Technological Innovation and Social Responses

Science and innovation are essential to achieve the SDGs, provided they are grounded in an integrated, human-centred approach that leaves no one behind

Technological progress and inequalities

While the technological progress is essential for sustainable development, it could also perpetuate inequalities, or create new ones – image Shutterstock, licence CC

By María Victoria Espada – The Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) is the focal point of the United Nations in these fields. It is a forum to inform and debate the vital trends related to Science, technology and Innovation (STI) in the economy, the environment and society; any lessons learnt as well as good practices can be shared between countries. Equally, the CSTD analyses how STI, including information and communication technologies (ICT), serve to facilitate the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Science and innovation for health

Last May, Dianova attended virtually the twenty-fourth session of CSTD. Amongst other subjects, the use of science, technology and innovation were debated to achieve SDG 3, related to health and wellbeing, to which Dianova contributes with their work. The majority of the sessions also made reference to the data and trends gathered in the Technology and Innovation Report 2021 published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

4th industrial revolution

According to said report, the world is currently reaching the end of the implementation phase of the “era of ICT” and is beginning a new phase under a paradigm which includes frontier technologies. These technologies present an enormous potential to improve the life of people and to protect the planet. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, artificial intelligence and macrodata have been used to examine patients, to follow-up on outbreaks, to track and trace cases of illness, to predict their evolution and to evaluate risks of infection. This new phase is commonly known as the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0, as observed in the following graph.

Technological change and inequality through the ages

Technological change and inequality through the ages

Source: UNCTAD, based on data from Maddison Project Database, version 2018, Bolt et al. (2018), Perez (2002), and Schwab (2013) Notes: “Core” corresponds to Western Europe and its offshoots (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) with Japan. “Periphery” corresponds to the world, excluding the “core” countries.

Digital health, with active participation by the population

As well as grand innovations, STI also apply to low-tech solutions and to organisational and social innovations in healthcare. The term digital health or electronic health refers to all the digital information related to health and the provision of healthcare services online, such as video consultations, electronic health records, electronic prescriptions and computer aided imaging, amongst others. Digital health can also provide access to high quality health information, active participation by the population in their own health and wellbeing, and the creation of communities of patients and support groups on line.

Integrate technology in health services

Just as was seen during the pandemic, it is hoped that electronic health will continue developing as technology further integrates with health services. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 120 countries already have national digital health policies, which is also indicative of the opportunities that STI could mean for monitoring the progress of SDG 3 and accelerate its achievement.

Develop capabilities and ensure privacy

As well as relying on regulatory frameworks which authorise telemedicine and facilitate their implementation, it will be essential to develop digital capabilities for workers in the health sector on a par with the digital literacy of the patients. Equally, it will be necessary to resolve worries that new technologies can cause over privacy, security and the accuracy of artificial intelligence in healthcare.

Technology should not perpetuate inequalities

During the CTSD sessions, it was highlighted that, while the technological progress is essential for sustainable development, it could also perpetuate inequalities, or create new ones. Therefore, it will be the governments’ job to maximise the benefits whilst mitigating the possible damages; and to prepare people, companies and institutions to tackle the technological changes. Equally, it highlighted the role different civil society groups could have when it comes to identifying the imbalances between technological innovation and social responses; eventually, driving changes as much in regulations and law; and in users and consumers behaviours to select the technologies at the forefront of the social objectives.

A global digital divide

As is appreciated in the graph, the difference between developed countries and developing countries has never been as great as it is now and it continues to increase. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed inequalities in access to treatments, vaccines and health related technologies. The digital divide is leaving behind more than half the world’s population, above all females in developing countries, without access to the internet. In this way, the gender digital divide prevents women from having equal access to health services, as well as making it hard to generate health data to subsequently improve treatments and medical services.

Science and innovation in a human-centred approach

In this sense, it is important to guarantee that all countries have universal medical coverage and equal access to health services. It is also necessary to promote even more international and multilateral cooperation, to design coherent development agendas, to share better practices, to share lessons learnt, to include local knowledge, and to encourage shared scientific research. Science and innovation are essential to achieve the SDG, but an integrated and human-centred approach is needed so that nobody gets left behind.