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Technology & society

Technological change is accelerating at a rate often difficult for humans to grasp. Those at the leading edge of change are both excited and alarmed by its implications.

Stephen Hawking’s letter on the need to reap the benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) for positive change, while avoiding the pitfalls of uncontrolled outcomes, has now attracted thousands of signatories from the world’s leading scientific institutions1. But there is a need to more look fundamentally at technology as a doubled-edged sword: to recognize its potential for good, and for harm, and its limitations. In the context of the UN’s Agenda 2030, it is vital that we explore how technology can help society to meet its needs without overshooting the Earth’s ecological boundaries.

Technology – a panacea?

Technologies already shape our interactions with one another, enable us to have personalized services and health treatments, use our homes and vehicles as assets for hire, amplify our judgments and opinions, allow us to scrutinize the provenance of the products we buy, and provide us with transparency on our politicians’ and employers’ decision making. These capabilities change us as people2. Business-to-consumer and business-to-business relations and transactions are interfaced in increasingly complex and transparent ways. 

“Technology empowers us, but it also renders civilization fragile."

The customer of 2030 is likely to be a technologically empowered individual, as manufacturers and retailers yield unprecedented power to consumers. The citizen of 2030 is also likely to be an empowered citizen, able to mobilize and scale-up social action in ways we may not yet fully understand. This technology-enabled turn towards putting people at the centre of markets and events is, for many, a huge opportunity for growth and value creation. Some may see this as an opportunity only for advanced economies. The challenge is to make them truly global, by governing technologies such that they serve human and planetary needs.

Double-edged sword

Technology-led empowerment brings new risks. The current trend is to implement technologies for increased efficiency, lowering costs, and creating new digitally-enabled business models that sell more personalized products faster and cheaper.

In the rush to take advantage of all this potential, we may forget that we are creating very complex systems, and that these systems have embedded risks that are different from the sum of their parts. And we are increasingly exposed to technology-enabled fake information. We may forget that faster, automated consumption may not be consistent with the long-term needs of society and the planet.

Technologies can be doubled-edged swords. While they can enhance our wellbeing, uncontrolled and poorly-governed technologies can also cause intentional and unintentional harm. Furthermore, too much faith in the positive outcomes of technology – technological optimism – can distract us from identifying and addressing fundamental needs and risks. This can lead to major unmanaged risks, and to unforeseeable consequences. In short, technology empowers us, but it also renders civilization fragile.

A tipping point?

The world in 2030 may be technological bliss or a missed opportunity, depending on whether technological evolution is mirrored by appropriate organizational, institutional, regulatory, and industry standards. This, together with a shift in values, can lead us to leverage technology to meet human needs and restore and protect the ecological balance.

While the world committed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, we are not on track. Yet, humanity holds the keys to preventing a negative future outcome. If we are to take advantage of technology opportunity available to us now, by 2030, we should demonstrably be on our way to meeting the climate challenge, as well as all the other SDGs.

An ideal 2030 graph

One can envision a society in 2030 that has been able to leverage the disruptive nature of technological capabilities in a positive manner, shifting direction towards a socially, environmentally and economically resilient future. Transformative change is not linear, and tipping points can also incline towards improvement and create pathways with cascading positive effects.

This is the backdrop for ensuring that as progress continues, new forms of value are created, and that we reach 2030 closer to meeting the SDGs, putting the world on a resilient socio-economic and environmental trajectory for the future.

An ideal 2030 is the cumulative result of a change in values, personal and institutional, in business models, and a change in governance implemented at scale across all regions.

Technology has already helped to lift many millions of people out of poverty, and created leapfrogging opportunities in health, education and energy access. The challenge and opportunity, now, is to broaden and deepen these effects.

Unfortunately, we are not on track to that ideal by 2030. Progress towards key climate goals is insufficient in most countries (Climate Action Tracker 2019)3. Climate change is the biggest challenge facing humanity. It is a systemic risk with a negative cascade of effects for all earth system components, and for business and for society4. Keeping the global average temperature increase to well below two degrees Celsius will require cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by 20505

Current data on progress show that many of the SDGs are not on track, and that there are mounting challenges to achieving them. The most recent assessment of the SDGs shows that progress in providing access to clean and affordable energy quality education, and on eradicating hunger, has either stalled or is reversing6. Less than half of the world’s children and adolescents meet the minimum standards for reading and mathematics, and almost one billion people lack access to basic sanitary infrastructure. In addition, biodiversity and ecosystems are degrading on an unprecedented scale, and the rate of species extinction is accelerating7. Inequalities in income and wealth are also alarmingly high8

These are just few examples of how our current technology-facilitated world is failing to meet the basic needs of many. 

