The start of a year has historically always been a special time; a time when new ideas, ambitions, hopes, and trends for the year are laid out. The beginning of 2021 will be like no other in the history of new beginnings. It is not just a new beginning but a total reset, which notably is the theme of WEF2021. A beginning where the world can begin to recover by rolling out vaccines. A beginning where we as human beings are united by our shared sadness and anxiety for the unknown. A beginning where sprouts of hope, just like the early blooms of spring, are once again filling us with happiness, warmth, and optimism. A new beginning that is reflected in the start of a new administration in the United States with the re-joining of the Paris Agreement and the WHO. In this time, we are seeing an exponential acceleration on the focus on climate and it is a promising beginning for all global goals even when the entire world is still grappling with COVID-19.
As it was made clear on his first day in office, we can expect significant moves against climate change from the new US administration as President Biden launches into his first 100 days. Their commitment is not just domestic in its scope, but global, to “lead an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets”.¹ In his inauguration speech, President Biden pledged to “repair our alliances, and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday's challenges but today's and tomorrow's challenges”.² Within his first week in office, President Biden has initiated the most ambitious presidential environmental agenda before seen in the United States with an astounding commitment to bringing the US to net zero carbon emission by 2050 as well as numerous immediately actionable executive orders energy production and federal land. This new attitude of ambitious and forward-thinking responsibility provides much needed hope of a new standard of American environmental and humanitarian action.
It is reassuring to see thought leaders, like President Biden and BlackRock’s CEO, Larry Fink, approach our world’s issues with such urgency and ambition. In his 2021 letter to CEOs, Fink wrote “I believe that the pandemic has presented such an existential crisis – such a stark reminder of our fragility – that it has driven us to confront the global threat of climate change more forcefully and to consider how, like the pandemic, it will alter our lives. It has reminded us how the biggest crises, whether medical or environmental, demand a global and ambitious response”.³
It is in this environment, that ‘technology for good’ is becoming the new normal. We need to ensure in our reflections on the very difficult year that has passed that we acknowledge the opportunities which 2020 has brought to us in the way we live, work, engage, collaborate, and take care of each-other. This means that during 2020 we have individually and globally adapted new ways of living.
The promise of technology has always energized the human imagination through glimpses of what might be possible. Without question, 2020’s acceleration into remote work, telemedicine, eCommerce and stronger digital reliance has proved to be a watershed for how we all will accept and use new technologies from now on—from driverless delivery vehicles to connected medical devices. Yet, it has also caused us to consider how society can shape technology to create better lives—driven by human and humanitarian needs.
While many are concerned about the disruption new technology may bring—in jobs, in ways of life, in security, and in social change, technological innovation, guided by business leaders and policy makers, has consistently proven to make a positive difference to our lives over the course of history. These times are no different and in fact the application of technology for good will have a huge role in ‘building back better’. In June 2020, António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations stated that “as we build back better from the pandemic, in an inclusive and sustainable way, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to achieve the world’s goals in a more meaningful and lasting way”. This beginning will no doubt be the biggest opportunity in history to build back better.⁴
The idea of ‘building back better’ between now and 2030 – echoed in the words of many, including Klaus Schwabe of the World Economic Forum – is that businesses are not ready to settle for a “return” or a “rebuild” after Covid-19. Instead, the world is striving for a “reset.” This reset is a transformation to a different way of doing business, measured not only through the narrow lenses of profit and GDP growth, but through other important benchmarks that will affirm the moral strength and resilience of the private sector. This was the conversation of last week’s World Economic Forum, aptly named the “Great Reset”. The Davos conversations centered around five topics which were discussed in a united, inclusive, virtual setting, where the voices of people across the world, from heads of state and government, the private sector, civil society leaders, global media and youth leaders. The conversation topics include:
And from a business perspective, perhaps no one expresses the values of a great reset better than Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, Inc.: “The public expectations of your company have never been greater… Every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential”.⁶
As stated at the start of this article, 2021 has been full of unprecedented moments within just its first month. It follows that the acceleration in technology has matched the pace of global change, and technology’s role has changed forever from just technology to technology for good. Smart automation, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things can be used to increase productivity and stimulate GDP growth, while also enabling healthier lifestyles, greater longevity, and a more habitable planet. We saw through the COVID-19 vaccine process how collaborative corporate efforts, along with public-private partnerships, could make a difference quickly and across borders. This emphasis on innovation-led growth will only continue with human goals at the center, which may become the most beneficial legacy of the COVID-19 crisis.
