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Sustainable Global Economic Development 101: The Influence of Science and Technology


Foreword

This series of articles provides a detailed explanation of sustainable global economic development, issues that arise, ways of addressing these complex problems, and benefits for nature, humanity, and the world economy. The series of articles emphasize the essence of making global finance and the economy more sustainable and reveal the steps to achieve these goals. The importance of the series is that the aspects of the topic described in the articles concern everyone, and each reader can understand what factors, decisions, technologies, and ideas affect sustainable global economic development.

The Sustainable Global Economic Development 101 series consists of six articles:


The world is currently experiencing the fourth industrial revolution and several digital technologies – including artificial intelligence, machine learning, the Internet of Things, big data, blockchain, robotics, 3D technologies, and more – have emerged as the means and solutions to various global issues. These technologies have recently played a crucial role in the ongoing fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and other societal problems. Indeed, these advanced technologies have played a key role in addressing poverty and inequality. For example, mobile banking services and digital payment systems have enabled financial inclusion for underserved communities, allowing them to participate in the formal economy and access financial services. Furthermore, AI-powered systems have been developed to predict and prevent humanitarian crises such as food shortages and disease outbreaks by analyzing data on climate, demographics, and other relevant factors.


In conjunction with these innovative techniques, the concept of circular economy and its related tools – such as life cycle costing, life cycle impact assessment, materials passports, and circularity measurements – have been implemented in different sectors and countries to facilitate the transition from a linear “take, make, and dispose of” model to a more circular model, which has demonstrated positive results for both the environment and economy (Lei et al., 2021). This article relies on implementation, prototyping, and case studies to examine how these technological advancements and innovative techniques are utilized in various sectors, including information and communications technology, the built environment, mining and manufacturing, education, healthcare, the public sector, and others. The objective is to provide insight into the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and make a connection between these goals and how they are being advanced by these technological developments.


In September 2015, the United Nations established 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that include: zero hunger; no poverty; good health and well-being; quality education; gender equality; clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; decent work and economic growth; industry, innovation, and infrastructure; reduced inequality; sustainable cities and communities; responsible consumption and production; climate action; life on land; life below water; justice and strong institutions; and partnership for the goals. These goals were adopted in 2015 as part of the UN’s Agenda for Sustainable Development (Sustainable Development Commission, 2022).

Figure 1: United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN,2018)

This agenda aims to promote sustainable growth for everyone, based on the principle of “leaving no one behind” and presents a comprehensive approach to addressing global challenges. The SDGs are interconnected and can be categorized into environmental, economic, and social systems, and achieving them by 2030 is crucial to avoid excluding anyone (Barbier, Burgess, 2017). They require action from all nations regardless of their economic status to foster sustainability and protect the planet. While the SDGs provide a powerful vision for a better world, the question remains as to how we can achieve them. Governments, corporations, civil societies, and individuals have taken various initiatives toward sustainability, and the G-20 countries are among the top 20 nations leading the way in this regard (Barbier & Burgess, 2017).


Industry 4.0 and the Potential of Artificial Intelligence

Since the industrial revolution, technological advancements have been on the rise. The introduction of water and steam engines in the 19th century, followed by electricity in the 20th century, and automation in the 1970s have all contributed to the progress of industry (Aubert-Tarby et al., 2018). Today, we stand at the threshold of the fourth industrial revolution known as Industry 4.0 (4IR), which is characterized by cyber-physical systems that can interact using artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), big data, and the Internet of Things (IoT). The term “Internet of Things (IoT)” refers to a collection of physical objects, commonly referred to as “things”, that incorporate sensors, software, and other technologies. These technologies enable communication and data exchange with other devices and systems via the Internet (Gil, 2016).

Industry 4.0 is expected to enhance productivity and growth (Rübmann et al. 2023). In the 1980s, Japan introduced the concept of an intelligent manufacturing system, followed by the United States cyber-physical system proposal. Germany recently proposed Industry 4.0, and China proposed China Manufacturing 2025 (Jiyuan et al., 2018).


Technologies such as artificial intelligence benefit from numerous technological advancements, opening up many opportunities. The history of AI is replete with fantasies, possibilities, and promises that reflect the imaginative nature of human beings. Sectors such as healthcare, agriculture, smart cities, finance, transportation, and social interaction are embracing the AI revolution to find cures, develop preventative measures, monitor systems, make predictions, and improve social interactions (Ghallab, 2019). The use of these technologies to solve real-world problems is a measure of success (Kirchner, 2019).


Figure 2: Vector robot to human illustration (Freepick.com, n.d.).

