The Technology Roadmap for A Better World

Technology has an enormous potential to be a force for good in the world. It is a tool that can solve many of the world’s major challenges, driving mass-inclusion and affordable access to services, and accelerating the long-term sustainability transition. The increasing ubiquity of digital technology is driving the explosive growth of information and knowledge, as well as blurring the boundaries with the physical world.

Technology’s full potential as a force for good has yet to be unlocked, however. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a global blueprint for peace and prosperity, are currently far off track and will likely be missed, possibly by a significant margin. Failing to address the world’s development challenges and continued inequalities will create increasing strife and suffering in the Global South, while failing to address the world’s environmental challenges will see the deterioration of our ecosystems, with extreme weather events becoming endemic features of climate change that will threaten the wellbeing of all.

Meeting the goals will require radical action. In the absence of significantly cutting back consumption and reducing the global standard of living, the world’s sustainability challenges can only be met by continued innovation and technology. Digital technology, and the use of data in particular, has the potential to accelerate progress towards the goals in the near term as a stepping-stone to fundamentally transforming our economies and societies by the second half of this century. The tech industry has critical role to play in the innovation, deployment, and scaling of these technologies that build a more sustainable future for all.

This month’s Sign of the Times looks at two opposing views on the path the world can take – one which requires the world to radically lower its consumption and standard of living to a more environmentally-sustainable level, and another which requires the world to rapidly grow and innovate to transition to a new, more sustainable model of capitalism, and at the transition path the world will need to take, leveraging technological innovation to achieve both its developmental and environmental objectives.


Technology as a Force for Good

The inaugural Technology as a Force for Good report issued by the Force for Good Initiative1 suggests that the tech industry and its leaders are increasingly stepping up to the world’s mounting sustainability challenges, having built a strong common ground in terms of their focus on ESG, sustainability and stakeholder engagement, with a sub-set of industry leaders going even further and breaking new ground in developing and deploying technology solutions with the potential to create positive change in the world. These companies are positioning themselves for future leadership of not just the tech sector, but over time of the broader sectors of the future like energy, biotech and nanotech that are being blurred with digital technology.

However, technology can clearly also be a force for destruction. The fundamentally strategic nature of technology makes it a potential source of geopolitical conflict, with competing nations and blocs looking to maximise their own progress and limit their competitors access to and ability to develop advanced technologies, thereby risking broader conflicts. Further, as the world becomes increasingly digital, the destructive power of cyberweapons is growing exponentially, with the ability to disrupt or even destroy markets, economies, governments and even nations, potentially. And the use of technology to these ends is not just limited to state actors but is open to other organised groups and individuals.

Ensuring technology’s place as a force for good in the world will therefore require more than the tech sector’s increasing engagement, it will require the commitment and alignment of global leaders to agree ground rules for its use and to ensure equitable and affordable access for everybody. If this can be achieved, then the SDGs and global Net Zero can possibly be achieved as well.

At the current rate of financing, the world cannot mobilise the c.US$176 trillion required to fund the SDGs, nor can it implement current solutions – even if they were fully funded – at the scale and within the time frame required2 . Technology, with targeted innovation properly leveraged and deployed, has the potential to impact every SDG and to make a meaningful impact on a majority of the underlying targets, solving for up to 37% of the SDGs, reducing the cost of achieving the goals by 2030 by up to c.US$55 trillion.


Two Divergent Views on the Path the World Could Take

Unfortunately, there is no consensus globally on how to best achieve the world’s major challenges, with two opposing views prevalent.

A longstanding body of thought, first publicised by the Club of Rome’s ‘Limits to Growth’ report in 1972, believes that there are limits to growth on the planet based on physical resource constraints and that without significant changes to production and consumption, the world’s population and industrial capacity are as risk. Its proponents argue that a moment of reckoning is near, in which resource depletion, environmental impacts and population growth are reaching a tipping point that creates existential risk. Under this view, sustainability can only be achieved if growth is curtailed, if not reversed back to a level that restabilises the planet.

However, to date, the rapid expansion of knowledge, and the breakthroughs it has delivered since the Industrial Revolution, has allowed the world to avoid a Malthusian crisis resulting from exponential growth in a world of finite resources, and potentially provides for extraordinary possibilities for the way ahead. Supporters of this view do not deny the need to for action to address global sustainability challenges, but believe that these will be solved through innovation, and that continued growth is not just possible but essential to delivering this innovation.

