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Why the world needs tech standards for UN Sustainable Development Goals

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Chaesub Lee from the ITU argues that the world needs technology standards to address the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals


Chaesub Lee, ITU Telecommunication Standardisation Bureau

Published: 22 Jun 2022

We encounter international standards every day without knowing it. A hidden part of the information and communication technology (ICT) networks and devices we all use every day, standards are rarely perceived by users but are vital in enabling the interconnection and interoperability of ICT equipment and devices manufactured by hundreds of thousands of different companies around the world.  

For example, 95% of international traffic is on fibre, built on standards from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN specialised agency for ICT. ITU plays a leading role in managing the radio spectrum and developing globally applicable standards for IMT-2020 (5G). Video now accounts for more than 80% of internet traffic, enabled by Primetime Emmy-winning video-compression algorithms standardised by ITU together with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

But while it is clear that technical standards have always been indispensable for business and society to work in our industrialised world, it is also clear that technical standards will play a key role in accelerating progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations for 2030.

The focus of the recent ITU Global Standards Symposium was how standards can play a role in addressing some of the most pressing needs of the planet, such as eradicating poverty or hunger and mitigating climate change. The symposium brought more than 700 industry leaders and policymakers together in February to look at how standardisation could support digital transformation in areas spanning smart cities and communities, sustainability, health, road safety and financial inclusion.

​​​​​​​But how will effective ICT standardisation accelerate addressing the SDGs? 

Addressing a few SDGs, but especially numbers 1 and 2 focused on ending poverty and hunger, an ITU Focus Group on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) for Digital Agriculture is working towards new ITU standards to support global improvements in the precision and sustainability of farming techniques.

Addressing SDG 3 on good health, an ITU Focus Group on AI for Health is developing a benchmarking framework for AI solutions, supporting global efforts to step up AI’s contribution to health. An open-code proof of concept for the benchmarking platform highlights the type of metrics that could help developers and health regulators certify future AI solutions, in the same way as is done for medical equipment.

In addition, ITU standards for medical-grade digital health devices – such as connected blood pressure cuffs, glucose monitors, weight scales and a wide range of activity – are helping prevent and manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

Addressing SDG 9 on industry, innovation and infrastructure, ITU standards are helping to bring broadband to rural communities with lightweight optical cable that can be deployed on the ground’s surface with minimal expense and environmental impact. The installation of ultra-high speed optical networks typically comes with a great deal of cost and complexity. ITU standards are helping to change that equation by providing a solution able to be deployed at low cost with everyday tools.

Addressing SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities, more than 150 cities around the world have started to evaluate their progress towards smart city objectives and alignment with the SDGs using Key Performance Indicators for Smart Sustainable Cities based on ITU standards. These cities are supported by United for Smart Sustainable Cities (U4SSC), an initiative backed by ITU and another 16 UN partners

And for SDG 7 and 13 on climate action and green energy, ITU standards for green ICT include sustainable power-feeding solutions for 5G networks, as well as smart energy solutions for telecom sites and datacentres that prioritise the intake of power from renewable energy sources. They also cover the use of AI and big data to optimise datacentre energy efficiency and innovative techniques to reduce energy needs for datacentre cooling.

Financial inclusion is another key area of action to achieve SDG 1 on ending poverty. Digital channels are bringing life-changing financial services to millions of people for the very first time. Enormous advances have been made within the Financial Inclusion Global Initiative (FIGI) and ITU’s associated development of technical standards in support of secure financial applications and services, reliable digital infrastructure, and the resulting consumer trust that our money and digital identities are safe. Our security clinics offer coaching in achieving the security best practices suggested by FIGI, and our Security Lab for Digital Financial Services helps countries to verify that these best practices are being followed.

So, what is needed to drive ICT standardisation forward to continue addressing the SDGs?

The complexity of global problems requires numerous organisations with different objectives and profiles to work towards common goals. As the world’s leading developers of international standards, IEC, ISO and ITU, together we form a leading voice in promoting collaborative efforts to address the SDGs, recognising that the SDGs represent the global consensus on what needs to be done to improve everyone’s quality of life.

At the ITU Global Standards Symposium, we again emphasised how we need to continue to work together closely as the World Standards Cooperation, with the support of mechanisms such as our Standardization Programme Coordination Group, reviewing activities, identifying standards gaps and opportunities, and working to ensure comprehensive standardisation solutions to global challenges.

Including a greater variety of voices in standards discussions is crucial. It is particularly important that developing countries are heard, and that a multistakeholder approach is made a priority to have a successful and inclusive digital transformation.

Uncoordinated and non-inclusive standardisation can spell lasting harm for countries that already struggle to afford long-term socio-economic investments. Without global and regional coordination, today’s digital revolution could produce uneven results, making it imperative that all standards bodies work cohesively.

Sustainable digital transformation requires political will. It was notable that last year in Italy, the G20 leaders in their final communiqué acknowledged the importance of international consensus‑based standards to digital transformation and sustainable development for the first time. This very important step could not have been made by one standards body alone. Together with IEC and ISO, we plan to maintain our presence in G20 activities to build on the momentum created by our presence under Saudi Arabia’s G20 Presidency in 2020 and Italy’s in 2021.

Cities, governments and companies are on a steep learning curve as they adopt new tech as part of low-carbon, sustainable, citizen-centric development strategies as they seek to meet the challenge of addressing the SDGs.

International standards, recognised around the world, are essential to make technologies in fields such as fintech, digital health and 5G, combined with bigger and better data use, accessible and useful to everyone, everywhere.

Chaesub Lee is a director of the ITU Telecommunication Standardisation Bureau.

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