Why ICTs are critical for sustainable development

By Dr William Lehr, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA
Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are accelerators, amplifiers, and augmenters of change. They make it feasible to more flexibly and dynamically reconfigure, and hence transform all aspects of how resources are produced and used, fundamentally restructuring economies and redefining how we interact with each other and the world around us.

ICTs facilitate real-time communications, data analysis and decision-making, accelerating the pace of economic change and increasing market volatility.
The digital revolution brings risks and benefits
Digital platforms for eCommerce have revamped industry supply chains, expanded markets, and given rise to the sharing economy. The Internet enables information sharing and access to global knowledge stores on an unprecedented scale, holding great promise for expanded access to education.

“Developing countries need the right ICT infrastructure, skilled workers, and institutional and policy frameworks that reflect best-practice learning but also are responsive to local context constraints and opportunities.”

The capabilities ICTs empower have the potential to drive significant economic and jobs growth for those that are able to harness ICTs effectively and embrace the new modes of operations required.

However, the realization of benefits is not guaranteed. The social and economic adjustment costs of responding to the forces of digital transformation are significant and may exacerbate inequalities between haves and have-nots. While ICTs can expand labor force inclusion, they may also accentuate the importance of skills gaps and undermine traditional policy safeguards based on legacy employment models.

The forces ICTs unleash have global impact that affect all nations, all sectors, and everyone – regardless of whether one is actively engaged or merely a spectator in the digital transformation underway. For example, everyone on the planet is affected by global climate change which will be accelerated if less developed countries follow in the footsteps of the developed world with similar energy consumption behaviors predicated on abundant use of fossil fuels.

For a brighter future, ICTs have to be part of the solution, enabling more efficient and greener energy generation and usage models.
The right infrastructure, policies, and skills are key to success
With their potential to facilitate the rapid re-organization of how production and consumption are organized within firms, across industries and markets, and globally, ICTs can help developing countries leap-frog legacy growth trajectories.

However, too often the promise is unrealized because inadequate attention is paid to ensuring that the requisite complementary elements for success are in place.

Selecting and sustaining a welfare-enhancing growth trajectory for developing economies in a more turbulent and volatile global economy is a difficult dynamic challenge.

Developing countries need the right ICT infrastructure, skilled workers, and institutional and policy frameworks that reflect best-practice learning but also are responsive to local context constraints and opportunities. Effective ICT-fueled development strategies need to be continually learning and adapting.
Better information for better decisions
ICTs expand options, but they also increase uncertainty. They have the potential to provide society with expanded tools to impact our destiny, but making good choices requires having access to high-quality research to inform our collective decision-making.

In confronting these challenges, the global academic community needs to build capacity and promote capabilities for multidisciplinary, cross-cutting expertise to identify and manage the implementation of successful strategies within nations and across the global community of nations.

Our understanding of how to best make use of ICTs to ensure sustainable growth is expanding, but our collective knowledge gaps are large and new developments bring new questions.
The need for international collaboration
At the WTDC-2017 in Buenos Aires and in celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the ITU-D in October 2017, the ITU published ICT-centric economic growth, innovation and job-creation, prepared by an international team of scholars documenting current thinking about how ICTs can contribute to realization of the Strategic Development Goals (SDGs).

Following up on this initiative, the ITU is organizing a workshop to be hosted May 22-23 at the London School of Economics that will bring together scholars and development stakeholders to discuss research results and strategies for building the multidisciplinary, global decision-making capabilities that are needed.

Hopefully, this will be another step forward toward what will need to be an on-going effort in international collaboration.