These world views may well be irreconcilable. While both paths to sustainability may be theoretically feasible, the longer the world waits to come together to solve its challenges, the stronger the calls for the world to stave off a global catastrophe by retreating into preservation and mitigation mode. If this were to be the prevailing scenario, mankind’s footprint would need to be dramatically reduced to a sustainable level until the breakthroughs that allow renewed growth are achieved.


Scenario 1: A World in Retreat – Preservation and Mitigation Mode

A world in preservation and mitigation mode is based on a conscious decision to limit the use of fossil fuels, reducing the footprint of man on the planet by restrictions on the use of resources and therefore activity.

The world that results from such a scenario is closer to the world in COVID lockdown than the one before it or after it for most countries, only it would be far more dramatic if its aim was to return to the use of “one planet”, since it would need to roll the world back to before 1971, when the world consumed c.40% less of nearly everything than it does today (see chart).


The implications for how the world would need to work are severe:

  • Energy. Global energy consumption would need to drop by over 60% from over 10,000 Mtoe4 to under 4,000 Mtoe, assuming the world cannot quickly transition to a fully renewable mix of sources and less energy intensive economy.

  • Industry. The reduction in global output would concentrate in global industrials, which are disproportionately resources intensive. Global industrial output which contributes c.28% of global GDP would need to be reduced by c.75% (assuming that industrial resource intensity is twice that of services on average), reducing GHG5 emissions by c.15% as a result. Cutting services by 40%, would reduce GHG by a further c.10%.

  • Materials. There would likely be a continuing dependence on process innovation to allow mining of key natural resources in a manner which allowed for greater yield, inevitably with greater risk and cost.

  • People. Individuals in advanced economies would need to drop their consumption levels by c.60-80%, assuming current levels of resource intensity.

  • Travel. There would need to be a near total ban of almost all air travel and cars, including electric cars which remain reliant on a grid still largely powered by fossil fuels, reducing global GHG emissions by c.15%. Travel and leisure would need to transition to virtual models as a result.

  • Finance. The contraction of global consumption and production would need to be managed to avoid a global debt crisis and negative real returns, which would likely be possible once global wealth reduces proportionately to the drop in global output, wiping out c.US$350 trillion of global assets.

  • Planet. We are currently calculated to consume 1.75 planets worth of resources, a shorthand for our current level of consumption and development. The adjustment would aim for a retrenchment below one planet.

Such a retreat would require the developed world, which is the biggest consumer of the planet and its resources (to live at America’s level, we would need 5.1 earths) to take the most pain. However, the austerity required to “reset” the world to a more sustainable trajectory is not one that the developed world is currently prepared for; not as consumers, family households, voters, nor as employees, employers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, or governments (democratic or autocratic) or any of the other roles that individuals in the world play. However, given the world’s current level of progress on addressing global challenges, some level of retreat will be all but inevitable, and will likely only be achieved at a significant cost in environmental damage, economic destruction, and human suffering. And the longer the world waits, the greater this cost will be.


Scenario 2: A World in Growth – Moving Rapidly to a Future Model

The alternative for the world is to focus on growth and innovation to avoid the scenario laid out above. This requires rapid investment in a series of technological breakthroughs that can fundamentally alter current trajectories of ecosystem impacts and create a step change in human progress. Throughout history, these breakthroughs have been focused on energy technologies, such as the (coal-driven) steam engine during the Industrial Revolution, electrification in the 19th Century and the transition to petroleum in the 20th Century. As a result, global GDP growth has accelerated throughout the Industrial Age, increasing more than threefold between 1765-1880, nearly sixfold between 1880-1960 and nearly eightfold between 1960 and 2021.


Similarly, unlocking further GDP growth in the coming Imagination Age will also require a new energy source, one that is functionally superior to current sources, allowing the world to address its pressing challenges without forcing it to accept unacceptable trade-offs.

Until the world achieves the necessary energy breakthrough, it will continue to remain in a period of transition, where growth is delivered largely by marginal improvements in productivity, and where countries around the world are incentivised to compete more and share less, ignoring the plight of the developing world and failing to address pressing global challenges as a result. Ironically, due to its unsustainable nature, the longer the world tarries in this period, the greater the risk of needing to resort to the very preservation and mitigation mode it is so desperately seeking to avoid.

Once this breakthrough has been made however, the world is likely to progress much quicker than it did during the Industrial Age, thanks to the accelerating rate of technological innovation. Applying the principles of Moore’s Law as a proxy for the increasing rate of technological innovation to these phases compresses them significantly, so that the world progresses through the first two phases of the Digital Age in 30 and 20 years, respectively, leading to a staggering growth in global output during the 21st Century, with a step change in growth during the middle of the century.


