Last week, the world’s largest climate summit took place in New York City. While this year’s Climate Week, in association with the 75th United Nations General Assembly Week, focused on rebuilding after COVID-19, the series of over 350 virtual events also explored how we can half global emissions by the end of the decade and create a better global economy for people and our planet.
The event caused me to revisit the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States since 2015. At the core of the agenda are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.
According to the UN Global Compact, more than 80% of its 9,500 corporate members have committed to advancing one or more of these goals.
However, it became clear to me that as we live in a digital-first, work-from-home world, yet not one of the 17 Sustainable Goals addresses a fair, more livable digital future for our fast-evolving and technology-driven world
More than 4.5 billion people now use the internet, while social media users have passed the 3.8 billion mark. Nearly 60 percent of the world’s population is already online, and the latest trends suggest that more than half of the world’s total population have used social media this year. The average internet user now spends 6 hours and 54 minutes online each day. That equates to more than 100 days of connected time per internet user per year – meaning we spend roughly 40 percent of our waking lives using the internet.
People have more experiences online each day than they do offline. Instead of speaking face-to-face with co-workers, we send emails or chat. Rather than paying someone in person, we send it through Venmo. When we book a trip, we use travel websites, not travel agents. When we want to listen to music we love, we ask Alexa or Google to play it for us.
We increasingly do more of our shopping, more of our dating, more of our friendship-making, more of our learning, more of our news-seeking, more of our chatting and more of our buying or selling things at a touch or a click online. What we do in cyberspace goes deeply into almost every part of our life. We are starting to see the first applications using deep machine learning, deep facial recognition, deep voice automation, deep data insights and deep computing enrichment, but we are entering into untouched areas were corporations will start to know more about us than our most dear loved ones – and perhaps ourselves.
Technology has given brands a global platform and the ability to interact with people at scale. It has fundamentally changed how people get information, communicate, and engage with one another. In other words, digital technology has not only changed the relationship between brands and people, it is also changing how we interact with the world at large. People have started to Share their Lives with these companies.
The push for data privacy has exploded in recent years, with regulations such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) leading the charge. This means consumers around the globe are gaining rights regarding how their data is collected, stored, and sold, as well as more ways to hold companies accountable when poor data security practices lead to data breaches involving their personally identifiable information (PII).
Some of these laws and standards enhance the scope of others or clarify grey areas. However, others can fall short, weaken rules and fines, or even exempt certain industries entirely.
With all these digital interactions, brands have more data than ever about the people they serve. However, data is of little value if it’s primarily used to harass people and intrude upon their online experience. This information is only mutual valuable when it is interpreted and used to understand people and enable a meaningful relationship with them. Through this understanding, brands have the potential and capability to create something magical and accessible. Consumers, at the same time, have learned the difference between privacy and security—and expect value in return for their data.
Using data to identify how to deliver value to what customers find meaningful and for brands to understand what is authentic is also committing to helping customers live their best (digital) lives.
What if companies could commit to providing customers with a richer and protected online future through a more enriched and acceptable life with data? What if we could experience significant impact to quality of life with an addition to the UN Sustainable Development Goals where companies use data for mutual benefit rather than for unwelcomed intrusion or manipulation? Companies that use data as a means to “zero degrees of separation” will replace doing business at arm’s length and replace engagement with deep-seated entanglement between the company and the customer. It will take a mindset change from a “doing to and targeting” to a one-with-one digital empowerment mantra.
We need our digital world to be as safe and livable, as with our physical world. We need a place where global corporations are acting responsibly both online as they do offline. As with all the other SDG areas, we need universal and global laws that protect the users and their data, while enabling tech companies, governments, industry, civil society and researchers alike to unlock the beneficial potential of new technologies and making the world a better place than when they leave it.
The solution to many of the other Sustainable Development Goals relies on use of technology and corporations leveraging Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Machine Learning etc. to convert insights into big opportunities. We simply need to find solutions to coexist and define common rules as many technology companies are now so embedded in people’s digital lifestyle that you can talk about an intertwined existence – an entangled relationship. People and technology connect reflexively. Searching on Google or watching Netflix streaming or ordering goods with one click from Amazon have become reflexive.
Defining such global guidelines will involve funding, resources, and expertise while companies need to find new ways of working and innovating with people. It can be done if companies commit to collaborate with their customers in identifying new solutions, yet it will be close to impossible if it’s not guided by a new Sustainable Development Goal number 18 – A Meaningful and Safe Digital Life.