Technology as a Force for Good 2024

Technology has been the determining factor of human progress throughout history. In its broad definition encompassing all the hard and soft machines and tools man has created it has enabled the creation of secure societies by making it easier for people to access food, water, and shelter, and to create prosperity by scaling their economies at home and trading with their neighbours. However, it is also a double-edged sword that provides the means for the strong to conquer the weak, and the 20th century has showed humankind at its most inventive in asserting itself over nature and planetary boundaries.

Its success however has consumed much of the planet and its ecosystem, with technology enabling the extraction and often depletion of every useful resource the planet has to offer. And the systems Man has built extract from everywhere but distribute benefits disproportionality to the West and the developed economies leaving a highly inequitable world. Today, we stand with one foot still in the 20th Century with its conflicts and challenges and another in the 21st Century with its rapidly emerging information age. Technology confers the power to liberate and enslave. As such it is the most precious asset in the pursuit of progress and power.

The 2024 Technology as a Force for Good report, provided in summary here, describes how technology can provide the means to create a sustainable, secure, and superior world. We are at an inflection point in the role of technology where we will see it shift from being a tool for humankind, to a functional peer, and then a superior agent, and should it achieve a measure of conscious awareness, even its potential master. Creating a secure future, requires this to be understood and tackled. The report provides the outlines of the journey ahead, the technologies that are currently set to shape it, the major companies that are investing to do so, the key countries that are competing for power over the future, and a road map for where technology can go with examples of ten technology and technology-enabled initiatives that can transform the world and close the sustainable development gap, creating the platform for a superior future.

 

Transition Between Civilizations Creating Disruptions That Threaten Global Progress

The progress of global civilization when measured against the core building blocks of peace prosperity and freedom over the past two centuries has been astonishing, a near-continuous transformation of the world for the better. Over the past decade or so, however, further progress across these and other development objectives has slowed, and in some cases reversed, due to successive and interrelated political, economic, and social crises across the world.

The resulting ‘polycrisis’ has had a profound and costly impact on humanity, both economically and socially, resulting in millions of deaths, a loss of livelihoods, escalating poverty, deteriorating health conditions, increased mistrust and civil unrest, and economic damages amounting to trillions of dollars. Progress in key areas such as poverty eradication, hunger, health, and education has not only stalled but regressed: the number of people worldwide living in poverty increased by 60 million in 2020 alone, and the number of people who go to bed hungry every night has increased by 250 million since 2018 i

Tragically, rather than driving a redoubling of global efforts to address these impacts and their long-term causes, recent events have drawn global leaders’ attention away from long-term systemic global issues to focus on short-term security and conflict issues. However, these disruptions are ultimately being caused by a set of three longer-term phenomena, in particular:

  1. The geopolitical shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world order. The world is shifting from a unipolar model that has prevailed since the fall of the Soviet Union, to a multi-polar one, in which a ‘Big Four’ group of power blocs, the US, the EU, China and India, control most of the world’s resources and economic output, as well as its wealth and military power. Over the coming decades, economic and demographic factors will also significantly impact the relative balance of power among these blocs, with China’s economy projected to overtake America’s by 2035, and India’s the EU’s by 2050. Others may be powerful or disruptive regionally or even internationally, but lack the scale to move resources in their own right or without initiating or responding in force in major conflicts.

  2. The Sustainability and Energy Transition. Following centuries of industrial-led growth, the world’s consumption of resources is increasingly pushed against planetary boundaries, creating the need for the world to move to a more sustainable model of development. Energy is the most critical but not the only element of this transition, requiring the development of new sources that are not only functionally superior, and more affordable, but also practically infinite in supply and with a minimal ecological footprint.

  3. Digitization and AI. The breakthroughs of the Digital Revolution are continuing to reshape our world on a scale comparable to that of the Industrial Revolutions of the late 18th and 19th centuries. The digital economy already represents 15% of global GDP having outgrown global physical economic output by 2.5x times over the past decade,ii and is now embedding intelligence into every product, service, and process. Moreover, as a highly adaptive general-purpose technology, AI is poised to fundamentally transform not just the global economy but global society too, potentially altering political, social, commercial, and even ethical decision-making around the world.

