Hand holding smartphone

Our collective intelligence must steer the digital and green transformations 

Originally published as a guest article by IISD’s SDG Knowledge Hub.

How can we rescue the vision of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and get in shape for Our Common Agenda for 2050? Part of the way forward is without doubt to embrace the digital and green transitions.

As we heard at the 70th session of the UN Economic Commission for Europe – UNECE’s highest decision-making body – many countries across Europe, Central Asia, and North America are doing just that to provide fresh impetus for sustainable change. Examples are manyfold. They range from mandatory green public procurement and 41% of investment in Cyprus’ national recovery and resilience plan going to green initiatives to accelerated efforts in Ukraine to ensure public access to environmental information online. Other examples include:

  • innovation for green and climate technology in Israel;
  • recognition in Kazakhstan’s National Development Plan of the strong links between environmental action – including on biodiversity and air quality – and digital transformation, with some 150,000 people already employed in the IT sector; and
  • multistakeholder cooperation in the EU to secure a sustainable supply of the Critical Raw Materials, leveraging UNECE resource management tools.

The digital and green transitions are both cause and consequence of great disruption in our societies and economies. As the countries of the region have stressed, we must adapt our policy and regulatory frameworks to the new context created by the digital transformation, but also steer the changes in a direction that advances the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Digital technologies can improve the lives of many people and help to put us back on track for the SDGs. But to fully reap this potential, we must redouble efforts to address persistent digital divides in the population and among countries and regions, which amplify existing social, cultural, and economic inequalities.

What will our region look like in the year 2050?

Taking stock of current trends as we look toward the middle of this century, we can anticipate many changes that will shape the region in significant ways:

  • One of the most prominent trends is population ageing, which will put pressure on healthcare systems, pensions, and social services.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and robotics will transform many aspects of our lives, including the workplace, transportation, and communication. This will create new opportunities for innovation and growth, but it will also disrupt traditional industries and challenge the workforce to adapt and reskill.
  • The region will have to continue to adapt to the new realities of climate change and work together to mitigate its worst effects.
  • These changes will all have profound effects on the political landscape of the region, leading to new political movements and coalitions.
  • In the realm of international relations, we can expect countries in our region to continue to play an important role but may see a shift in the balance of power on the world stage.

Do these bulleted projections resonate with you? Do they speak to your perspectives and realities, at national or local level?

In fact, these forecasts do not originate in my own analyses or those of UNECE, but in the artificial intelligence of ChatGPT. No doubt many of you, like UNECE, are already experimenting with such tools, as together we imagine how harnessing these powerful capabilities in a smart way could free up capacity, creativity, and resources to dedicate to the most value-added activities.

Tools like this are capturing business, political, public, and media attention, from discussions at Davos to universities, creative industries, and parliaments.

UNECE is already substantively engaged in AI in a number of areas, from supporting national statistical offices to explore the potential of machine learning, to forging binding international regulations that define the technical requirements for automated driving.

What is the potential for AI-generated information, content, and analysis to replace that produced by humans? How can we ensure its safe and ethical use? These were among the many considerations emerging from the rich horizon scanning exchanges held in the preparatory side events for the Commission’s session held in early April, which – following UNECE’s first ever Youth Dialogue last December – also stressed the need for stronger youth and intergenerational engagement in our work.

The potential is huge, and we are barely scratching the surface. Together, we must continue to embrace the digital transformation, in an inclusive manner, to shape our green and sustainable future. But as we reflect on the 75 years since the establishment of UNECE in the ashes of World War II and look ahead to the future, I wish to stress one point.

There is nothing artificial in the collective intelligence of the multilateral cooperation, dialogue, and shared human endeavor across political and technical spheres, which is the very DNA. of UNECE.

Our Commission has added a year to life expectancy in Europe by reducing air pollution under the Air Convention. It lays the groundwork for trustworthy and reliable official statistics that underpin all policy making and the work of the entire UN. It reduces cross-border transport time for goods by up to 80% thanks to the TIR Convention, among so many more shared achievements.

In this uniquely difficult period for the region, as geopolitical tensions stirred by the war in Ukraine aggravate interlocking economic, social, and environmental challenges, the unique role of UNECE is more valuable than ever.

I am immensely proud of our joint work, and invite all governments of our 56 member States, together with all stakeholders in our region, to put the vision for a digital and green future into action, harnessing cooperation at UNECE.

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