used in developed countries but is virtually non-existent in developing nations, owing to a lack of high-speed Internet connection, he highlighted the “Moon-shot Africa” programme to deliver high-speed Internet to the entire continent by 2030.  The Blockchain Commission for Sustainable Development is exploring use of that technology to speed the achievement of the Goals, with a blockchain for impact summit upcoming this summer focused in part on helping women incubate those projects.  He also pointed to the use of precision medicine in addressing epilepsy and a coalition focused on better outcomes for Alzheimer’s patients at low-cost.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers agreed on the potential of science, technology and innovation to reach the Goals.  A civil society speaker from Latin America stressed that there has never been such a wealth of data, but it is nonetheless extremely concentrated in self-regulated clouds and digital platforms.  Years ago, industries laid broadband connections at 350 metres per second; now the pace is faster and access is unequal.  Pointing also to the potential impacts of laying that “blanket” of electro-magnetic radiation, she said a “horizon mechanism” is needed to analyse technologies in the pipeline before they hit the market, as is a multilateral mechanism for technology evaluation, in which developing countries and rights holders — such as women and indigenous peoples — can participate.

The representative of the European Union said the Joint Research Centre, the bloc’s science-policy interface, can do horizon scanning and link new technologies to sustainable development.  She mentioned two tools in that context.  The technology and innovation monitor is a horizon scanning tool, while the “Selfie” provides a self-assessment capability to all people.  It can be used to embed digital technologies into education, for example.

The representative of Mexico drew attention to the importance of ethics as they apply to algorithms, while the representative of the Russian Federation discussed how information and communications technology can help overcome the digital divide, with States taking a lead role.  Also, he cautioned against neglecting the security of information on the Internet, noting that the Russian Federation’s policy focuses on diversifying the economy and restoring its position as a technology leader.  The representative of Morocco drew attention to the “YouCode” school initiative, which involves the private sector and works to create social justice.  She asked how the United Nations can at once scale-up technological determinism and keep social justice as its cornerstone.

Session II

The forum then convened a ministerial-level session on the theme “Strengthening capacity and policy for the development of science, technology and innovation road maps”.  Government ministers and other high-level officials presented national and subnational initiatives related to the design and review of science, technology and innovation for Sustainable Development Goals road maps, as well as related policy actions, and explored potential support to international partnerships in those areas.  The segment was moderated by Elizabeth Thompson, Permanent Representative of Barbados.

FEDA ABDELHADY-NASSER, State of Palestine, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said enhancing cooperation is crucial to support developing countries’ use of science, technology and innovation as well as for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.  Also critical are efforts to close the digital divide and bridge gaps both within and between countries, she said, adding that automation, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies may have a transformative — and in some cases disruptive — effect.  Urging more investment in new products and jobs, she also called for the promotion of social protection schemes and services to compensate for the possible loss of jobs and to help people benefit from new technologies.  Also needed is more official development assistance (ODA) for science, technology and innovation capacities, she said, underlining the need to mobilize both domestic and international resources and accelerate the transfer or technology to developing countries on favourable terms.

ADRIÁN BONILLA, Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation of Ecuador, said “socially-built knowledge” will eventually prove critical to implementing sustainable development targets.  Changing the global development matrix requires a shift in partnerships, with a stronger focus on collective networks.  Public policies must be developed to govern such networks, he said, noting that the productive sector has a special responsibility to society.  Outlining Ecuador’s policies in that context, he said regional hubs aim to break down silos between the country’s universities and other stakeholders, while promoting efforts to incubate related projects.  In addition, the country has created national competitions for research projects, aimed to stimulate collective work and creativity, as well as networks of accredited institutions.  Countries should facilitate open access to innovation, he stressed, adding that Latin American languages should increasingly be used for science and technology.

VICTOR NEDOVIĆ, Minister for Education, Science and Technology of Serbia, said his country has been participating in the European Union’s framework for research and innovation since 2007.  The country is significantly reforming its science, technology and innovation policies and adopted a national research and innovation strategy in 2016 with the goal of contributing to economic growth, raising the standard of living and improving quality of life.  Describing the new Science Fund Law as a major component of such work, he said it establishes an independent, expert implementing agency for research funding — moving Serbia from a project-based funding structure to a mix of highly competitive project-based funding and performance-based institutional funding.  In addition, in 2018 the country adopted a research infrastructure road map and an open science platform, he said.

