The Sustainable Development Goals, the ICT industry and ICT4D research


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed to at the United Nations (UN) in 2015, were an agenda for global change and sustainability for the next 15 years, but the programme made little mention of the potential role of the information and communications technology (ICT) industry. ICT is a key enabler of such widespread change, and this chapter assesses the potential involvement of the ICT industry in the advancement of the SDGs. A review of key reports from major industry entities reveals the significant business opportunities perceived by these ICT companies and highlights the critical role of governments in creating appropriate infrastructures for, and for funding of, ICT. The chapter also discusses key issues emerging from these reports in the context of current research in the ICT for Development (ICT4D) field. The rapid pace of technological development may revolutionise how the SDGs will be pursued and achieved around the world, but there are tensions between the imperatives of the SDGs and the pursuit of economic growth.

Key words: SDGs,Sustainable Development Goals, ICTs, ICT industry, technology change, ICT4D research


It has been suggested that there are two issues of particular importance regarding the development of global economies and societies - “the challenge of environmental sustainability and the potential of information and communications technology” (Souter et al., 2010). This article examines the implications of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the information and communications technology (ICT) industry and how this may align with current and future research initiatives in the developing world context (ICT for Development - ICT4D).

The 17 SDGs represent “the scale and ambition” of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which is designed to “shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path” (United Nations, 2015: webpage). To address these goals, the role of the business community, along with that of national governments, was highlighted by the UN. However Tim Unwin, Director of the ICT4D Collective, argued that “the almost complete omission of ICTs from the final agreed SDGs was a very serious failing” and that “those determining the SDG agenda for the next 15 years barely gave them any recognition at all” (Unwin, 2015: 2). This chapter puts forward a preliminary review of some key perspectives surrounding the relationships between ICT and the SDGs and comments on their resonance with current thinking in ICT4D research.

ICT and the SDGs

ICT is mentioned in just four of the 169 targets linked to the SDGs (Table 7.1). However, a number of frameworks have been developed for considering and measuring the relationships between ICT and both the environment and development. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for example, outlined a model that identified both “ICT supply (producers, production and products) and ICT demand (users and uses)” as agents to improve environmental outcomes as well as a number of “indirect factors affecting ICT and the

TABLE 7.1 ICT targets related to the SDGs

SDG #4. “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

Target: By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing states and African countries, for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries.

SDG #5. “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”

Target: Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women.

SDG #9. “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.”

Target: Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries by 2020. SDG #17. “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.”

Target: Fully operationalise the technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity-building mechanism for least developed countries by 2017 and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology.

Source: United Nations (2015).

environment” (OECD, 2009: 8-12). Qureshi (2017: 7) offered a “theoretical lens” to help in “investigating ICTs in ways that offer development outcomes” and suggested that “this lens offers a view through which interventions, often seen as projects in which ICTs are used to support healthcare, education or agriculture, are investigated”.

A number of ICT companies and organisations have suggested that their sector can play a central role in contributing to the achievement of the SDGs. Hans Vestberg, Ericsson’s President and Chief Executive Officer, for example, argued that “Information Communication Technology offers an incredible platform for achieving the SDGs” (Ericsson, 2016: 6). Matt Granryd, Director General of the Groupe Special Mobile Association (GSMA), suggested “as an industry we have an important opportunity to leverage the mobile networks that we have built and the services we deliver to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals” (GSMA, 2016:5).

Some key perspectives on the relationships between ICT and the SDGs emerge from a reading of reports on the SDGs published by two leading ICT companies, namely, Ericsson and Microsoft, and two industry bodies, GSMA and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI). GSMA represents the interests of more than 800 mobile telephone operators through industry programmes, working groups and industry advocacy initiatives. GeSI works in conjunction with some of the major global technology companies and provides information, resources and best practice guides aimed at achieving integrated social and environmental sustainability through ICT. A key theme in all four reports cited above is the leading role that the ICT industry believes it can play in the future achievement of the SDGs.

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