UNTIL, the UN Tech Start-Up

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<p>Technology for Good: The UN Innovation Labs help achieve the SDGs</p>

Technology for Good: The UN Innovation Labs help achieve the SDGs


Working with innovators across the globe, United Nations Technology Innovation Labs (UNTIL) uses technology to support the work of the United Nations in peace and security, human rights, international law and sustainable development. The Labs provide a collaborative space to help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ 2030 Agenda and tackle issues such as clean water, smart cities, education, health care, gender (women empowerment through strong tech ecosystems) and the environment.

Some of the upcoming projects include: an AI-driven global electronic hospital in Finland (Lab opening in Helsinki on November 30th during the Slush Conference), AI solutions for patients records in Egypt (Lab opening in Cairo on November 26th during Cairo ICT Conference), UN blockchain crypto-currency, 3D printing for clothing production (Lab opening in Kuala Lumpur on December 5th during the GEC Conference), and blockchain ensuring ecological and labor friendly rules.

The results include not only game-changing capabilities and technologies but also a shift in the way the United Nations delivers on its mandates.

UNTIL works within an innovation ecosystem that includes private and public sector institutions as well as academia and Member States in strategic global locations to provide a vibrant and diverse range of collaborators focused on a common set of goals.

We interviewed UNTIL’s Chief of Business Relationships, Ozzeir Khan, at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

1. How did UNTIL evolve from a research center to a forward-thinking lab leveraging technology to deliver on the UN mandate?

There was a shift in the last 7 or 8 years in which technology became not only a support but also an agent for change. We received projects from various groups that wanted to help in terms of cyber security, chemical waste movement and money laundering. Formerly help would come in the shape of researchers, looking at best practices or advising governments. Now, tech became the main way of achieving some of the UN mandates.

In the last 36 months we came across initiatives around Artificial Intelligence, machine learning processes, robotics, advancements in big data as well as in financial payment systems, where we have project to create UN’s own bitcoin or digital currency, or even a UN identity for every human being on this planet. These ideas were coming so fast that they generated a demand for a systematic answer from the United Nations.

The biggest driver behind UNTIL program is the reality that UN’s complex mandate can leverage technology for exponential impact.

So we sent a note of interest to our Member States to find partners interested in three main areas: peace and security, development, and human rights. So far, we partnered with Rwanda and Egypt in Africa, Malaysia and India in Asia, and Finland and Hungary in Europe.

2. What other technologies are being developed in the Innovation Labs and which countries are benefiting from this program?

There is an emerging sector around ethical fashion where two types of technologies are being developed. One is blockchain related to child labor, good practices in the industry and government policies. It is now possible to make sure suppliers are not using child labor. We can ensure authentication by a framework set up with the government. The other one is 3D printing which can for example be used to customize garments, having them produced by single artisans with their own machines allow for cost reduction when it comes to goods delivery. This would also allow a complete reengineering of the industry process.

3. How does 3D printing work and how will it impact work?

Today, with traditional methods, waste levels are around 89 percent. With 3D printing, several production steps can be eliminated by using machines, robots or printers. So 70% of the labor effort in pre-stitching is taken care of. We aim for a lower dollar price point. The result is economic incentives in the marketplace as well as poverty reduction. We are working with the Malaysian government to incubate and accelerate this idea.

The impact on the labor industry is significant. 3D printing will have an impact on both private and public sectors. It is a very different world that will emerge in the next decade or so. It will have a substantial effect on the labor force but it will also give a lot of independence entrepreneurs. Basically, the management layers will be removed. Today, factories deliver to a shipping site, and it goes to a wholesaler, then it passes to a retailer site, and it finally gets to a retailer outlet. All this in-between chain will be disrupted. We are talking with one of the largest shipping companies, a supply chain in Hong Kong, which is our logistics partner, to make the price point relevant.

4. What other projects are being carried out?

We are dealing with projects concerning ecotourism and smart cities in Malaysia. The objective is to develop technological solutions to promote ecotourism friendly regions. Smart cities is about looking at the latest ideas regarding building and energy and how these innovations can translate in the next coming years.

Besides that, India is a very important piece as well; the country has been proactively leveraging technology in the last 30 or 40 years. And now its social impact is more evident. In the South, for instance, in order to solve the road transportation problem and the use of automobiles, they are investing in electric cars. So our Indian partner wants us to get the right private sector partners to enable the project and improve their public transportation.

Additionally, several Indian states are also interested in water, smart cities and agriculture technologies. The latter mostly focused on organic farming and managing supply. They are not only focused in growing the market or supply chain, but in the interaction between farmers and the government so that they can optimize farming and increase the farmers’ income. In terms of water, they are studying how to manage demand and supply to make sure it efficiently attends to the population needs.

5. How is Artificial Intelligence going to impact agriculture?

Artificial Intelligence is evident when it comes to self-driving cars, for example. But in agricultural tech it comes in to different aspects, such as price prediction. Right now, the pricing is often set by the government by looking at irrelevant data, data that has to be constantly adjusted. With real time information coming from farmers it will be possible to have instant, precise feedback. That way, the pricing which is driven by AI will be much more effective than the traditional way. The UNTIL lab in Finland will focus on exploring AI and Healthcare.

6. What should we expect for education?

To me, the most interesting aspect is the higher education disruption. Previously, people used to study one Masters degree at a time. Now we are looking for ways to connect two or three universities in order to offer students the possibility to choose from various programs.

We are not working on primary or secondary education yet. However, some issues in terms of education for women in remote areas are in progress. In Haryana, a state located in India, we are organizing the largest women tech conference to promote empowerment via startup ecosystem support. Our aim is to review and support women startups by bringing partners and foreign investment to the country.

7. What message does this initiative wants to get across to the world? How can people help and what is the reward for the participants?

Even though we reach a global audience, we want to find local solutions. Innovators and startups have a better understanding of their local challenges and are already working to solve them. A lot can be done within the UN context. The garment 3D printer is not invented yet, it is still in the beginning stages and this kind of cutting edge innovation will be extremely impactful. It is very exciting both for us and for the countries who are taking part in the project.

We have a crowdsourcing platform in which we share UN challenges and ask the global population to help with solutions. This project has been running for just over a year but it has been very encouraging not only with the number of responses but the quality of the work submitted as well. People from all over the world are willing to spend their time working to solve key UN problems. There is no financial aid, but the results are announced via a press release and made public as an incentive.

The next step is to further develop a crowdfunding and sourcing programs. This is an innovative way for the UN to deliver without doing the work by itself or its partners, but by actually reaching out to any individual.

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