Expert opinion: How technology can catalyze sustainable development

  • 17 October 2016
ATA Carnet

Considering emerging technologies to be only beneficial for facilitating high-tech business processes and improving lifestyles for those in developed countries is a common misconception that could limit the potential benefits of these innovations for developing economies.

A new paper by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) on the Internet of everything brings to light how new technology can be leveraged by developing countries to address fundamental sustainable development issues and needs.

To learn how emerging technologies work in practice and the policy conditions needed to realize the societal benefits they have to offer, we sat down with Joseph Alhadeff, Chair of the ICC Commission on the Digital Economy on the sidelines of the 4th Africa Information and Communication Technologies Alliance (AfICTA) summit which took place last week in Windhoek, Namibia.

The theme of this year’s AfICTA summit is Internet of things for sustainable development. What does the term Internet of things mean in practice?

The Internet of things refers to a variety of sensors that can collect all sorts of data – from movement, speed and direction to air and water quality. These sensors can have applications across all sectors including health, agriculture, manufacturing, education, sustainable consumption, logistics and urban planning.

Information collected by sensors can be personally identifiable, as in pacemakers that transmit data to hospitals, or can be purely non-personal data, as in maintenance information transmitted by a jet engine while in flight.

So the Internet of things enables, whether over the Internet or over local area networks, like a manufacturing environment, exchanges of information about the status of objects.

In the longer term, it doesn’t make sense to just consider “things”. Over time the Internet of things will integrate with other technologies. The future, or the Internet of everything, encompasses: people connecting with people, objects connecting with objects and people connecting with objects.

And all of this is being done in computer-aware environments where people and objects can avail themselves of services offered through cloud computing applications.

So, that is really where Internet of things is going and why we think of it rather as the Internet of everything.

Distance healthcare and learning, waste management and logistics can all be facilitated using this technology.

If you mean ‘smart’ applications and ‘connected’ or ‘autonomous’ devices, what have they got to do with helping developing countries where clean water and energy supply are still fundamental concerns?

For sustainable development, the reason why this technology has application in developing countries is that it can be used for any problem that requires data to help solve it.

In agriculture, sensors can report the soil composition, the level of hydration of a field, current rainfall, river levels, weather patterns, and demands of local markets.

This information can be collected via sensors supported by the government or a local university that can apply analytics using centralized resources and disseminate the knowledge gleaned with fairly low-tech equipment such as text based phones.

This information can help assure food safety and security, help farmers decide which crops to grow, and address the needs of local or regional marketplaces.

That is just one example. Distance healthcare and learning, waste management and logistics can all be facilitated using this technology.

Internet of things is really an enabling technology in terms of usability. Even basic deployments can be transformative for populations.

You mentioned big data and analytics, isn’t this normally used for marketing purposes? How can that be useful for development?

There is a misconception that the only time you analyze data is to figure out how to sell a product to a person. The ability to make data useable for the benefit of the population is what’s important.

Big data is a concept that describes data that changes quickly, derives from different sources including sensors in a variety of formats and as the name implies, exists in large volumes.

An important aspect is the ability of big data to find correlations across disparate data elements that can provide new insights only made possible from the breadth of data sources and processing capacity.

In the medical field, correlations are tremendously important because we find that unrelated treatments may benefit diseases we didn’t know they were applicable to.

An important factor for developing countries is that the analytics do not occur at the level of the end user who may not have advanced technology. The analytics occur in a centralized location in which the data is being fed and then analyzed.

Governments can make an investment in big data which benefits the population and use universities or other institutions as processing hubs.

This information is then disseminated in a manner that is accessible to the population and reflective of their technological capacity.

Collecting, using and analyzing all that data must present a number of privacy and security challenges. What’s the best way to factor in those concerns while still facilitating the use of this technology for the benefits you’ve described?

First we shouldn’t overstate the problem. Security and privacy are important, but don’t forget that in many of the examples I gave earlier none of that data is personally identifiable.

Considering Internet of things in agriculture, while you may understand whose field it is, it’s not really the kind of personal information we associate with the problems of identity theft etc.

In the medical field this can be different. When you start exploring not only which drug is effective for which disease but which drug is effective for which person, then you are working, by definition, on identifiable information.

Secondly, even when it’s non-personal we may need to think about security. Sensors that are facilitating an electrical grid can be hacked or damaged and must be appropriately protected.

We must continue conversations about how to best secure data and assure the rights of privacy of individuals, while still enabling the innovative benefits of the technology.

If business fuels innovation and investment that creates new technology development, how do policymakers ensure they are inviting and leveraging technology for these benefits rather than impeding development in their country?

Policymakers need to first understand and consider the potential beneficial applications of the technology. Once the benefit is understood you then assess the potential for risk.

After identifying both, you then aim to mitigate the risk while preserving the innovation and the benefit. Once that mitigation is concluded the resulting “residual risk” is considered and one determines whether that is acceptable in light of the benefit.

It is important to do the steps in that order to preserve the benefit while appropriately addressing risk. If you engage in a process that is purely risk elimination you may needlessly diminish the benefit of the technology or create other unintended consequences that limit the benefit of the technology to society.

For example, by preventing the collection of certain information, you may diminish the elements of data needed to come up with the next medical breakthrough, however completely unfettered may pose undue risk.

Policymakers must recognize the potential benefit of the technology, act to obtain those benefits while preserving the rights of individuals, appropriately securing data. Through this process we can address the risks in their specific context. One size does not fit all.

Learn more

Read the ICC Policy Primer on the Internet of Everything.