Two-way economy, servitization and customization

A common element characterizing 2030 is the dominant role of a two-way economy resulting from the wide implementation of digital technologies, automation, virtualization and social media.

This leads to rapidly changing roles for many societal actors, altering ways of interacting with products, customers, one another, governments and employers, and to personalization and customization of all types of public and commercial goods and services.

There is a trilemma emerging between the value creation from this trend, the need to regulate this otherwise unregulated economic shift by, (for example, preventing the private ownership of societally and planetary relevant data by a few companies), and the need to ensure that this trend leads to material wellbeing, prevents more consumerism, and addresses rather than disregards environmental degradation.

Hand touching phone
The new demographics

Technologies are likely to lead to longer, healthier lives, expanding our productive lifespan and even augmenting human capabilities.

However, longer, healthier and happier lives could end up reserved for a minority of already wealthy individuals if we invest in technologies for those with the capability to pay, and not for those who need them the most. Longer lives may lead to demographic pressures on the environment or an abundance of workers.

If by 2030 people are born with a carbon budget, a water budget, a clear air budget, and a debt budget, the wealthy minority living longer lives may take a larger share of these budgets. The trilemma lies between the positive aspects of longer lives, the need to provide jobs and resources for larger populations and prevent further environmental destruction, and the need to limit further inequalities and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of only a few.

Senior person with VR set
Circular socio-economy

New materials, robotics-enhanced recycling systems, autonomous systems, intelligent supply chains, sustainable farming, access to decentralized renewable energy, and consumer demand can make circularity a favoured economic model.

There is a trilemma between redirecting investments and technologies towards a circular economy model, preventing job losses and ensuring that this redirection benefits all segments of the population, and treating less developed countries fairly. Society will need to address how governments tax economies with fewer workers and less consumption, while controlling the privatization of technologies and co-optation of environmental sustainability for only the few.

Autonomous bus
The future of work, knowledge and education

The future of work can be characterized by agility, flexibility, automation, remote working, mobility, and varying employment relations.

Workers may no longer be employed for life, spending their days in difficult, tedious or unsafe tasks. Automation and human-machine interactions lead to intelligence augmentation in both people and in organizations.

Workers may shift roles and take on new jobs rather than face job losses. Workers are in control of their working plans, deriving value from their specific skills and previous experience through freelancing or consulting in projects or tasks. They are often able to pursue different interests with different employers. Companies hire the required skills rather than disciplines or professions, pay by tasks, and have meaningful contingent arrangements.

With former competitors now partners, mobilizing intelligence provides the backbone for strategic collaborations. Social intelligence, creativity, networking, negotiation and relationship-building become as important as technical skills. But this technology-facilitated future of work can also lead to massive unemployment, insecurity, the loss of labour rights, and huge inequalities leading to a race to the bottom, including the disrespect and plundering of the environment.

Man working with robot
Politics and technology

Regulation and the governance of technologies has always been subsumed into politics. However, nations also invest in and support certain technologies with the aspiration to use them for economic, military and political power.

We have seen recent examples of the use of social media for political manipulation, as well as for social mobilization. There is wide debate about the risks of using of AI for social control, criminal intent, or even intentional abuse of privacy. Incentives for technological innovation require political support, but at the same time technologies need to be regulated to prevent abuse or generation of intended and unintended negative societal and environmental consequences. Ultimately, technologies need to support and uphold the principles of equity, wellbeing and fairness advanced by the SDGs – leaving no-one behind.

Woman looking at data

What we do today will impact where we can be in 2030. The technology-enabled turn towards putting people at the centre of markets and events, along with the potential to unleash technologies for meeting human needs and protecting the environment, requires direction, guidance, and purpose.

One way forward is to advocate for human-centric technologies, optimizing their positive effects and anticipating and mitigating their risks, while providing the conditions for wellbeing9. There is a global call today for AI to be human-centric, to redirect investments, and for development and deployment of these technologies in a manner that supports human goals, including their use in solving the climate crisis and protecting and restoring the environment. It seems logical to extend this call to all technologies, supported and directed by public and private governance and incentive mechanisms.

