Digital offers a ray of hope in tough global times

Doreen Bogdan-Martin
Secretary-General, ITU

Read the ITU year in review

A year has passed since I took the helm at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), with a mandate to ready this extraordinary United Nations agency for the new global digital reality.

Of course, 2023 was no ordinary year.

It was the world’s hottest year on record and the year when artificial intelligence (AI) went mainstream.

The world experienced growing humanitarian crises and conflicts, combined with international economic uncertainties which have deepened divides and inequalities.

Climate change, too, became obvious as part of our daily reality, amid unseasonable weather, the rising incidence of disasters, and increasing displacement of hard-hit people and communities.

Technologies – undeterred by human frailties – kept on advancing, and generative AI platforms, led by Chat GPT, emerged with a bang. For many of us, the risks of uncontrolled AI development served as a wake-up call in 2023.

Those risks are undeniable. But we should not let this potential negative obscure the existing upsides.

Like with any new and unfamiliar technology, AI demands international cooperation, open and inclusive dialogue, and appropriate regulation and governance. Handled right, its unprecedented power could help reinvigorate sustainable development, drive effective climate action, build circular economies, and improve everyone’s health, education, and nutrition.

Digital game-changers

Over the last difficult year, digital transformation – with AI and other tech at its heart – offered the world a ray of hope.

Game-changing digital solutions, including AI, can accelerate progress on 70 per cent of targets under the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As the UN 2030 Agenda reached its midpoint, the prospect of this exponential tech boost could only be good news.

The global tech industry showed its readiness to embrace a better future. ITU brought together over 40 tech partners, including industry associations and private companies, at the UN climate conference, COP28, in a collective commitment to Green Digital Action.

In parallel, ITU Member States stood together at the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) to harness the potential of technical advances in space, science, and terrestrial radio services. This puts the world on a solid path towards a more connected, sustainable, equitable and inclusive digital future for all.

We have kept building on our ongoing work and stepping up landmark initiatives in pursuit of universal connectivity and sustainable digital transformation.

Partner2Connect, the key ITU-led pledging platform, closed the year with a total of 861 pledges worth nearly USD 37 billion dedicated to ensuring connectivity for all, starting with the world’s hardest-to-reach communities.

Giga, ITU’s joint initiative with UNICEF to connect every school in the world to the Internet, is now active in 30 countries, 12 of which came on board in 2023.

A UN report last year identified over 200 projects leveraging digital solutions to advance the various aspects of sustainable development.

Advancing key priorities

As we take on more ambitious priorities, we also take pride in ITU’s rejuvenation.

Our strategy for the next four years aims to leverage the world’s intensifying web of networks and technologies to build sustainable and inclusive prosperity.

Our strategic plan sets out two overarching goals:

  • Universal connectivity – in effect, bringing the last 2.6 billion people online and bridging socio-economic divides through meaningful, affordable digital access globally.
  • Sustainable digital transformation – aligning innovative tech with sustainable development and global climate action, while fostering equitable, inclusive digital development for all.

As we give life to this bold strategic direction, we are simultaneously transforming ITU. In my first year as Secretary-General, we hit the ground running, putting us on track to create a fit-for-future organization, as well as ramping up partnerships and pledges to create a better digital future.

Looking back over 2023, ITU has taken robust steps aimed at:

  • Driving digital impact – emerging as an authoritative voice of digital transformation, offering vital perspectives on universal and meaningful connectivity, along with insights on digital solutions for some of the most pressing challenges of our time.
  • Connecting people and ideas – boosting the visibility of digital, spurred action on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and laid key groundwork for the proposed Global Digital Compact.
  • Organizational excellence – putting digital transformation into practice and becoming an exemplary UN agency committed to efficiency, innovation, inclusiveness, and engagement.

In this drive for renewal, I am grateful for the support of an outstanding leadership team. More than ever, ITU radiocommunication, standardization and development activities are helping connect the world inclusively and sustainably.

I invite you to explore what we’ve achieved in 2023 – starting with the highlights in our online year in review, Ready for tomorrow.

Stepping into the future with confidence

This year, let’s transform the ray of hope offered by digital into sustainable progress.

The UN’s Summit of the Future, coming up in September, gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make digital a centrepiece of our efforts to address the world’s critical challenges and gaps in global governance, while boosting progress on the SDGs.

In October, the ITU family will convene in New Delhi for the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA-24), which will put technical standards front and centre.

Not only do these standards help digital technologies work together, but they help make them safer, more accessible, more affordable, and more sustainable.

This is exactly what we need to support innovation, break cycles of exclusion, and accelerate digital transformation for all.

As we look to the New Year, let’s recommit ourselves to using digital technologies for the good of all humanity.

My New Year’s resolution is to continue building partnerships so that, together, we can harness digital progress for the good of people and planet.

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