JEMAL BEKER, State Minister for Innovation and Technology of Ethiopia, described his country’s efforts to build its science, technology and innovation sector, reduce poverty, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, improve infrastructure and promote democratic institutions.  Moreover, stakeholder cooperation has increased, and the foundations have been laid for an enhanced technological ecosystem, he said, adding that the Government also seeks to boost international trade and investments.  In that context, he called for more projects aimed at strengthening human skills, including through the use of fabrication laboratories and science, technology and innovation learning centres.

IVIN RONALD ALZONA (Philippines) outlined his country’s development plan, which aims to create a society that is more inclusive and resilient, and which enjoys a globally-competitive knowledge economy by expanding its economic opportunities in industry and services.  Among other things, he said, the country seeks to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) that bring new technologies and competition in key public utilities, and to implement dynamic, competitive and effective information and communications technology policies.  The participating of Filipinos in such work is encouraged through the “digital start-ups PH initiative”, he said, adding that mapping exercises help the Government better understand that sector and what needs to be done to attract, improve and expand it.

MOTOKO KOTANI (Japan) said her country aspires to the concept of “society 5.0”, which is both inclusive and fully aligned with sustainable development.  In that context, the national Sustainable Development Goal achievement headquarters works to harness science, technology and innovation to achieve development targets.  Noting that science, technology and innovation are among Japan’s core pillars, she said the country will continue to share its information, know-how and tools with the global society.

PETER SZIJÁRTÓ, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary, said his country — though a relatively small one — enjoys a highly inclusive, competitive economy and a strong export sector.  A decade ago, Hungary’s economy was in bad shape.  In response, the Government enacted the lowest taxes in Europe, resulting in full employment.  Today there is a shift from a “made in Hungary” period to an “invented in Hungary” period, he said, noting that the change required a total overhaul of Government incentives.  Among other things, Hungary separated labour costs from salaries and instituted a flat 9 per cent corporate tax rate, allowing companies to spend more on research and development.

ANNALEE BABB (Barbados) drew attention to the challenges her small island country faces as a result of disruptive science, technology and innovation shifts, painful economic changes and the resulting structural adjustments, as well as the pressing challenges of climate change and growing inequalities.  Small island developing States must be able to be more than mere consumers of other countries’ products and technologies, she stressed, noting that Barbados has the will and “is currently working on the way”.  Among other things, it has created a Ministry of Innovation, Science and Smart Technologies, she said, noting her plans to share more about its work in the coming days.

HOSSAM OSMAN (Egypt), associating himself with the Group of 77, said his country has begun transforming its education sector by leveraging science, technology and innovation.  To achieve its aims, Egypt uses blockchain technology, focuses on creating and maintaining new jobs and has developed national online learning platforms that employ top-quality, crowd-sources content.  In addition, Egypt hosted a United Nations Technology and Innovation Lab, he said.

CHARLINA VITCHEVA, Deputy Director-General of the European Commission, European Union, said the bloc’s member States have been implementing localized science, technology and innovation road maps since 2014, with a total investment of €68 billion by 2020.  Those road maps include targeted actions, but also seek to stimulate cooperation at the national, subnational and international levels, she said, adding the approach has been taken up by more and more countries.  “Our motto is leaving no one and no place behind,” she said, adding that the Union’s “smart specialization” scheme is a bottom-up strategy that identifies a set of priorities for public and private investment, focusing on such sectors as industrial modernization, energy transition and climate action.

Session III

The forum then held a discussion on “Science, technology and innovation for education and decent work for the future (Goals 4 and 8)”.  Moderated by Anne-Christine Ritschkoff, member of the advisory group of 10 experts to support the Technology Facilitation Mechanism and Senior Adviser, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, it featured presentations by:  Stefan Schnorr, Directorate-General, Digital and Innovation Policy, Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, Germany; Myung Ja Kim, President, Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies, Republic of Korea; Antonin Fejfar, President, Council for Science, Czech Republic Academy of Science; and Chaesub Lee, Director, Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Rana Dajani of “We love Reading”, and Kate Radford, Programme Director of “Can’t Wait to Learn”, delivered innovators’ presentations.