Unfortunately, innovative solutions are frequently depicted in a pessimistic manner as menaces to our professional and personal lives. One example of innovative solutions being depicted as a menace is the fear surrounding self-driving cars. Despite their potential to increase road safety and reduce accidents caused by human error, there are concerns about the impact on employment in the transportation sector and the possibility of accidents due to technology failures (Nikitas et al., 2021). Another example is the fear of automation and artificial intelligence in the workplace. While automation can increase efficiency and reduce costs, there are concerns about job loss and its impact on the workforce (Deranty & Corbin, 2022). AI is also seen as a potential threat to privacy and security, as well as a source of bias and discrimination. These fears have led some to view innovation in these areas as a threat rather than an opportunity (Bekkum & Borgesius, 2023).


However, advanced technologies could become a powerful resource in the global campaign to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Applying these technologies is already allowing various fields to adopt the concept of circular thinking, which has both environmental and economic benefits. Circular thinking aims to reduce greenhouse gases, create vital ecosystems, and conserve nature, which is all environmental benefits. Economically, it saves resources, promotes economic growth, and increases employment and demand (Gillham, 2020).


According to a report prepared by PwC for Microsoft (Joppa & Herweijer, 2019), environmental technology utilizing innovations and tools could contribute approximately USD 5.2 trillion to the global economy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 2.4 Gt CO2e, and create 38.2 million jobs by 2030. These technologies are the implementation of sustainability in various sectors such as energy, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing. They include renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydropower; sustainable agricultural practices like precision farming and agroforestry; low-carbon transportation solutions like electric vehicles and public transportation; and circular economy practices in manufacturing and waste management. The adoption of these environmental solutions has the potential to create significant economic and societal benefits while mitigating the negative impact of climate change (Joppa & Herweijer, 2019).


According to Accenture’s research, artificial intelligence holds the capability to increase profitability rates by an average of 38 percentage points and consequently, could result in the global economic growth of USD 14 trillion in additional gross value added by the year 2035 (Accenture, 2019). As such, businesses are increasingly investing in AI to improve efficiency and stay competitive in the market. Advanced technologies are being utilized in various ways to achieve societal goals (see Chart 1), such as combating the COVID-19 pandemic through the use of screening, tracking, and predictive algorithms, as well as assisting in vaccine development and IoT sensing devices to monitor patients (Vaishya et al., 2020).



Chart 1: The median AI maturity index by industry 2021-2024. (Accenture blog, 2022)

The rapid development of the information and communication technology (ICT) sector and the growth of global interconnectivity have a significant impact on fostering economic and social change in many parts of the world which in turn positively affects the SDGs and gross domestic product. However, despite the advantages of the ICT sector, there is still inequality in terms of access to the Internet between developing and developed countries, rural and urban areas, and men and women. Therefore, bridging the digital divide and utilizing ICT development and 4IR technologies are crucial to achieving the United Nations SDGs (Demestichas & Daskalakis, 2020).


Achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals

In a 2019 publication, Kostoska and Kocarev proposed a novel framework for leveraging information and communication technology to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This framework comprises four key steps that can help ensure the successful implementation of the SDGs. The first step involves leveraging three important disciplines: governance science, sustainability science, and data science to inform the desired outcomes of the SDGs. The second step involves considering different spatial, temporal, and decision-making scales in the implementation of the SDGs. Thirdly, the governance of the SDGs should be informed by diverse governance theories that promote action at multiple levels and engage various sectors. Lastly, the success of SDGs' implementation is dependent on human behavior and hence, must be taken into account (Kostoska & Kocarev, 2019).


The impact of ICT on achieving the SDGs is twofold. On the one hand, there may be detrimental impacts on sustainability such as electronic waste production. On the other hand, ICT can facilitate the more productive use of energy, education, and business processes which is crucial in achieving the SDGs (Andersson & Hatakka, 2023). The International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) is an international organization that is non-political and is dedicated to advancing the field of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Sciences. IFIP has been acknowledged by the United Nations and various other global entities for its contributions to the ICT sector. It serves as a representative body for IT societies from 38 countries spanning five continents and boasts a membership of over 500,000 individuals (International Federation for Information Processing, n.d.).


Figure 3: IFIP NEWS (2021)

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved through several scientific developments. In the ICT sector, the next generation of sustainable data centers aims to utilize the centers' carbon-free energy and achieve net-zero results (Andersson & Hatakka, 2023). Considerable progress has been made in the last decade toward sustainable and efficient data centers. These centers consume a significant amount of the world's energy, and renewable sources and technologies such as fuel cells are being adopted there. The latest research shows that 4IR technologies are being employed for cooling and energy conservation purposes in data centers (Gebreyesus et al., 2023). Also, AI and machine learning algorithms are being trained to detect cyber-attacks (Alloghani et al., 2019), while the Internet of Things sensors are being used for early warning systems, thus reducing downtime (Ahmed, 2022).