Conceptualising the world up to this mid-century step change remains straightforward. Growth would be driven by familiar factors, like population growth, the benefits of sustainable development (i.e., meeting the SDGs), and incremental productivity gains from automation and digitisation. The US$350 trillion of GDP by 2060 implies an average GDP per capita globally equal to that of countries like Italy or South Korea today.

From c.2060 onward however GDP under this model would continue to increase exponentially, reaching US$2 quadrillion by 2080, despite the global population being largely stagnant. At this level, the average GDP per capita would reach US$200,000. Achieving this level of output based on physical assets and the processing of resources to create manufactured goods is difficult to conceive, given the likely physical limits of ‘goods’ that individuals can produce or consume. Just under half the world’s GDP today (US$44 trillion) is dependent on nature and its associated ecosystem services, pointing to a ceiling to economic value generation from the natural world8.

Instead, economic growth in this second phase would be driven by data and its applications. It is no coincidence that data has been labelled the ‘new oil’ of the digital economy. Like oil, it is worth more when it is processed: while oil transformed into energy, data is processed, analysed, and utilised to create information and knowledge. However, while the creation of oil is a process that takes hundreds of millions of years, making it a finite resource, data generation is growing at an exponential rate, essentially making it an infinite resource, with the amount of data in the world roughly doubling every two years.


Further, unlike oil, data is not consumed when processed, and can be reused to generate new value, making it the ultimate sustainable resource upon which the world’s next civilisation can be built. Data is also the basis of all analytics, machine and deep learning and artificial intelligence, which will not only transform virtually every industry sector in terms of automation and productivity, but also drive a step change in the consumption and production of digital services which fundamentally change the physical constraints of other industries. It is also the path to wisdom and potentially a far more balanced world.

It is therefore difficult to imagine the resulting world in 2080 with nearly US$2 quadrillion in GDP. To envision what such a future might look like, it is worth considering the likely building blocks of that future civilisation, and how technology and innovation will impact them, namely:

  • Energy. New energy sources that replace carbon, with fusion and its derivatives being the most likely near-term prospect for commercialisation, while other fundamental alternatives are explored.

  • Technology. The blurring of the boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological spheres creates new possibilities to address the world’s major physical issues and new opportunities for everything affecting life.

  • Virtualisation. The metaverse creating a shift in the human paradigm itself through the widespread adoption of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality platforms, with global economic and social activity increasingly migrating to digital spaces.

  • Materials. Breakthroughs in material sciences replace the need for the extraction of finite natural resources with sustainable and cost-effective synthetic alternatives.

  • Industry. Increasing automation, material breakthroughs and abundant near-free energy allow for nearly limitless scaling that drives down the marginal costs of production towards zero.

  • Finance. The adoption of a pervasive distributed form of capitalism that drives mass inclusion, while renewing and reinventing global trade without the need for centralised control or financial intermediaries.

  • People. People empowered by technology with access to opportunities regardless of time, space, geography, demography, gender, race, or income levels.

  • Space. The leveraging of space for access to new resources, exploration, and new territories to live in, will drive massive innovations of their own along the way.

A civilisation based on the above would be all but unrecognisable, just like pre-industrial agriculturalists could not envisage the modern world of today. Making this civilisation a reality will require bold investments that deliver breakthroughs across not just information technology but also energy, material sciences, engineering, and life sciences, that will fundamentally transform global industries.

If these breakthroughs could be achieved today or in the near future, rather than decades from now, they could also address the SDGs, subject to the necessary institutions ensuring a just transition being in place.


Conclusion: A Just Transition Requires Navigating a Middle Path

As of today however, the world lacks a common plan with which to manage this transition, just or otherwise. A successful transition, one that is sustainable and inclusive, requires global collaboration, careful thought, and measured judgements to maximise the overall benefit and to minimise transition costs.

The blueprint for a just transition would need to address all three of the competing priorities for the world: maintaining what progress has been achieved to date, levelling up the rest of the world, and creating the future. Such as shift would therefore require:

  1. Preserving and Mitigating Damage to the Planet. A successful transition depends on the world arresting further serious damage to the global ecosystem, preserving finite resources, protecting biodiversity, reducing pollution and waste, and reversing environmental degradation. This is in itself a tall order.

    Technology in its broadest sense has a role to play in this but it is a matter for policy makers to make policy that matters.

  2. Achieving the SDGs as a Basis for Further Growth. Meeting the SDGs is a prerequisite for managing an efficient and just transition to the future, levelling up less developed countries, particularly driving mass inclusion provides a more level playing field for the world to transition in a coordinated and equitable fashion.