Ms. DAJANI said “We Love Reading” is a grass-roots organization that fosters a love of reading among children, empowers adults and creates a community with an “I can” mindset.  Human interaction is essential for executive function and emotional development, she said, citing a study undertaken with Yale and Harvard Universities.  Her organization developed a mobile application to connect all “We Love Reading” ambassadors and has found ways to motivate people.  It is a basic framework that can be scaled-up and tailored to local cultures, she said, noting that efforts, which started in Jordan, are now in 52 countries.

Ms. RADFORD said “Can’t Wait to Learn” started in Sudan with a programme to help 3 million children who lacked access to school.  It then turned to the 225 million school children in conflict regions who are unable to learn because of those conditions and scaled-up its programmes.  In Jordan, it supports ministries in addressing the caseloads from the refugee community.  There was a pilot programme, then a study and trials.  “We saw strong learning results,” she said.

Ms. RITSCHKOFF said changing environments and rapidly developing technologies require an ability to quickly learn new skills that meet changing work and societal demands.  Science and technology play a great role in promoting equal access to high-quality education, with opportunities to both re-scale and upscale learning for individuals throughout their lives.

Mr. SCHNORR said science and technology, especially digitization, can positively impact achievement of Goals 4 and 8.  During the Industrial Revolution, work became more efficient, products became cheaper and prosperity was more widely spread.  The situation is similar today.  The disruptive nature of digitization can make some fearful of their ability to keep up, with labour-intensive work now being done by robots and business models changing overnight.  However, he did not agree with studies forecasting doomsday.  Digitization is an enabler, not a destructive force, he said, drawing attention to a steel company that uses artificial intelligence to optimize its operations without job cuts.  Thanks to digitization, there are examples of developing countries leap-frogging to further gains.  It is essential to invest in education and proactive workforce training, and politically, for leaders to ask what they can do to support their employees.

Ms. KIM said her country rose from ashes in the 1950s to become a global economic power largely thanks largely to a drive for benchmarking and an institutional infrastructure in science, technology and innovation.  Over 60 years, gross domestic product (GDP) increased 1,000-fold in 2013 from $1.3 billion in 1953.  Youth employment is on the rise and gender inequality declined rapidly in four decades.  Noting that the concept of sustainable development was proposed in 1987 as a new paradigm, she said the global community adheres to the old paradigm in seeking solutions to new challenges.  A major breakthrough towards sustainable development will only be possible by embracing innovation.  Noting that her country’s ODA projects included the Ethiopia ADAMA Centre of Excellence, she said more broadly that national education systems should be reshaped to foster synergies among academia, civil society, industry and even the natural environment.  They also should foster human resources well-equipped with disruptive innovation capacity.  Curriculums should be reformed to incorporate the Goals, along with new assessment methods, while the concept of leap-frogging in science, technology and innovation should be promoted in the context of sustainable development, notably by transferring education technology through ODA.

Mr. FEJFAR said the Council for Science is a network of 54 research institutes spanning mathematics, physics and social sciences, with 9,000 employees.  He drew attention to the need for basic research, noting that there are more than 30 million people living with HIV, an increasing number.  Fortunately, the number of people receiving treatment and living normal lives is also increasing — all due to an invention by the Academy’s Antonín Holý who synthesized tenofovir.  “You never know what comes out of basic research and how it can be useful,” he said, noting that the Academy’s strategy involves 19 research directions.  He also cited an online course offered by the Technical University of Delft, which attracted 350,000 people and led to photovoltaic solar power becoming the cheapest source of new electricity, and extreme light infrastructure (ELI) which will be the most powerful laser in the world, which has open access and is hosted in the Czech Republic.

Mr. LEE, speaking to fears around artificial intelligence, said the best way to prevent the dark side from dominating is to “bring the light”.  He described the “AI for Good” global summit, to be held from 28 to 31 May in Geneva, noting that artificial intelligence and emerging technologies can bring about smart workplaces, possibly featuring tele-working and a remote workforce, or more part-time employees.  People may hold multiple jobs, depending on their skills.  Education, which is extremely important, must be personalized, rather than school-based, and tailored to each nation’s environment, which also presents various challenges.  Tablets and other personal assistance devices, for example, will help develop these new education systems.  He recommended creating well-planned, authoritative strategies for sustainable development infrastructure, and encouraging all stakeholders to support the establishment of global standards.