To achieve the goals of good health and well-being, industry, innovation, and infrastructure, the Institute for Intelligent Systems (IIS) was established at the University of Johannesburg in 2016. The IIS aims to achieve Industry 4.0 initiatives among postgraduates as well as private and public organizations. Several projects and partnerships using digital technologies under the IIS comply with the United Nations SDGs. Noteworthy projects include a mobile application that allows people with hearing impairments to communicate with others using only a smartphone and headphones; wireless IoT sensors in hospital rooms that monitor patients’ health and behavior; and an AI and ML technique used to control shuttle vehicles in the coal mining industry. A graphical user interface was designed to assist mining operators in optimizing the shortest routes underground, queuing vehicles, and ensuring the safety of drivers and miners using algorithms such as Dijkstra’s shortest path algorithm, K-shortest path algorithm, and discrete event simulation (Hoosain& Sinha, 2018). Moreover, The McKinsey Global Institute has established a library of case studies on digital technology’s benefits and potential for achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (McKinsey & Company, 2018).


Scientific and technological advancements have great potential in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, particularly in the areas of ICT and Industry 4.0. Significant progress has been made towards sustainable data centers, the use of AI and IoT sensors for energy conservation and early warning systems, and the establishment of the Institute for Intelligent Systems to achieve Industry 4.0 initiatives in compliance with the SDGs. Innovations are important in achieving the United Nations SDGs. The progress in the ICT sector and Industry 4.0 are critical in achieving sustainability and efficient utilization of resources. The establishment of the Institute for Intelligent Systems and the efforts of the International Federation for Information Processing are commendable initiatives toward achieving the SDGs. However, it is essential to ensure that the negative impacts of ICT, such as electronic waste production, are addressed and mitigated.


Digital Technologies and Circular Economy

The circular economy is an alternative to the conventional linear “take, make, and dispose of” concept that promotes “designing out waste and emissions”, “keeping goods and materials in operation” and “regenerating natural systems”. The circular economy has the potential to aid in achieving the SDGs across all sectors (Wright et al., 2019).


The achievement of the United Nations SDGs, such as no poverty; zero hunger; gender equality; clean water and sanitation; decent work and economic growth; reduced inequalities; responsible consumption and production; climate action; life below water; and life on land, can now be realized through the use of 4IR technologies in agriculture, referred to as smart agriculture. AI has emerged as a valuable tool for assisting farmers in selecting the most suitable seed for a specific weather condition. Furthermore, it provides access to accurate weather forecasts. AI-driven solutions have the potential to enhance crop quality, reduce resource usage, and expedite product delivery to market resulting in increased production (Javaid et al., 2023).


Figure 4: The circular economy model (Europa EU, 2023)

AI can also assist in comprehending soil properties and recommending the optimal nutrients for soil quality improvement. Additionally, it can aid farmers in determining the ideal time for planting their crops by utilizing intelligent machinery to determine the optimal seed spacing and planting depth. A health monitoring system based on AI technology provides farmers with insights into the condition of their crops and the necessary nutrients required to increase yield quantity and quality (Javaid, 2023). Cervest, a technology company, provides an advanced EarthScan platform that facilitates organizational assessment and action on climate hazards and prospects linked with their assets (Ates, 2022). Moreover, AI can be instrumental in achieving the sustainable development goal of good health and well-being. For instance, machine learning has been used to reduce maternal mortality in Uttar Pradesh, India, based on the mother’s perceptions and behavioral patterns (Basáez et al., 2017).


Considering the potential of various technological advancements and innovations, it is evident that there is an opportunity for digital technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development goals and to support the implementation of a circular economy. One such technology that can play a significant role in artificial intelligence (AI) which can act as an enabler in the transition to a circular economy. By utilizing AI, it is possible to accelerate the resolution of some of humanity’s most pressing challenges, including those outlined by the United Nations SDGs. Hence, it is imperative to continue exploring and developing these technologies to their fullest potential to achieve sustainable and equitable development.


Through circular infrastructure optimization, building circular objects, parts, and components, and functioning circular business structures, digital technologies can enhance circular thinking across industries. The integration of artificial intelligence in conjunction with other digital technologies has the potential to expedite the adoption of a circular economy framework and concurrently, address pertinent issues highlighted in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. This underscores the significance of persistent investment in the research and development of technology, which can ultimately have far-reaching benefits for society and the environment.


Conclusion

The fourth industrial revolution has paved the way for a new era of global growth by combining digital technologies and circular economy principles. When international organizations and stakeholders from diverse spheres come together, they can create innovative strategies that facilitate sustainable development in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. By partnering with political, industrial, academic, and civil society groups, we can collaborate to promote inclusive and sustainable growth worldwide. These partnerships offer fresh opportunities for people everywhere to improve their quality of life while prioritizing critical values like justice, privacy, and equitable access to resources. The integration of 4IR technologies and circular economy principles has led to the development of innovative solutions that can help build a more sustainable and prosperous world. Through these strategies, we can create a better future for everyone, regardless of their socio-economic background.


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