That technologies are already human-centric is symbolized by the digital twin of a human heart (shown below, courtesy of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center). It is now imperative to put our heart at the centre of technology development to protect humanity and our environment.

SDGs and technology graphic

Three fifths of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2030. By then, megacities (> 10 million people) will number 43, up from 23 in 2018.

Between 1990 and today, the world’s urban population expanded by some 2 billion individuals (close to a 100% increase); in the next 10 years cities will grow by a further billion (a 20% increase)10.Urbanization rates are slowing, but the reality is that the world is now predominantly urban, and it is in cities where the impact of technology on society will play out most strongly in the coming decade and beyond.

Smart cities

In our previous Technology Outlook (to 2025), we wrote that, in order to become positive agents of change – in line with the SDGs – cities need to achieve ‘smartness’ in three ways:

  • Digitally smart: effectively deploying digital and communication technologies to execute governance, stimulate citizen action and share learnings across institutions and with other cities
  • Physically smart: transforming infrastructure and processes for better flows of energy, materials, service and financing to catalyse sustainable development, resilience and a higher quality of life 
  • Economically smart: establishing local ecosystems through which citizens can share assets and resources, and collaborate to meet specific goals. 

These modes of smartness are still very relevant and play into key measures of success for urban development: liveability, workability and productivity. What is different about the coming decade is that technology developments will make smartness tangible and cities have become much more powerful actors.

The digital city

5G technology is projected to reach half of the world’s population by 2025, and by 2030, most major cities will be covered. The era of the smart, connected city is on our doorstep. With sensors everywhere, including in EVs that are built from the wheels up for connectivity, quantum improvements in mobility, logistics and transportation management are expected. Indeed, it is possible to imagine city governments planning by means of ‘digital twins’ of their cities that are connected to any number of data streams on weather, traffic, pollution and waste collection and recycling. Citizens will be able to connect to rich, geo-located data including pollution and pollen levels.

The infrastructure required to take full advantage of 5G connectivity can be prohibitively expensive. Enormous leapfrogging opportunities brought by connectivity in education and health are at risk of remaining out of reach for cities in developing countries. Uneven deployment of digital technologies may also exacerbate inequalities, and create unintended consequences: enhanced surveillance technology in affluent areas may concentrate crime and violence in poorer parts of cities.

City power

With cities accounting for close to 80% of energy-related GHG emission by 2030, decarbonization is high on the agenda for city management, not least because the co-benefit of cleaner air is becoming daily more apparent. Urban energy policies in the coming decade will focus in particular on opportunities afforded by sector coupling: interconnecting energy consuming sectors – buildings, transport, and industry – with the power producing sectors. This includes linking electricity and gas infrastructure together to decarbonizing the heating sector.

City power, in the political sense of the word, will also feature prominently in the coming decade. In many regions, there a growing gap between the political

priorities of cities and state and federal governments. Cities not only tend to be underrepresented in higher political structures, but the interests of urban populations are also diverging from their rural counterparts. Cities are already major actors on climate change. The Covenant of Majors, for example, unites European local governments, voluntarily committed to implementing EU climate and energy objectives, in their fight against climate change. Cities already suffers cascades of climate impacts (flooding, extreme weather, extreme heat, drought) disrupting critical infrastructure and leading to high costs. Leveraging digital technologies for climate neutral and smart cities requires human-centric technologies.

Green city
  1. Future of Life Institute (ND). An Open Letter. Research priorities for robust and beneficial artificial intelligence.
  2. Botsman, R. (2017). Who can you trust: How technology brought us tighter and why it could drive us apart. Penguin. AND Aiken, M. (2016). The cyber effect: A pioneering cyberpsychologist explains how human behaviour changes online. John Murray.
  3. Climate Action Tracker (2019)
  4. Steffen et al. (2018). Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA). DOI
  5. IPCC (2018). Summary for Policymakers. Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Geneva, Switzerland: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
  6. The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2018
  7. Cruess et al. (2004). Professionalism and medicine’s social contract with society. Virtual Mentor. DOI
  8. National Research Council. (2009) A new biology for the 21st century. DOI
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