Accelerating the SDGs through Information and Communications Technology

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) begin where the United Nations’ (UN) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ended. Aimed at fighting poverty, hunger and disease around the world, the MDGs halved extreme poverty in low-income countries. Now the SDGs aim to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030, with economic prosperity, social inclusion and environmental sustainability as central objectives. Leveraging the power of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is crucial to achieving the SDGs, and is an important consideration in the scope, extent and mechanism of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) solutions.

ICT: A Key Facilitator of the SDGs

The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development was created by UNECSO and the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 2015. The aim was to highlight the power of ICT and broadband-based technologies for sustainable development. Its report, “The State of Broadband: Broadband Catalyzing Sustainable Development,” makes a crucial point -- the SDGs can be realized only with greater progress in the speed, degree and equality of development.

A joint report from Ericsson and the Earth Institute called “How Information and Communications Technology Can Accelerate Action on the Sustainable Development Goals,” makes a similar point. It states that economic growth in the business-as-usual (BAU) context will not achieve the SDGs by 2030. Only ICT can provide this surge in development.

The UN General Assembly for the 2030 Agenda acknowledges that the spread of ICT and global interconnectedness will accelerate sustainable development. The Agenda sees ICT infrastructure as a cross-cutting ‘means of implementation’ for the SDGs, an infrastructure integral to the efforts at advancing them. The ITU likewise calls ICTs cross-cutting catalysts for all three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental development – in its call to action.

Highlighting ICT for the SDGs stems from it having the fastest global technology diffusion in history. No other technology from past economic ages has progressed as quickly. This rapid growth has been attributed to Moore’s law, where the co-founder of Intel predicted that the integrated circuit – the heart of ICTs - would expand exponentially every two years at a reasonable cost. The consumer can see this law in trends like a $1,500 computer today being worth half that amount next year​. The global economic development of the past 30 years has resulted from this technology’s ability to scale and rapidly diffuse. ICT accelerates diffusion in aspects of the economy that are key areas of the SDGs: healthcare, education, financial services and energy/climate change. 

When the MDGs were set more than 15 years ago, mobile and broadband were young. The past 15 years have seen an unprecedented diffusion of these technologies, which led to the rapid development of other services. Take Africa as an example. In 2000, it had almost no mobile telephone subscribers. Today, it has 950 million subscribers. For some, mobile telephony gave access to services in health and banking for the first time through e-health and e-finance.

The global diffusion of mobile technology has seen a similarly dramatic climb. From 200 million subscriptions globally in 2000, mobile telephony has jumped to 100% global saturation with 7.3 billion subscribers in 2015. Similarly, the total number of subscriptions in mobile-broadband subscriptions reached 3.2 billion in 2015.

Mobile and broadband (two acknowledged key forces of ICT) have closed the development gap for basic services at record speeds without the outlay of traditional infrastructure. These ICTs are transforming cost-intensive public services such as education, financial services and health, especially in low-income countries. Areas with limited access to basic services such as banking and health clinics are experiencing them for the first time through real-time, high-quality, flexible and mobile services.

By reducing the unit costs of service delivery, expanding the range of services, economizing on scarce resources and accelerating institutional learning, ICT offers widespread and accelerated uptake and provision of these services, a primary goal of the SDGs.

The State of Broadband 2016 report presents economic evidence supporting broadband connectivity as an enabling infrastructure for all aspects of development, including economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection:

  • Macroeconomic evidence:
    • The size of the ICT sector as measured by GDP
    • ICT’s role in promoting innovation in new products and services
    • ICT’s role in achieving productivity gains through broadband-enabled solutions
    • ICT’s potential to improve access to new markets
  • Microeconomic evidence at the firm level:
    • Productivity gains from more efficient methods promoted by ICT
    • Automation of simpler tasks
    • Informed decision-making
    • Reduced productivity costs
  • Individual empowerment
    • Access to improved information
    • Access to entitlements
    • Rights to resources

The World Bank uses the terms ICT, internet and digital technologies interchangeably. According to its 2016 report, these technologies have had a massive impact on life because of connectivity. Information can be distributed and accessed effortlessly from almost anywhere. The report credits the internet for drastically reducing or removing the costs of acquiring and sharing information. By doing so, it has impacted economic development in three significant ways:

  • Inclusion – By overcoming information availability challenges, the internet fosters inclusion for new and existing markets, in social interaction and government service delivery systems. The World Development Report gives examples of online businesses that have achieved inclusion by doing away with traditional marketing tools or solving information asymmetries.