In the ensuing discussion, the representative of Kazakhstan highlighted the “Digital Kazakhstan” programme to improve well-being, notably by transitioning to digital government, creating an innovation ecosystem and updating the education system by introducing science, technology, engineering and mathematics elements.  He recommended that the United Nations offer its expertise to least developed countries, landlocked developing nations and small island developing States.  The representative of Kenya, speaking for the group of friends for education and decent work and lifelong learning, said the proportion of young people and adults with ICT skills varies considerably across countries, with those who have moved a file or folder ranging from 4 to 95 per cent, with a median 56 per cent.  The issue of access to high-speed data and affordable Internet connectivity must be addressed, as they are critical to ensuring inclusivity.  He also drew attention to the gender paradox in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, as there are more school girls than ever attending school, yet they lack many of the opportunities offered to boys. Noting that they are underrepresented in science, engineering and mathematics, he said only 35 per cent of science, technology, engineering and mathematics students in higher education globally are women, and only 3 per cent of those in higher education choose ICT studies.  “This gender disparity is alarming,” he said, especially as those jobs are commonly referred to as “jobs of the future”.  Concerted efforts must be taken to reverse that trend.

A speaker from the Scientific and Technological Community Major Group focused on the importance of graduate and undergraduate studies in science for translating the Goals into reality, while the representative of Kyrgyzstan drew attention to an electronic portal for public services and automated crime databases.  The Digital Kyrgyzstan 2020-2023 strategy outlines ways to digitize all spheres of life.

A speaker from Pivot for Humanity, meanwhile, said that for the first time in history, there is a language that transcends borders — code — offering a global standard for innovation.  Noting that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced a $1 billion commitment to address opportunities presented by the prevalence of computing and the rise of artificial intelligence, she said the shaping of the future must not be the sole purview of the elite.  Transforming to a knowledge economy for all requires a framework that is universal, transferrable and standardized so it benefits the capacity of all youth, not just the privileged.  The representative of Iran said that in developing countries, the biggest problem is poverty, which is linked with science and technology.  The representative of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) drew attention to its annual ministerial meeting to be held next week on the topic of rapid technological change and the implications for sustainable development.

A speaker from Engineering for Change said that for science, technology and innovation to support quality education, those disciplines must be integrated into quality education.  She called for reshaping engineering education to include sustainable development, asking how engineers can tackle today’s challenges without knowledge of human-centred design.  A speaker from the International Labour Organization (ILO) pointed to the importance of a social knowledge base — a shared body of technical, attitudinal and expectational knowledge — calling for a comprehensive learning strategy focused on education, including training in families, social networks, at enterprises and in schools.  A speaker from Consensus underscored the need for decentralized technology to innovate inclusively and transparently in the years ahead.

A speaker from the Geology for Global Development major group also spoke.

Session IV

In the day’s final panel session, participants discussed the theme “Gender and Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals”.  Moderated by Špela Stres, member of the advisory group of 10 experts to support the Technology Facilitation Mechanism and Head of the Innovation and Technology Transfer Center, Jožef Stefan Institute, Slovenia, it featured three panellists:  James Heintz, Andrew Glyn Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, United States; Alice Abreu, Professor Emerita, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Member of the Gender Advisory Board of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development and Member of the GenderInSITE Steering Committee; and Aliza Inbal, Director, Pears Program for Global Innovation, Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, Israel.

Ms. STRES said the panel will discuss issues related to attracting and retaining women in science, technology and innovation fields as well as supporting women’s entrepreneurship, hopefully resulting in concrete recommendations.  Citing concerns that without women’s engagement in those areas the world will not be fully able to address its emerging challenges, she said women’s economic empowerment is also critical to enabling them to make their own informed decisions and participate in public life.  Among other questions, she asked the panellists to consider the specific challenges faced by women in the labour market and to outline good practices for achieving gender equality in science, technology and innovation.

Mr. HEINTZ said access to technology is critical to all women’s livelihoods and to achieving Sustainable Development Goals 5 on gender equality and 8 on decent work and economic growth.  Of special interest in that context is women’s participation in small-scale enterprises at the lower end of the labour market, such as street vendors.  Underlining the importance of mobile technology, he spotlighted such electronic payment systems as Kenya’s Mpesa platform — which improves women’s access to markets as well as their safety, allowing them to avoid carrying cash — he recommended that States work to address women’s access to those technologies.  An ILO report found that women perform over 12 billion hours of unpaid work every day, he said, adding that if those hours were converted to paid employment that would equal about 2.1 billion jobs.  States should include such figures in their economic assessments and design policies around them, he stressed, adding that they should also seek to address the large and widespread instances of discrimination and sexual harassment faced by women at work.

