Inside the Information Society: ICTs, SDGs and the future

This week’s blog post is a shortened version of the presentation that I made last week to the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) in Geneva. It’s a summary of where we are with ICTs, their relationship with SDGs and the policy frameworks we need to make both succeed.

I’ll start by reporting on the current state of implementation of outcomes from the World Summmit on the Information Society (WSIS), then comment on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and finally say something that looks forward to the challenges facing both over the next five, ten, fifteen years. I’ll end with my suggestion for what we, as policymakers, need to focus on within that time.


First, some familiar stories about access, with a reminder of two long term trends. The number of mobile phone subscriptions worldwide has risen from 2.2 billion in 2005 to 7.4 billion in 2016. The number of Internet users has risen from 1 billion to 3.5 billion, just under half of the world’s population.

Of course the figures are imperfect – but each year, more people have more access to more bandwidth and more devices; each year, they spend more time and do more things online.

And yet we also know the digital divide is not receding. Those global access figures conceal big variations between regions and countries. Household Internet access stands at 84% in developed countries, 11% in LDCs. Broadband has not reached many rural areas in Africa. Women are less likely than men to have access, have as much access or make use of access in every region of the world.

The ITU compiles statistics on ICT access, usage and skills in its annual ICT Development Index, which is good at showing trends and at illustrating the differences between groups of countries. What it shows here is important. All countries are improving in terms of access and usage, but improvements are strongest in middle-ranking developing countries. LDCs appear, at present, to be falling further back. That is particularly concerning in light of the SDGs.

Aspects of the ICT environment

Of course, access isn’t everything, and there are many other aspects of the evolving Information Society that are also vital to WSIS implementation. We need to reach beyond connectivity to explore the use and impact of ICTs in different contexts. Here too the story is of progress being made, but being made unequally.

Every government worldwide, for example, now has an online presence – but advanced services, such as transactions, are still concentrated in developed countries. UN DESA’s e-government index shows mostly the same top performing countries as the ICT Development Index. Much the same could be said in other areas, such as health and education.

From a development perspective, what matters here isn’t how much is digital, but how effective what’s digital is in improving the quality of developmental outcomes – the quality of life, of health, of learning, the efficiency of government, the productivity of agriculture, the capacity of people to generate income for their families and prosperity in their communities.

One key factor here is cost. In 2011 the Broadband Commission said that entry-level broadband should cost no more than 5% of average monthly income in any country. By 2015, the ITU reported, that was true in only five of the world’s 44 Least Developed Countries.


And other evidence also suggests that the impact ICTs are having is complex and uneven. The World Bank’s World Development Report on Digital Dividends, which was published a year ago, is the most comprehensive assessment to date of what’s happening in ICT4D. I’ll refer to three important points arising from it.

First, ICTs have the potential to contribute substantially towards developmental goals, but that potential does not arise from technology alone. What matters is the relationship between technology and human behaviour, human activities and human institutions. If we only think about what technology can do, not place it in developmental contexts, then technology will not deliver what we hope from it.

Second, the record to date is mixed. There’ve been a lot of failures in ICT4D and the impact overall has not been as positive as was hoped at the time of WSIS. The Bank believes that to address this we need to focus on what it calls the analogue context – in particular, an enabling legal and regulatory framework for investment and innovation; reskilling populations; and better governance institutions.

Third, ICTs don’t necessarily promote equality, and may in some countries have increased inequality. That’s because people who are better off or better educated are better placed to make use of ICTs than the poor or marginalised. If we want to ensure that no-one’s left behind – a core objective of the SDGs – we have to mitigate that risk and find ways to reverse it.

Sustainable Development

I’ll turn now to the SDGs. It’s almost eighteen months since they were agreed by the United Nations, and just over a year since the WSIS+10 review declared the importance of ‘harnessing the potential of ICTs’ to achieve them.

It’s often said, and rightly, that there is very little concerning ICTs in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development= – few words in the preamble; only four direct references in 169 targets, only one of those explicitly concerned with access. In my view, the Agenda under-represents the significance which ICTs will have in the period for implementation of the SDGs.

