Should Information and Communications Technology Experts Have a Seat at the Table During the Rio+20 Summit?

The Rio+20 Summit doesn't appear to have been updated to include a technology that was in its infancy in 1992 -- Information and Communications Technology (ICT).
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In late June, leaders from around the world will meet in Rio de Janeiro with thousands of individuals from public and private sectors to discuss how to "reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want." This meeting of the minds, the Rio+20, marks the 20-year anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio where 178 governments adopted Agenda 21, "a blueprint to rethink economic growth, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection." The 1992 Earth Summit examined pressing topics including toxicities in gasoline and other chemicals, alternative sources of power, and the growing scarcity of water.

Rio+20, a joint project of the entire United Nations System, is engaging all constituencies and programs of the global governance body to encourage governments to adopt measures for implementing sustainable practices developed over the past 20 years. The conference will focus on two main themes:

  • How to build a green economy to achieve sustainable development and lift people out of poverty, and
  • How to improve international coordination for sustainable development together with 13 issue briefs.

While the breadth and depth of these discussion topics are impressive, the Summit doesn't appear to have been updated to include a technology that was in its infancy in 1992 -- Information and Communications Technology (ICT).

The global economy and economic progress paradigm as we knew it in the late 20th century was completely revolutionized with the development of the personal computer and rise of the Internet. Today, hundreds of millions of individuals across the globe have jobs that very few would have predicted would exist 20 years ago. Analytics and metric tools enabled by ICT now allows for better and more efficient reporting for all sorts of fields -- including sustainable development. Cities and infrastructure have become more efficient through the implementation of ICT systems. Intra- and International trade has been affected in ways that economists, sociologists, and historians will continue to explore decades from now; plus we have the most creative, innovative and dynamic space in the history of our world in the form of the internet. With all of this development and the near limitless potential that ICT has for contemporary and emerging fields of focus for the United Nations, it is curious that ICT does not a prominent "seat at the table" during the Rio+20 Summit.

While ICT could be discussed as part of the solution to all the areas discussed at Rio+20, two areas that facially lend themselves to discussion of ICT's important role in sustainability are in Green Jobs and Social Inclusion and Science and Technology for Sustainable Development.

The Green Jobs and Social Inclusion brief discuss "green" jobs but appears to exclude full consideration of the important role that ICT has played in benefiting sustainability and the environment. With digital technology and more efficient electronics, general electrical consumption per device has moderated. Through interconnectedness provided by the Internet, individuals now have the option to "telecommute," or work from home via their computer -- a proposition that saves not only transportation energy and congestion, but reduces the need for large less-energy efficient office buildings. It's interesting to note that many ICT jobs are green jobs, and that integration of ICT technology into other sectors adds visible efficiency in the workplace.

Additionally, as Rio+20 seeks to reduce poverty and advance social equity while promoting sustainability, ICT has a nearly limitless potential to provide job growth opportunities (after deployment of broadband and computers, the barriers to entry and costs of starting an e-business are comparatively minimal regardless), facilitate education (through online education programs and curricula) and improve health (through telehealth and other remote diagnostics and treatment technologies), regardless of gender or disability. ICT jobs and engagement are green solutions that help meet many of the commitments agreed upon by governments (see Note 1 below for details). Additional consideration of the impact of ICT is even more relatively lacking in the Science and Technology for Sustainable Development brief and discussion. While the brief notes that technology progress has created new problems, it could have included that this progress has raised global productivity and economic and social development on a scale that would have been impossible to achieve at 1992 levels. One of the brief's sections, entitled "Greater role of emerging economies in technology flows and transfer, but poorer and smaller economies marginalized" reports that the smallest and most marginalized countries are being left behind or put at a disadvantage as a result of contemporary technology flows. While this is true, it merely underscores the crucial need for increased ICT penetration in these locations; which would not only provide these markets with more opportunities by connecting citizens to the information society and the digital economy, but also give them a voice to the world. This brief does not appear to emphasize the potential opportunities and significant change agent that ICT can be in achieving goals and targets set forth in the Millennium Development Goals and Agenda. A more complete of inclusion of ICT would have made this discussion richer and complete.

It is integral that we recognize that ICT reinforces the convergence of all three pillars of development -- social, economic and environmental, and that ICT by definition embraces the fundamental principles of sustainability. In short, ICT is efficient, effective, and equitable. The United Nations Istanbul Plan of Action for Least Developed Countries (2011-2020) recognizes that ICT networks have an essential role in the continuing economic, social, and environmental progress of developing nations. It's almost unfathomable that ICT shouldn't have a "seat at the table" at all summits when the future of sustainable development is discussed.

Note 1: ICT jobs and engagement are a green solution that help meet many of the commitments agreed upon by governments: Full and productive employment and decent work (MDG 1B, MDG 2010 (48 and 70(d)); WSSD 1995 (commitments 3 and 8), Pursue job‐intensive, sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth and sustainable development (MDG 2010 (70(d), 48); Decent employment for the urban poor (including through infrastructure and informal sector) (JPOI 11(c), Agenda 21 (7.16(b), MDG 2010 (48)); Strengthened employment and income‐generating policies and actions for the poor (in line with ILO principles). Agenda 21 (3.3, 3.4(c), 3.10), JPOI10(b); Generate sufficient employment in line with future increase in labor force. Agenda 21 (3.8(a)); Improve women's access to equal employment opportunities and remuneration. Agenda 21 (5.46, 5.48, 24.3(f)), MDG 2010 (72(d)); Improve access of indigenous groups to employment and training (JPOI (7(e)), MDG 2010 (72(d)); Training/skills for a sustainability transition, including in environment, energy, transport, water, and construction sectors (Agenda 21 (7.54, 7.69(e), 18.31, 36.12, 36.17), MDG 2010 (72(d)); Rural employment programs, including through agro‐processing, rural service centers and infrastructure. (Agenda 21 (12.48(c), 14.27(b)); Alternative employment opportunities for young men and women (Agenda 21 (25.9(e)), MDG 2010 (72(e)); Structural adjustment programs to include social development goals, including full and productive employment (WSSD 1995 (Commitment 8))

Note 2: Millennium Development Goals and Agenda 21 specifically mentioned in Issue brief 12, such as MDG Goal 8.F: "In cooperation with the private sector, make available benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications" and Agenda 21 35.21(b): "A substantial increase by the year 2000 in the number of scientists -- particularly women scientists -- in those developing countries where their number is at present insufficient".

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