The world now faces the dual challenge of making public health a priority while trying to improve economic health and stability. However, the COVID-19 emergency with its social considerations for the most vulnerable, renewed awareness of environmental concerns, and the desire to “simply do good,” is driving solutions for not merely a “new normal, but a “better, new normal.”
There is a myriad of ways that technology can facilitate that highly valued “positive contribution to society” and humanity -- from jobs to education, from healthcare to living standards. Online training programs and job-matching digital platforms will enable workers to improve skills, find employment, and enhance job security in a more globalized setting than ever and with unprecedented accessibility. Adaptive-learning apps can better prepare young people for the labor market at a lower educational cost. Mobile payments will ultimately reduce the price of goods and services, while also encouraging new online marketplaces. Artificial Intelligence can power drug discovery, disease testing and diagnostic tools to create personalized medicine for a longer life while reducing the expense and time spent at medical facilities.
Clinical use of AI makes it possible to do what was never conceivable before in terms of data crunching and understanding. Johns Hopkins hospital has an AI-powered demand-for-beds algorithm. This automated system foresees bottlenecks in assigning patients to beds and suggests corrective actions to avoid problems. Since the hospital launched the program, the need to keep surgery patients in recovery rooms dropped by 80 percent. The wait time in providing beds for emergency room patients is down by 20 percent. The outcome is better care at a lower cost. These are the new ways of measuring success for a better world.
Today, we do not go online, we live online. Before the pandemic, we spent hours a day on our devices. Screen time has, of course, increased dramatically as most of our daily activities have moved to a virtual setting. In the process, we’ve come to realize that people and technology connect reflexively, especially when we can access the same information and tools whether we are in Cape Town, Singapore, or Chicago. Searching on Google, streaming Netflix, or ordering goods with a single click from Amazon have become automatic and amazingly natural.⁷
The United Nations commemorated its 75th anniversary in a virtual summit in September 2020, which it labeled “a time of great disruption for the world.” World leaders debated pressing issues and reinforced their commitment to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), designed to address global challenges including health, poverty, climate change, inequality, peace and justice by 2030. The SDGs represent the most urgent problems facing our planet, and they require collective action on a global scale.⁸
However, there is a critical element missing from the UN’s agenda: not one of the Sustainable Development Goals addresses our digital lives.
Why then is this digital reality left out of the UN’s goals? How could we possibly build a more just and livable planet without an 18th goal that focuses on creating a safe and meaningful digital life. It’s hard to differentiate between our digital lives and our “real” lives because they are one and the same. 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 the use of technology and how corporations leverage 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. Today, as many technology companies are now so embedded in people’s digital lifestyle that there is an “intertwined existence” or an “entangled relationship”.⁹
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 collaboration with their customers in identifying new solutions. However, it will be impossible if it’s not guided by a new Sustainable Development Goal number 18 – A Meaningful and Safe Digital Life.
We live on one planet, and we need to give the same consideration to our digital existence as we do to our physical world. Technology has never been so present in our lives. Its omnipresence makes it an extremely powerful tool for delivering change, including change that is positive for all.
It is easy to use stark, dark terms to measure the destructive power of wars, natural and man-made disasters, and health crises such as pandemics. The sheer breadth of these tragic events – measured bluntly in the number of casualties – serves as a stern warning. Governments, companies, and other institutions should act in order to avoid the risks that would allow the ravages of history to repeat themselves. A greater challenge, however, is to ensure that the positive and reinforcing parts of history do indeed repeat themselves. In the wake of cataclysmic events, especially ones with a global scale, the part of history we want to repeat is the mix of creativity, ingenuity, and hope that inevitably emerges as the crisis fades. That special mix sets the stage for unprecedented progress for society as a whole.