Standardizing for a sustainable digital future

Cities, governments, and companies are on a steep learning curve as they adopt new tech as part of low-carbon, sustainable, citizen-centric development strategies.

International standards, recognized around the world, are essential to make technologies in fields like artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G, combined with bigger and bigger data use, accessible and useful to everyone, everywhere.

Last week’s Global Standards Symposium (GSS-20) brought together over 700 participants to discuss how international standards can enable digital uptake in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations for 2030.

New and emerging technologies can undoubtedly help address daunting social and economic challenges, GSS speakers concurred. Yet effective standards development requires input from all stakeholders. And the stakeholders in digital transformation are numerous and diverse.

“We are in a world where a single organization can’t solve everything alone,” said Philippe Metzger, General Secretary and CEO of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).

“We need collaboration across the different boundaries. We are in a multi-stakeholder digital world, society and economy.”

Cooperating for sustainable development

While the COVID-19 pandemic has damaged people’s well-being globally, many of its consequences are felt more deeply in developing countries. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres has pointed out, this amounts to a major setback in the UN’s Decade of Action on the SDGs.

The IEC, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and symposium organizer the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) provide leadership in standardization globally, fostering collaboration among standards developers and a growing range of stakeholders.

The three international standards bodies work together closely as the World Standards Cooperation, with the support of mechanisms such as their Standardization Programme Coordination Group, reviewing activities, identifying standards gaps and opportunities, and working to ensure comprehensive standardization solutions to global challenges.

“We need to make sure what we offer is compatible and interoperable,” said the ISO Secretary-General, Sergio Mujica.

The complexity of global problems requires numerous organizations with different objectives and profiles to work towards common goals. Still, each can build on its core strengths.

The need to include everyone

Uncoordinated and non-inclusive standardization can spell lasting harm for countries that already struggle to afford long-term socio-economic investments.

Ghana’s Minister for Communications and Digitalization, Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, described railway systems across Africa, where “inherited colonial standards” hold back modern improvements. Railways built to different standards hinder trade with neighbouring nations, putting African countries at a competitive disadvantage compared to Europe and Asia.

Without global and regional coordination, today’s digital revolution could produce similarly uneven results, she added.

“It is imperative that all standard development organizations work together in this area of ​​digital transformation to ensure that the colonialism of the past does not happen again,” said Owusu-Ekuful.

Cross-cutting sustainability challenges

To support digital transformation, technical standards are required across all sectors of the economy. The global climate emergency also touches upon every facet of standardization.

For example, the rapid rise of financial technologies (fintech) and digital currencies requires a push “to put clear standards in place in order to minimize the environmental impact and the financial stability risks of all,” said Barbara Kolm, Vice President of the Austrian Central Bank.

Including a greater variety of voices in standards discussions should help to level the playing field for developing countries.

“A multi-stakeholder approach is a priority to have a successful and inclusive digital transformation,” said Argentina’s Undersecretary of Information and Communications Technology, Martín Olmos.

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