    Inclusion (where basic services or prosperity is made available to all) is crucial to the SDGs. Through the internet, marginalized demographics of society can access jobs, markets and market information. The underprivileged have access to public services.
  • Innovation – The internet has made existing transactions faster, cheaper and more convenient by introducing efficiency improvements, such as better communication and information processing.

    Online businesses have reduced or eliminated many fixed costs such as human labor and marginal transaction costs. Their innovative cost structures have led to many scaled economies, where costs drop with an increasing number of transactions. Facebook is one example, reaching a half billion users with only 500 engineers.

    Internet firms also introduced product and service innovations: purely digital products and highly automated brokerage. Online business models have evolved to a point that the online platform provides its services for free, resulting in an increased user base and a very lucrative advertiser market. For these online business platforms, automation of processes and massive user data volumes have led to innovations like nano-economics (a branch of economics which studies individual, computer mediated transactions), tailored services and targeted advertising.

    Boosting the speed, degree and equality of development is essential to achieving the SDGs, and internet business innovations play a significant role.
  • Efficiency – Expedia, Airbnb and UBER are examples of a service traditionally made available through one channel becoming available through more convenient, faster or cheaper channels.

    The Internet has raised the efficiency of activities such as purchasing goods, executing bank transactions, searching for a home or job, paying taxes and renewing a driver’s license. Accessing basic services is easier than ever before.

Universal Connectivity: A Shared Goal of ICT and the SDGs

Broadband is an infrastructure critical to achieving the economic prosperity, social inclusion and environmental sustainability of the SDGs. Universal connectivity offers a powerful platform to deliver essential services like e-governance, education, health and energy on a global scale. According to the UN Broadband Commission and the ITU, the SDGs cannot be achieved without affordable and universal access to connectivity.

The latest ITU estimates report that with 3.5 billion people having online connectivity, more than half of the world is still offline or unable to connect regularly. In the least developed countries, only 1 in 7 people are online. Providing basic connectivity globally, especially to rural and remote areas, is still a major challenge.

Inclusion is the Goal

With connectivity, there are other challenges in leveraging ICTs for the SDGs. Connectivity remains inaccessible and irrelevant to many parts of the global population. More than establishing infrastructure and connecting devices, inclusion is the major challenge:

  • There must be online services and content that helps improve personal awareness, education, hygiene and development outcomes.
  • People need to be trained to trust and find connectivity relevant to their local social and cultural realities.
  • There should be a wider environment that supports the transition to connectivity, including legislation that enhances users’ trust and online payment systems that make access to online markets useful and relevant.

These obstacles are outlined in detail in the World Bank’s “World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends.” It states that digital technologies (ICTs) have boosted growth, expanded opportunities and improved service delivery. In order to benefit everyone across the globe, regulations need to be strengthened and skills need to be developed for the new economy. Institutional support and an enabling environment play a vital role.

Institutional Support and an Enabling Environment

Participating in a connected world should be considered a fundamental right. The gap between those unconnected versus those connected should be addressed at all levels of governance, and is fundamental to the SDGs. The right policies must be in place to prepare for this kind of ICT-enabled transformation and deployment.

Public policies should provide an enabling environment for the adoption of ICT-based solutions that will help achieve the SDGs in key sectors: health, education, finance, and energy and climate change. Governments and institutions play a critical role by removing barriers to ICT adoption and implementation:

  • They govern the rollout of physical infrastructure
  • They determine the local operating presence of the ICT industry
  • They influence the impact readiness of key sector actors to adopt ICT solutions

Beginning with the adoption of ICT in the public sector and policy support for ICT-based solutions, ICT must be integrated into every facet of public policy and economic activity to be disruptive and deliver on the SDGs.

Every government process (payments, tax collections, procurement, training, human resources, program design, public deliberation, information management, analytics, legislative drafting and voting) should be reformed or upgraded with ICT. This requires policies that will expedite the roll-out of ICT infrastructure and service providers, as well as the facilitation of ICT-based solutions in public services, such as health and education.

Effective policies for ICT-enabled transformation and deployment face barriers:

  • Public sector regulations that do not currently enable full utilization of ICT
  • Mobile broadband physical infrastructure needs rapid expansion and upgrading
  • Lack of public-private partnerships (PPPs) for incubating new ICT start-ups
  • Small fragmented demonstration projects need to scale nationally with business models
  • Insufficient training for the personnel required to manage ICT systems
  • Outdated policies and regulation

The unification of the SDGs and ICT is essential to progress as defined by the SDGs. It is a powerful consideration for the private sector when designing, developing, implementing and assessing their ESG solutions. A strong collaboration ensures that all sectors of society can effectively meet our global challenges with solutions that provide opportunity for everyone.


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