Now is the moment to take use of the rapid digital evolution opportunities to develop sustainable economies that will result in better governance, better lives for citizens, and less stress on the environment.
Towards long-term objectives
Several nations still lack basic sanitation, are profoundly impacted by political turmoil, are polluted, and are subjected to exploitation and abuse.
The pandemic has further exacerbated these issues, posing a significant challenge for nations to build fairer economies. In a recent report, the UN revealed that the global economic downturn has again increased the extreme poverty rate from 8.4% in 2019 to 9.5% in 2020, after having considerably decreased since 2015.
In such a scenario, achieving the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) 2030 agenda would be nigh-on impossible. But there is still hope – if the leadership takes significant steps and cooperates with each other. For example, the countries in the EU have been working toward common sustainable economy goals to achieve their climate and financial ambitions since 2018. Recently, they adopted and applied several initiatives and regulations to support sustainable economic activities and ensure they become a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.
Among their many new actions, notable ones include supporting endeavours that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, exploring digital technologies for sustainable finance, and incorporating sustainability risks in banks’ risk management systems. Clearly, leaderships with the EU are bringing citizens, businesses and climate factors together to build sustainable economies.
Achieving sustainable goals require leaders to determine ways to respond to the critical challenges. For instance, how to ensure GDP growth puts lesser strain on ecosystems, adopt fair trade practices, and enable equitable profit and resource distribution, among others. Leaders will also have to re-design welfare systems that will help provide universal basic income and social protection to the entire workforce, including the temporary and migrant workers.
The catalysing power of technology
The COVID-19 pandemic compelled businesses to reimagine processes and operations that could reduce dependence on labour and reach customers without physical contact. Digital transformation initiatives across industries are helping companies operate like never before. For instance, telehealth is helping healthcare workers engage with patients at scale, cloud and predictive analytics are allowing energy and utilities businesses to develop a digital customer model, and machine learning is enabling automotive companies to introduce usage-based insurance.
Technology is also acting as a multiplier through the creation of a platform economy. As a collaborative sharing platform, it is enabling different groups of people to work together toward common goals – be that to ensure food gets to its destination or money is transferred without visiting a bank. Platforms have the capabilities to contribute to the SDGs by ensuring economic transparency, data integrity and labour rights.
The ultimate focus for technology should be to facilitate quality of life for everybody, enable resilient operations and ensure minimum pollution. Forward-focused economies are already leveraging smart technologies such as AI, ML, IoT, and NLP. Human-machine cognition has become a norm and has created an intelligent ecosystem that has enabled humans to nurture their creative faculties and be more productive, while bots perform the rule-based repetitive tasks.
To drive our efforts towards building a sustainable economy, increased productivity and a futuristic workforce based on intelligent automation can augment economic growth while counterbalancing the effect of the waning working-age population across some nations. In agriculture, for example, technology is helping farmers automate decision-making by analysing the variability of the soil, weather and labour, among others. This will contribute to the SDG of providing food to a larger number of people.
The combined power of supporting technologies – such as IoT, ML, blockchain, digital twins, and AI – has further advanced the scope of intelligent automation. These might not have been in place five or 10 years ago. For example, along with automating power distribution along the grid, creating a virtual replica of the grid could enhance plant maintenance and operations, and allow operators to further reduce the cost of electricity. This could help a country better utilise its energy resources, contributing to the SDG of providing affordable and clean energy. Several such innovations are being introduced to promote a circular economy, where sustainability is the goal.
In the future, technology will also transform governance. Leaders will make choices for their regions based on data, beliefs, and ethics, taking into consideration all residents and environmental issues. Leaders will be able to accomplish their SDGs and operate a resilient and sustainable economy in the long run thanks to these decisions.
(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in World Economic Forum. The original article can be found at https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/09/how-intelligent-automation-can-power-sustainable-economies/.)