African migrants on the shore of Djibouti City at night raise their phones in an attempt to catch an inexpensive signal from neighbouring Somalia. Photo John Stanmeyer.
There has been much talk about the role that technology plays in fostering development and helping to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The benefits of digital technology contributing to the 2030 Agenda are well integrated and documented. Not only through Objective 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure), but transversally across all 17 objectives, and there is a well-established general acceptance of the fundamental role played by digital technology helping to achieve the objectives for the year 2030.
Despite the technological enthusiasm in the potential impact on development, which was already high a decade ago, the latest advances and technological applications have surpassed expectations. The speed of innovation causes unpredictable social disruptions and the emergence of new technologies has radically opened Pandora’s box: artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, quantum computing, virtual reality or the internet of things, open all an ocean of possibilities of difficult forecast and impact. There is no doubt about the positive effects that will be generated in the fight against poverty, but there is great ignorance about the cost and the consequences that the application of these technologies will entail.
Undoubtedly, technology will contribute to minimizing the inequality and effectiveness of development management, by providing better access to basic services, such as electronic health or online education; or facilitating the connection between citizens and governments, through digital tools that will also improve transparency and reduce corruption.
But obviously, new policies and a new regulatory framework will be required to allow this technological transition to be steered safely towards more inclusive societies, avoiding the monopolization of generators and data storage, as well as the privacy and privacy of users.
On the other hand, as technology advances and we move to the 5G model of speed and information exchange, there is a growing concern that these new technologies widen even more the gap between the advantaged and the vulnerable. The slogan of the SDGs that we have heard so much in recent years, leaving no one behind, runs the risk of being further affected by a growing inequality between those who have access to digital technology and those who do not. The ones, that will be able to use automated data aggregation to improve their decision making in a recurrent and incremental way; and the others, who will enter a new category of vulnerability and discrimination that is still unknown: digital illiterates.
Therefore, it is necessary to integrate technology into development models to improve its efficiency and effectiveness; but also to make efforts to regulate and democratize access to technology, so that it is really a tool that generates opportunities for all members of society, and does not end up becoming the tool that allows privileged elites to continue distancing themselves from the rest.