I am delighted to see my chapter on ICTs, sustainability and development just published in the ITU’s new book on ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation launched yesterday at the World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) in Buenos Aires. This was part of a fascinating project that emerged when Dr. Ahmed Sharafat (Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran, Iran) and Dr. Eun-Ju Kim (from the ITU) brought together a group of academics from across the world to explore issues around the ways through which ICTs can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), focusing especially on economic growth and employment. We held several meetings together over the last year, and particularly met up for a fortnight in Geneva in January 2017 to work through ideas and share drafts of manuscripts.
It is the first time I have actually worked on such a collectively authored project, and its publication says much about the willingness of all involved to collaborate supportively together under the leadership of Ahmed and Bill Lehr, who was later brought on board to co-edit the book. Each of us took the lead on a single chapter, but everyone contributed to the ideas contained within the book. The process of negotiation and discussion around the concepts and ideas within each chapter was fascinating, especially since it required us to hone our arguments very finely and precisely. Most of the contributors were economists, and although at times I struggled with accepting some of their arguments, I know that their contributions very much improved the chapter on which I led. Moreover, I am very grateful to Ahmed as editor, for letting me write what I did, since it enabled me to craft my most critical piece of work on the sustainability of the ICT sector.
The second chapter (on which I led) examines the interface between ICTs and sustainability, especially focusing on environmental issues and the conditions that need to be in place for ICT initiatives to be sustainable socially and economically. It focuses specifically on the importance of universal infrastructure, the affordability of technologies, the need for appropriate skills and awareness, and the importance of locally relevant content. For these to be delivered, the chapter emphasises that those who develop policies and implement programmes and projects to use ICTs to promote sustainable development need to address issues of empowerment, focus on the needs of the poorest, develop innovative technological solutions and new business models, legislate new kinds of regulation through which governments facilitate the ICT and telecommunication sector, and ensure that there is effective security and resilience within the systems being developed. The chapter concludes with a brief analysis of the role of multi-stakeholder partnerships in implementing such initiatives.
Where I think it makes the most significant new arguments is at the interface between ICTs and sustainability. It does this in three main contexts:
- First, although this is indeed a book published by the ITU, a UN agency, and we therefore had to be very careful in our arguments, the chapter does nevertheless challenge some of the assumptions behind, and implementation of, the SDGs. In particular it draws attention to the tensions between sustainability (implying maintenance or stability) and development (implying change or growth).
- Second, it provides a strong critique of the environmental credentials of the ICT sector. For example, while it acknowledges that some companies have sought to show their environmental concerns through delivering on carbon emissions, it notes that there has been no comprehensive and rigorous environmental audit of the sector as a whole. In particular, I recall some challenging discussions during our work on the book about the increasing amount of debris accumulating in space as a result of satellite launches, and I am pleased that colleagues eventually allowed me to include an, albeit toned down, section on this, which argues that space pollution should indeed be included as an environmental impact.
- Third, the chapter argues strongly that many of the main business models adopted by the private sector in rolling out ICTs are fundamentally unsustainable. It is therefore contradictory to assert that ICTs are an important vehicle through which the Sustainable Development Goals can be implemented (even if it is accepted that these can indeed reduce poverty). To give but one example, the mobile phone and app/content sectors function as an ever increasing spiral of unsustainability. New devices require new apps and operating systems, which then in turn require another generation of new devices with more memory and functionality. Hence, instead of the old landline telephones that lasted for years, most people are now encouraged to purchase new upgraded phones every couple of years. This is unsustainability built in by the very design of the technology and business models, and it is enhanced and encouraged by the companies’ focus on marketing, modernity and fashion.
Several case studies to support these chapters are also included in the book, but sadly two of mine had to be excluded because of space, and so I will shortly be posting them separately here on my blog.
Once again, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in this co-created book, many of whom have now become good friends. It was a privilege to work with you all on this project, and I am so grateful to colleagues in the ITU for inviting me to participate.