Ms. ABREU said the common thinking about women in science, technology and innovation has shifted in recent years.  “We now realize that it is not only a question of increasing the representation of women or making them as much like male scientists as possible — what is needed is a structural change in scientific and technological institutions.  Instead, many stakeholders now recognize that all of society misses out if women are excluded from science and technology and that more diversity in research will lead to better research,” she said.  Citing a recent GenderInSITE report which sought to explore the primary drivers of positive change, as well as where progressive policies have emerged and where they have stalled, she outlined several core recommendations including:  The need for more gender-related evidence is needed including open science and open data; the importance of gender policies at all levels; and the benefits of cross-institutional, global commitments to enhancing gender representation in international science.

Ms. INBAL outlined ways to extend opportunities to women coders — a field that has historically been dominated by men.  Israel, one of the world’s top innovation ecosystems, has recently been dropping in those global rankings due to a lack of programmers.  Between 12,000 and 15,000 programmer jobs are vacant at any given time.  Israel has identified three primary groups that could fill those jobs, namely Arabs, ultra-orthodox women — who are the primary earners in their communities — and poor people from the periphery.  “You can find excellent minds everywhere,” she stressed, noting that more opportunities need to be extended to diverse groups.  Spotlighting several actionable strategies, she listed better education; mentorship; technology bootcamps; and assistance in job placement.  “You have to get community leaders on board,” she stressed, recalling that Israel reaches out to ultra-orthodox rabbis, extends childcare and flexible work hours to women with families, and recognizes the need to respect cultural norms.

In the ensuing dialogue, a range of speakers from government, civil society and industry addressed the barriers facing women in the fields of science, technology and innovation.  Some also cited concrete strategies to remove them, including in the particular context of developing countries.

In that vein, the representative of Rwanda noted that in his country women themselves lead the policy debate around females in science, technology and innovation.  The Government has found bootcamps and coding schools to be highly effective tools to recruit, train and retain women in technology, he said. 

A representative of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), or “Geeks without Borders”, said most of those who live offline around the world are women and girls.  Many of them lack the functional literacy needed to use and profit from those technologies, he said, adding that in developed countries women account for just 25 per cent of ICT graduates despite being overrepresented in education in general.  In that context, he proposed teaching coding as a language — rather than an abstract algorithm — which would align more closely with women’s stronger early language capabilities.

The representative of Uganda said his country’s policies reflect its commitment to supporting women’s inclusion in science, technology and innovation.  Agreeing with the panellists that innovation comes from everywhere and no one should be left behind, he cautioned that the rapid pace of technology change has overwhelmed the capacity of many developing countries.  Against that backdrop, he asked the panellists — and the forum more broadly — to consider how to scale-up the facilitation of innovation initiatives, which technology transfer strategies can best absorb the developing world’s local capacities, and how to fast-track innovations in those countries.

Ms. INBAL, responding to that comment, drew parallels to her work with start-ups.  Noting that support often exists for innovation at early stages, she said the commercialization of innovation requires more sustainable support.  Accelerators, incubators and better distribution networks are also critical to support commercialized innovation in developing countries, she added.

A representative of the World Bank, outlining the findings of several of his organization’s recent studies, said they identified gender gaps in the policies of some countries and made recommendations to address them.

Mr. HEINTZ said efforts to increase women’s participation in science, technology and innovation cannot end with education.  Agreeing with speakers who drew attention to the gap between women’s higher educational attainment and their participation in technology, he underlined the need to break glass ceilings — including by providing women support for their family and childcare responsibilities.

Ms. ABREU agreed that the gender balance at the top ranks of institutional leadership has not changed much in recent decades.  Large and small barriers continue to plague women at work every day, she stressed, calling for normative changes, broader awareness and the application of a gender lens at all levels.

Ms. INBAL echoed some of those sentiments, noting that a focus on recruitment and training will not succeed if workplaces are not transformed into places that women want to be.  Efforts are needed to eradicate “old boys clubs” and to address the question of work-life balance, which is especially challenging for women.  Indeed, workplaces must stop forcing women to make the choice between participating in the workforce and having families, she stressed.

Also participating in the discussion were stakeholders representing the business community major group, the Children and Youth Major Group, the Government of Brazil’s Bahia State and the multinational information technology company IBM.

For information media. Not an official record.