Collectively these phenomena are drivers of a global civilizational shift to the Information Age, which holds the promise of a superior future for the world in terms of peace, prosperity, and freedom for all. However, the disruptions facing the world point to potentially significant transition risks that must be managed for this future to be realised with, for example, the world projected to produce twice the CO2 emissions than the agreed 1.5C global warming limit allows, and automation placing 34% of all jobs in Europe at risk within the next 15 years.

 

Technology is Critical to Managing the Transition

Given its potential impact, technology has perhaps the most critical role to play in allowing the world to make a secure and sustainable transition. It has been the key driver of civilizational change throughout human history, and the transition to the future is inextricably linked to technological innovation, both for solving short term challenges and for building a superior world.

Technology is for example critical to achieving the UN SDGs, as a critical marker of the world’s long term sustainability transition. As a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet by 2030, their achievement is critical for further sustainable and equitable growth. However, at their halfway mark in 2023, the world is far off track in achieving these goals. Insufficient action, underinvestment, and the impacts of environmental, economic, and security shocks on an insufficiently resilient world are pushing the goals further out of reach, with none of the 17 SDG currently on track.iii

Technology, much like capital, cuts across all 17 SDGs, as a core enabler of any process that is designed to further the goals. But technology, and what is broadly termed the ‘tech sector’, also plays a critical role in achieving a range of specific SDGs directly. Not only do several SDG targets explicitly call for the use of digital technologies, the UN’s most recent work estimates that digital tech can directly impact about 70% of the 169 SDG targets.

The 2023 Capital as Force for Good Report broke down the SDGs into six distinct solution areas. These solution areas span a range of policy, technology, public sector activities, infrastructure, private industry, and financial services-related initiatives. Deployed together, and at scale, the right mix of solutions across these six areas can fully deliver, or even exceed the targets set by the SDGs, as illustrated in the chart below. Among these solutions, technology is one of the most critical, having the potential to solve for up to 37% of the goals, assuming that best-in-class innovations are fully deployed for each goal, as laid out below.

 

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Technology has a similarly critical role to play in underpinning human security, the latter having been defined by the United Nations historically included seven pillars, including food security, environmental security, technology access, personal safety, community security, economic security, healthcare access, and political security.iv Technology is an enabler, force multiplier, and as a direct contributor of targeted solutions to all these dimensions, as well as having recently been added as an eighth pillar of human security in its own right.v

Perhaps most self-evidently however, technology creates the future. While global security is needed to create the stability required for long-term sustainability, and sustainability is needed to level up the world and enable a just transition for the world, technology’s biggest impact will be to drive this transition and to determine the shape the world to come. For this world to be a superior one, it will need to be more peaceful, more prosperous, and more equitable than the present. The creation of a far superior future for the world depends on the achievement of a series of innovation breakthroughs across AI, computing, and data sciences, but also energy, material sciences and life sciences.

While all forms of technology have the potential to drive progress in these areas, digital technology has an outsized role to play in the shift to the next civilization currently underway. AI in particular has a critical role to play throughout this transition and beyond, adding up to US$26 trillion of economic value annually, but given its potential for both progress and destruction, placing nearly 30% of jobs across OECD countries at risk, it will require global agreement on how to manage it. If an appropriate charter and safeguards can be agreed between all nations for all peoples, AI opens the way to supporting humankind in addressing the major challenges and unlocking the major opportunities ahead. The UN has just announced the agreement of a landmark solution on AI.vi

 

19 Core Technologies Driving Security, Sustainability, and a Superior Future

The world is in the midst of a transition which through scientific and technological breakthroughs will create a whole new civilization. This civilizational transition, from the Industrial to the Information Era is being driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution which is not only blurring the boundaries between technology and other industry sectors, but between digital, physical, and biological systems as well. At the heart of this Fourth Industrial Revolution are 19 digital and digitally enabled technologies, across IT, industrials, energy, virtualization, materials and resources, space (and aeronautics) and health.

Today, we appear to be at a pivotal moment in history given the world is on the brink of breakthroughs in AI, quantum computing, nanotech, genetics, and fusion, each of which individually have radical transformative potential. Collectively, these breakthroughs can fundamentally reshape the world.