    Technology can make the SDGs achievable, something which finance alone cannot, and so technologists as innovators, entrepreneurs, corporations, and global industry groups have one of the most fundamental roles of play in the achievement of the SDGs.

  3. Launching High Impact Initiatives that Drive Step-Changes in Meeting the Goals. The transition to such a future would need three requirements to play out: scaled and bold solutions, far higher-level risk taking, and large-scale mobilisation of capital to investment in these solutions.

    Digital initiatives can be rolled out at speeds, costs, and scales unimaginable for purely physical alternatives.

  4. Building the Future. At the same time, the world will need to fund and achieve next generation energy, communications, information, and materials technologies that can provide a step-change in global progress, investing heavily into fundamental research and its translation into applied technologies.

    The world’s next civilisation will be built on new technologies realised from the blurring of boundaries between information technology and engineering, manufacturing, and medicine.

  5. Managing the Dislocations of the Transition. All transitions, on some level, imply shifts in resources and opportunities, creating dislocations that risk leaving some stakeholders behind. The world will need to proactively manage the economic, political, and social dislocations that will accompany the transition, including significant investments in climate change adaptation, given that the world will likely face potentially severe local disruptions, even if the Paris goals are met by 2050.

    A multi-faceted plan will be required where technology deployment will need to go alongside societal, economic, and political change on a grand scale.

  6. Efficient Maintenance and Preservation. During the transition, the world still needs to “keep the lights on”, maintaining its current infrastructure and operating existing systems, paying pensions, delivering healthcare, operating, and regulating markets, and feeding, clothing, and providing for its nearly eight billion people in an efficient manner.

    Technological change is a complex matter and fraught with execution risks that will need to be managed so that the technology that already underpins the modern world and its economic, political, and social systems continues to deliver while the new is being rolled out.

  7. Ensuring Peace and Building Resilience. A smooth transition to the future can only be accomplished in a peaceful manner, with the global community working together to build global resilience to withstand the inevitable event risks, crises, and setbacks that emerge, as well as to benefit from any breakthroughs that materialise.

    Technology, and its leaders, have an important role to play in working with media and government and civil society leaders in enabling universal communication and information sharing, making it critical for global collaboration.

This is a daunting set of goals, the achievement of which will require the efforts of all global stakeholders. The tech industry has a critical role to play in managing the transition to a sustainable future. ‘Creating the future’ is what the tech sector does by default, with tech companies representing seven out of the top ten corporate R&D spenders globally, investing billions in emerging technologies like AI, autonomous vehicles, VR/AR, human health breakthroughs, drones, smart cities, and robotics. But the tech sector has equally important roles to play in levelling up the world and in preserving the progress made to date. The modern world is underpinned by its products and services, without which it would be impossible to maintain our financial, economic, social, and even political systems. Indeed, it is the immense profits generated by these products and services that are funding the sector’s investments in future.

Similarly, tech will be critical to meeting the SDGs, creating a tremendous opportunity for the sector. The companies that connect the three billion people currently not online, or financially include the five billion people without full banking services, are creating new customers whose value will only continue to grow when the goals are achieved. Securing these customers today positions tech companies to be the winners of the Imagination Age, further blurring the boundaries with traditional sectors like retail, finance, media and entertainment, healthcare, and manufacturing, displacing their respective incumbents in the process.

A more secure, sustainable, and superior future requires rolling out digital technologies to drive inclusivity across the world and unleashing innovations at scale to allow all people to access affordable solutions, creating enormous wealth, such that there is a high degree of parity in accessing opportunity, achieving the UN SDGs. This is the foundation on which major breakthroughs will build a far superior world to the one we inherited from the industrial age. A world in which ‘human security for all’ is no longer an aspiration but a lived experience.

This Sign of the Times Leader is summary of the conclusions of the Technology as a Force for Good report issued in January 2023. This article has been adapted and reprinted with the permission of the Force for Good Initiative.


The Leader: Endnotes

  1. Source: Force for Good Initiative, Technology as a Force for Good: Technology for a Secure, Sustainable and Superior Future, January 2023

  2. Source: Force for Good Initiative, Capital as a Force for Good: Capitalism for a Secure and Sustainable Future, September 2022

  3. Source: Earth Overshoot Day, National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts, 2022 Edition

  4. Million tons of oil equivalent

  5. Greenhouse gases

  6. Source: Adapted from World Bank, A. Maddison

  7. Source: Adapted from World Bank, A. Maddison, Force for Good Initiative

  8. Source: World Economic Forum

  9. Source: Technology as a Force for Good Report