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Interview: Robert Opp, chief digital officer, United Nations Development Programme

Chief digital officer of the United Nations Development Programme talks about the relationship between digital technologies and sustainability, and how it can be used for a more environmentally-friendly and inclusive future

The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted much greater interest in sustainability from the public and private sectors globally, but to build on this shift organisations will need to find ways of using digital technologies to create new business models and work to close the digital divide, says the chief digital officer of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

As the UN’s development arm, the UNDP – which operates on an annual budget of five to six billion dollars and has around 17,000 employees across 170 territories or countries – works to eradicate poverty by promoting technical and investment cooperation among countries, as well as connecting them to the knowledge, expertise and resources needed for change.

Speaking to Computer Weekly, UNDP chief digital officer Robert Opp says that since the start of the pandemic, sustainability has been pushed to the forefront of the business agenda due to a range of “push and pull” factors, including shareholder and employee pressure as well as the growing realisation among the C-suite that digital technologies and greener approaches are enabling new businesses opportunities.

“We’re starting to see some really powerful use cases emerge. Whether it’s using blockchain to trace chocolate or cocoa production from producer to consumer in Ecuador, using artificial intelligence [AI] to identify good cattle-raising practices in the Amazon rainforest, or using crowdfunding and blockchain to fund solar installations for renewable energy across Moldova, we see the amazing potential for these digital technologies to take root and really have a positive impact on people’s lives,” says Opp.

However, he adds this progress on sustainability has been underpinned by previous advances in various digital technologies over the past decade, which in particular have increased the availability of sustainability-related data.  

“Whether we like it or not, the world is moving into a place where it’s virtually possible to know everything, anywhere, at any time,” he says, adding that developments in the internet of things (IoT) and AI are largely responsible for this.

“Technology is increasingly being leveraged [by companies] to think about not just renewable energy sources but how entire business models can be re-oriented to be profitable and sustainable at the same time”

Robert Opp, UNDP

“What’s really interesting is how technology is increasingly being leveraged [by companies] to think about not just renewable energy sources – solar and wind and all the rest of the things to replace the fossil fuel-generated energy – but how entire business models can be re-oriented to continue to be profitable but sustainable at the same time.”

Giving supply chain optimisation as an example, Opp says companies from a range of sectors, such as retail and manufacturing, are using digital technologies to promote hyper-efficiency and therefore reduce their carbon emissions, all because of their ability to track previously uncollectible metrics.  

“That availability of data is making [new sustainable approaches] possible because before we weren’t necessarily able to measure what the impact was – it’s unlocking all sorts of optimisations to business models,” he says, adding that the scalability of many digital technologies means change can happen very quickly.

However, Opp notes that while technological advancement provides a foundation to work from, it is not enough in and of itself, and that “intentionality” is required to use these technologies in truly sustainable ways that are not just about the environment, but inclusivity as well.

Bridging the digital divide

Speaking as a moderator at a sustainability roundtable at the end of January, Opp said: “We are experiencing unprecedented and accelerating changes in our environment – these are being driven by unprecedented levels of inequality and the fact that a good portion of the world’s population is still not able to access basic services [like banking].”

He added that since the onset of the pandemic, “at least 70 million people have joined the ranks of extreme poverty”.

“Connectivity is a basic human need right now that needs to be met because that’s how so much information and so many services are being offered at the moment”
Robert Opp, UNDP

In conversation with Computer Weekly, Opp further adds that pre-Covid research shows that around 45% of the world’s population is still not connected to the internet.

“It’s not enough just to have technology available. If it’s not affordable, people won’t be able to make the best use of it. If it’s not accessible, meaning you don’t have the skills or even understand how to use it, you’re not going to get anything from it,” he says.

“In this [Covid] crisis, where people have to do social distancing and governments have rushed to put services online through digital, that’s great if you’re connected, but if you’re not connected, you’re left out. Connectivity is one of those basic human needs right now that needs to be met because that’s how so much information and so many services are being offered at the moment.

“We have to be intentionally inclusive about how we use or introduce technology, otherwise we might miss the mark. In other words, we won’t penetrate all parts of society and bring everybody in. For example, if we consider the needs of elderly people or remote indigenous communities, or marginalised populations of another kind, we really have to think about that intentionally rather than just saying, ‘We’ve dumped everything online’.”

Opp acknowledges that a major part of this problem again comes back to business models in the public and private sectors, which currently mean the benefits of technology are not evenly distributed.

“The standard pathway of new technologies tends to be a long trail – it starts in industrialised countries and then slowly trickles down, but we believe there can and should be ways to make the benefits of powerful technologies available to the people who need it most in the world, essentially by looking at new business models,” he says.

In terms of what role the tech sector can play, Opp says rather than just focusing on the most commercialised market, we should “look together at how we might serve more people globally with that inclusive use of technology”, adding that given the “enormous growth” many large technology firms have enjoyed during the pandemic, “they should have the ability to have [these] conversations and to make those investments”.

He adds: “We [at UNDP] are gearing up to be able to do this and we’ve been equipping ourselves to be able to work in collaboration in this space. I think ultimately the message here is that the technology world itself cannot do this, the United Nations itself cannot do this – it’s only in that collaborative form that we’re going to be able to tackle these challenges of sustainability.”

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