 

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The 19 core technologies potential impact on sustainability and human security in the near term varies significantly but have a positive contribution to make. In practice, sustainability and security priorities often overlap significantly, with both covering for example food security, human health, energy security, mobility, and environmental security. Unsurprisingly, the 19 core technologies also have a more fundamental, longer-term role to play the world, being critical elements required to create a superior future. As stated earlier, a superior future will involve radical changes across eight core aspects, including digital technology, energy usage, virtualization (and reality), materials science advances, industrial transformation, decentralized finance, empowered people, and the accessing of space.

The 19 core technologies are areas of increasing interest and engagement by global tech sector leaders, who are increasingly competing with one another to drive breakthroughs across these areas that will position them as leaders of the future as well. Any analysis of the 100 largest tech companies’ initiatives, including solutions, products, R&D, and partnerships, across these 19 key segments of future tech is below:

 

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AI has emerged as a near universal area of engagement for tech sector leaders, followed closely by big data, with 98% and 87% of leaders pursuing initiatives there, respectively, reflecting both their status as critical general-purpose applications that can be deployed across every industry sector, as well as their adjacency to tech companies’ own core businesses and capabilities.

However, industrial, energy and financial technologies are also important investment areas for around half of the largest companies, comprising IoT (77%), robotics (62%), renewables (60%), smart grid (59%), virtualization (63%, and blockchain (48%) among others.

Technologies such as next generation nuclear (fusion) (13%), gene editing (17%), and nanotech (27%) are potentially as disruptive (and valuable) as AI, but are currently at much earlier stages of development, as well as being highly complex fields of science. While IT plays a critical role in these technologies, these areas a highly specialized ones far removed from most tech sector leaders’ core businesses and are targeted by specialists in technology companies in collaboration with industry domain experts.

 

Scalable Tech Solutions Can Meet Nearly 50% of the SDGs

Given the 19 core technologies’ long term impact potential, they have emerged as increasingly fierce areas of competition for both global tech leaders and the countries that host them, with the winners in key technologies shaping a superior future for the world. However, as stated above, this long-term transition requires the delivery of global scale security and sustainability in the near term, with the SDGs and their 2030 target date representing the best framework for what this means for the world. Given the scale of the issues and the approaching deadline for the goals, this will likely require the deployment and scaling of a series of mature technology solutions, rather than relying on breakthroughs in emerging technologies. Therefore, the success of the SDGs will depend on the world identifying, scaling, and executing viable initiatives deploying such technologies globally.

As stated above digital technologies have a critical role to play in meeting the SDGs, and there are of course countless specific technology solutions (digital or otherwise) from around the world that have the potential to impact global security and/or progress the SDGs at scale. The Technology as a Force for Good Report report highlights ten such technology-based solutions which illustrates how the SDGs and secure sustainability for the world might be achieved over the short-term. They have been selected from a range of solutions that have been developed and deployed by stakeholders across a large number of countries, industries, markets, themes, and issues against specific criteria, namely (i) their ability to directly address an SDG, (ii) being scalable, transferable across boundaries, and potentially replicable by others (iii) being material in terms of their current and potential impact, and (iv) being executable within the 2030 deadline for the goals. The ten selected solutions illustrate the breadth of the issues that technology can rapidly solve, and broadly fall into four categories:

  1. Universal Enabling Solutions.General purpose digital technologies that can be applied flexibly across a large number, or even all the SDGs, enhancing the ability of a broad set of stakeholders to deliver against the goals.

  2. Digital Solutions. IT-based digital technologies applied to specific challenges, with purpose-built platforms and applications designed to maximize impact on defined goals.

  3. Tech-Enabled Solutions. Solutions to specific challenges developed and delivered outside of the traditional tech industry, but (largely) designed and powered by digital technology.

  4. Scaled Industrial Solutions. Industrial and infrastructure -based solutions to specific challenges, driven by scale and process optimization with IT playing an enabling role.

Moreover, these ten solutions are being driven by a diverse set of global stakeholders, including private sector corporations (both collaboratively and competitively), national governments and transnational organizations like the UN. A summary of the ten solutions is provided below:

 

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Each of these solutions can be scaled globally to deliver significant impact against the SDGs. Assuming that each solution was to be deployed globally as preferred ways to solve the problems they were designed to address, these ten programs could drive significant progress against the goals, ranging from nearly 20% for the most impactful universal enabling solutions to highly targeted solutions addressing important issues such as disasters, transition energies for climate targets, and inclusive healthcare.

