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Workstream 10: Analytical work on emerging technologies and the SDGs

Workstream 10: Analytical work on emerging technologies and the SDGs

New and emerging technologies – rapid technology change – frontier technologies The fast pace of technological change in recent years in fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and nanotechnology are having broad impacts on the economy, society and environment. Such disruptive technologies can be vital for breakthroughs in achieving the SDGs, but they can also have un-anticipated consequences, exacerbate inequalities, and constrain economic catch-up development. Calls for a more responsible and ethical deployment of such technologies have to contend against those who fear that damping down on innovations may deprive people of many benefits. To harness the benefits and reduce any downside negative risks, countries need to be able to make informed decisions, while also building skills and capabilities for the future. Multi-stakeholder engagement is important, as many of these advances are initiated in the private sector and academia, but then have differentiated impacts across groups of people and societies.

Subgroup on new and emerging technologies of the Inter-agency Task Team on Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs (“IATT”) The UN Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM) was created by the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and launched by the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development in September 2015. Another component of the TFM is the Inter-agency Task Team on Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs (“IATT”) which brings together 42 UN system entities and more than one hundred staff at the expert level. They work closely with the “10-Member Group” representing science, civil society, and private sector, inter alia, in order to assess the impacts of rapid technological change on the SDGs. In the Task Team, this work has been led by a subgroup on new and emerging technologies in which staff has cooperated for several years.

The Task Team's analytical findings continue to evolve. They represent a collaborative and multi-stakeholder effort with more than 100 expert contributors, building on evidence from eight meetings and sessions under the TFM umbrella; ten recent UN system reports; written inputs from IATT and the 10-Member Group, and 50 science-policy briefs volunteered by expert contributors. Major contributors from the UN system include colleagues of DESA, UNCTAD, UNU, ECLAC, ESCAP, ESCWA, UNIDO, ITU, ILO, WIPO, World Bank, as well as the International Council on Science and the Major Group on Children and Youth.


To-date, the IATT subgroup has organized – with contributions of the 10-Member Group - a series of expert group meetings in Mexico, as well as substantive sessions in TFM-related meetings (e.g., in Paris and Incheon in 2017) to systematically take stock of current trends and explore policy perspectives on the impact of new and emerging technologies on sustainable development, especially with regard to robotics, AI, biotech, and nanotech. Several experts from the 10-Member Group representing science, civil society, and private sector participated in person in the Mexico EGMs. These efforts have been complemented by related meetings by IATT partners, for example, the sessions in CSTD and ITU’s AI for Good Summit in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

The “Expert Group Meeting on Exponential Technological Change, Automation, and Their Policy Implications for Sustainable Development” was co-organized under the TFM umbrella by DESA, ECLAC, and the Government of Mexico in Mexico City from 6 to 8 December 2016. The meeting mobilized contributions from many experts and was followed by many UN entities taking up the theme with focus on their respective work areas and mandates. The meeting discussed the concept of exponential technological change; emerging technology applications; potential Impacts on development and sustainability; scenarios for the development, dissemination and adoption of automation technologies; the impact of automation technologies on employment; the impact on structural transformation, sustainable industrialization and catch up; and the impact on inequality. The meeting concluded with recommendations on science engagement; policies at the national level; technology facilitation; standards; UN discussion/forum; contributions by TFM partners; information dissemination and early warning; capacity building; technology assessment; social and political impacts.

DESA, ECLAC and UNCTAD co-organized under the TFM umbrella another “Expert Group Meeting on Rapid Technological Change, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and Their Policy Implications for Sustainable Development Targets” in Mexico City from 26 to 27 April 2018. The meeting systematically discussed impacts of these technologies on selected SDGs/targets and also elaborated on artificial intelligence and the ethical dimensions. The meeting concluded with a number of specific recommendations for Member States and the UN system that built on the earlier EGM of 2016. The subgroup has followed-up to these recommendations in the past few months. In preparation for the EGM, the subgroup organized an open call for contributions from IATT, 10-Member Group and external experts in March 2018 and a follow-up in Dec. 2018/January 2019. Experts are encouraged to continue responding to the call.

The group also substantively supported the multi-stakeholder discussions in the STI Forum on the impacts on societies caused by the disruptive effects of new technologies, such as nanotechnology, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, gene editing, big data, and 3D printing. The topic has been on the Forum’s agenda ever since 2016.

At the STI Forum 2018, the UN Chief Economist, ASG Elliott Harris presented preliminary IATT findings, in line with General Assembly resolution 72/242. An update will be presented at the STI Forum 2019, in line with resolution 73/17.

Many related activities by IATT partners in recent months

What started as a small-scale activity in 2016 has led to many recent, related activities by IATT partners. Over the past year, IATT partners have undertaken many new activities on new and emerging technologies:

  • The Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics became operational in the Netherlands under the umbrella of the UNICRI.
  • OICT launched a series of UN Technology and Innovation Labs, starting with project offices in Finland and Egypt.
  • ITU’s AI for Good Global Summit featured practical AI solutions for the SDGs. The UN Secretary General created a High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation and launched a Strategy on New Technologies.
  • UNDP joined the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence - a consortium of companies, academics and NGOs.
  • Current IATT efforts on the development of the TFM online platform focus on an AI design.
  • The UNU Centre for Policy Research created an AI and Global Governance Platform as a space for public policy dialogue. DESA published the World Economic and Social Survey 2018 on the theme of Frontier technologies for sustainable development.
  • The 36th session of the CEB HLCP focused primarily on frontier technologies, with discussions on capacity development for AI and the future of work.
  • The technology chapter of the Financing for Development Report 2019 was again dedicated to new and emerging technologies.
  • UNCTAD launched its Technology and Innovation report 2018 on Harnessing Frontier Technologies for Sustainable Development.
  • CSTD 2018 and 2019 addressed the issue – this year supported by a Secretary General’s report on The Impact of rapid technological change on sustainable development.
  • Recently, a compilation of 50 science-policy briefs on frontier technology issues has been made available on the TFM website.

This is just a glimpse of the many recent initiatives in the UN system on new and emerging technologies. They are testament to the high expectations attached to these technologies.

The IATT subgroup remains committed to document, exchange information, and promote cooperation and synergies among them. If you have expertise in this area, I encourage you to get involved with the subgroup.

United Nations