When we imagine the future of ICT, and the technologies that will change the world, we often talk about artificial intelligence, robots, and flying cars – these things are exciting, and rightly get everyone’s attention. But it’s also important to focus on the good that the ICT revolution will deliver to us on a real, measureable, societal level. By providing access to information and wildly dynamic new capabilities, ICT not only makes people more effective and businesses more efficient; it helps us build a more equitable, sustainable world.
There is a significant causal relationship between ICT and sustainability. Given this fact, it’s important for us not only to assess ICT progress independently, but to put it against the most sophisticated and defined benchmark we have for human progress – the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The ICT SDG Benchmark report, part of a GCI (Global Connectivity Index) series of reports by Huawei highlights the importance of achieving the SDGs by 2030 – which is only 12 years from now. We don’t have to think hard about how ICT can contribute to lifelong education, produce greater economic value, create jobs, and reduce inequality.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Middle East, an exciting, dynamic, and rapidly developing part of the world which also endures some of the most challenging conditions from geography to politics. The Middle East, and particularly the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have shown not only how much they can innovate in the ICT space, but also how much that innovation can be leveraged to build a happier, healthier, more sustainable future for their people and the region at large.
The report indicates that the strongest correlation between ICT progress and SDG progress were SDG 4, Quality Education (73%), and SDG 3, Good Health and Well-being (71%). More specifically, analysis has shown that small improvements in certain technology, such as broadband, can lead to rapid improvements in performance in both of these areas Good Health and Well-being and Quality Education. The GCC has strategically focused on these areas through investments ranging from broadband and cloud to IoT and big data.
The global ICT SDG Benchmark report examined the United Arab Emirates in-depth as one of four country case studies. The UAE is an exciting case, given its youth and small size. Over the past 20 years, the Emirates have rapidly developed and advanced its ICT infrastructure, particularly in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Through the creation of tax-incentive zones like Masdar City, Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City, twofour54, and Dubai Silicon Oasis, the UAE has been able to foster both local innovation and international investment and operational activity across the ICT landscape. In 2008, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), which regulates the telecommunications and information technology sectors, set up an ICT fund to support research and development projects, and to provide education and training in order to stimulate further growth in the ICT sector. Between 2008 and 2014 the fund invested over $418.7 million US Dollars.
This initiative has allowed the UAE to excel where so many other countries in the Benchmark fail – on SDG 9, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. This is obvious when one spends time in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, with their Smart City initiatives and observable push toward the future. But the UAE performed best on SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being) and SDG 4 (Quality Education), which is a great indicator of its investment in its children, its people, and its future.
Yet there remain roadblocks. The Gulf is a difficult region geographically, and the UAE still faces difficulty in the areas of SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), and SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean energy), with the UAE scoring below average on waste generation and air pollution, issues that are challenges for many developed economies. The bare bones of sustainability, given issues of air quality and water and food security characteristic of the region, are much more pressing in the Middle East than almost anywhere else. So work remains to be done.
What does all this mean for the region as a whole? The UAE possesses many of the same opportunities and challenges as its neighbours. In order to continue down the path to achieving the SDGs, it is of particular importance for the GCC to focus on increasing its access to information and services via expanded ICT infrastructures; this means more connectivity between every person, home, and organisation at an instantaneous or near-instantaneous level. This can increase productivity and innovation for a broad range of sectors and communities, and provide the real-time communications needed for rapid scaling of critical human-oriented services.
Increasing digital skills of people will be another major factor that will determine the pace of connectivity growth. It is often the least developed economies and most disadvantaged populations that lack advanced digital skills, which further exposes them to a growing risk of being left behind in a digitised economy. Increasing their level of digital literacy will result in major improvements to all aspects of their livelihoods, including in the economy, healthcare, education, and other areas.
The UAE’s National Innovation Strategy draws direct ties between innovation and technology and SDG topics such as education, health, and renewable energy. This type of strategic forward thinking should be embraced everywhere in the Middle East; and indeed, in many ways it has. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has several technology-central Vision projects in the pipeline.
ICT is changing the world. As we continue down this path to digital transformation, we need to ensure that we are not simply steering ICT development towards the coolest, or most profitable, milestone, but towards the most life-changing ones. ICT has the potential for us to achieve all our SDGs by 2030, if we’re focused and confident enough. The UAE, and the GCC as a whole, have proven to be a shining example of how to ensure that we deliver on these invaluable goals.