The chart below represents each solution’s direct impact potential on the 169 SDG targets, without considering the impact of double counting or overlaps. Further, the analysis also excludes the potential inhibiting impact that solutions could play, as well as questions of cost or feasibility with regards to scaling these initiatives as the preferred solution for their specific goals.

 

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Unsurprisingly, the three most impactful solutions are ‘Universal Enablers’ that have broad applicability and can facilitate the delivery of multiple SDGs, as well as being flexible enough to be applied to specific goals in a targeted fashion for additional impact. Interestingly, two of the three solutions (Universal Internet Connectivity and the India Stack) are not dependent on any cutting-edge technological innovation, integrating mature and widely available technologies into programs designed for cost-effectiveness and scale. Unsurprisingly, these solutions have been developed and been championed by the UN and a national government, respectively, illustrating once again that the critical role of the public sector in delivering the SDGs, as well as the need for ‘frugal’, rather than (just) cutting-edge innovation.

Were they to be applied in combination with each other, the potential cumulative SDG impact of the ten solutions would be transformational. If each solution were fully funded, and deployed globally, they could cumulatively drive progress against all 17 of the goals to solve for nearly half (c.47%) of the SDGs in total, (net of any overlap between the initiatives). The table below shows the cumulative potential impact on the goals.

 

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Cumulatively these ten solutions, globally scaled and fully executed, can solve for nearly half (c.47%) of the SDGs, net of any overlap between solutions, with Universal Enabling Solutions having the broadest and most fundamental role to play across the goals as a whole. Universal Enabling Solutions are particularly impactful on people and prosperity related goals, (e.g. SDG4 and SDG8) as well as on government-related targets (SDG16), given the underlying digital transformation of the global economy, society, and governments underway. On the other hand goals like SDG 4 (Education) and SDG 6 (Clean Water) by their nature require targeted technology solutions, both digital and industrial, given these goals’ more targeted scopes. A third set of goals are subject to physical constraints that make them harder to address with digital or highly targeted ‘point’ technology solutions, including planet-related goals like SDG14 (Life under Water) or SDG15 (Life on Land) which are also heavily dependent on behavioural change, business practises and processes, among others.

The ten technology initiatives examined in the report are of course only a small subset of a much longer list of high impact potential solutions. However the distribution and nature of the highlighted initiatives provides a useful framework for identifying, selecting, and prioritizing further solutions in pursuit of the SDGs, focusing on universal enabling technologies in the first instance, and more targeted technology solutions ready for mass scaling in the second.

 

Conclusion: Shaping the Future

The civilizational shift to the Information Age is inevitable, but the building of a superior future requires levelling up the world, particularly the Global South, so that the benefits of progress can be shared more equitably. The only viable positive strategy for humankind at this juncture is a dual-track focus on both near-term secure sustainable development and long-term innovation breakthroughs to create a superior future. However, in the transition between eras the temptation to fight for the past is overwhelming and today’s wars over land and ideas of right and wrong in Europe and the Middle East, and the destruction that go with it demonstrate vividly how much we are still stuck in the values of the Industrial era’s age of conquest. To succeed, the world’s leaders would need to overcome competition in favour of cooperation and sharing, which seems simple but also intractable at this juncture. As a measure of the will to move to the future, the world will need to demonstrate it can urgently address the global conflicts that are costing an untold number of lives, destroying billions of dollars that could be better spent, overturning the World War II ‘peace dividend’ and weakening the global community’s trust in each other. If somehow the psychological and innate shift away from conflict and waste could be made, technology, and in particular AI, is available and being innovated at a pace that can create peace, prosperity, and freedom, rather than better weapons.

The world has the technologies to create a sustainable future that levels up the world, and capital will follow the deployment given the world’s top corporations possess these technologies and the solutions that they spawn. If this happens, the values of the world will be transformed and the race to deploy the technologies that further raise the world will be a shared one between all the peoples of the world. That future is clearly within grasp.

 

Endnotes

  1. Source: UN WFP
  2. Source: World Bank
  3. Source: United Nations
  4. Source: UNDP Human Development Report 1994
  5. Source: CES press release, New York, NY —
  6. Source: https://news.un.org/en/story/2024/03/1147831