There are three main ways in which ICTs are going to impact on sustainable development, all opportunities but all with limitations too.

The first is the way that ICTs can help to deliver specific Goals and targets. As the World Bank’s report has shown, the impact to date on this is mixed, rather than certain. More attention needs to be paid to the human interface with technology if it is to be achieved; and to identifying critical factors determining success or failure.

A second concerns the use of ICTs – especially big data – to monitor and measure progress against targets. That’s going to be important, but here too we need to work out how to get it right – how data should be gathered and analysed; how to ensure they fully represent those who make less use of ICTs; how the evidence they provide is used in policy development and programme management.

But the most important impact of ICTs on sustainable development is likely to be the way in which they change the underlying ways we do things in our economies, societies and cultures. That will affect every Goal and target in the SDGs, and do so unpredictably. That’s likely to be the most important aspect of the relationship between ICTs and SDGs, but is what’s had least attention. It’s increasingly important as the years go by because of rapid change in the adoption and use of ICTs, in the scope of what they can do, and through the emergence of new products and services, not least the Internet of Things.

Goal 9 of the SDGs

I’ll turn specifically to SDG 9, which is concerned with building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization and fostering innovation.

One of the targets in SDG9 is concerned specifically with ICTs. It calls for significantly increased access to information and communications technology and demands that we should strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020. If you look at the current state of play, you’ll see what a big task that is.

The ITU’s data tell us that 11.1% of households in LDCs had Internet access last year, and that 15.2% of individuals in them used the Internet at least once in any three month period. In its 2015 Measuring the Information Society report, the ITU predicted that the proportion of LDC households with Internet access would struggle to reach its target of 15% by 2020. Rates of Internet access in LDCs are increasing, but nowhere near fast enough, as things stand, to meet the target in the SDGs.

The other point I want to make about SDG 9 is that it does not treat ICT infrastructure in isolation. It is concerned with the quality of infrastructure needed to support economic growth – which includes hard infrastructure such as roads and water resources, and soft infrastructure such as financial services.

ICTs can have an important stimulus effect on many aspects of this infrastructure and on the other targets of SDG9, industrialisation and innovation. We know the potential of ICTs for improving access to financial services, for example, or in trade facilitation. But here too ICTs are most effective as part of wider strategies that address non-digital infrastructure. Trade facilitation requires better roads as well as better customs processes.

It’s the combination of ICTs with other policies, other infrastructure and other interventions that will make most difference. Another reason why it’s so important for them to be incorporated into holistic national development strategies.

Looking to the future

The last few points I’ll make are concerned with WSIS looking forward.

The next five years will see dramatic changes – in developed countries at least – in the impact on our societies of the Internet of Things, virtual digital assistants and other nascent services, and in the datafication of our lives and governments. If we look a little further ahead, we can see a future of driverless cars and artificial intelligence, of the displacement of traditional jobs by automation, of algorithms deciding things on our behalves. Not everyone, by any means, is comfortable with this – and it is going to be immensely difficult for governance institutions to keep pace with new technologies and markets.

The easiest thing for us to do here would be to let these technological developments happen around us and see what kind of society emerges. If we do that, we will be saying that we’re happy for technology to decide our future.

But that’s not really what our discussions have been about in the CSTD, or in other international fora. WSIS didn’t decide that it wanted any old Information Society; it decided that it wanted a ‘people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society.’ The SDGs set out a comprehensive agenda for economic and social change, with a particular direction firmly at its heart, not least that no-one should be left behind.

There’s no guarantee that technology will deliver that if we leave it to itself. Indeed, the World Bank’s evidence suggests that, if we want the Information Society to be people-centred and inclusive, as both WSIS and the SDGs imply, we need to shape the context for ICTs in ways that foster such an outcome. To achieve that we need policy frameworks that will lead in those directions.

We’ve also learnt that there are problems as well as opportunities that arise from new technologies. We’ve seen the way that criminals have exploited new technology. We’ve learnt the importance of cybersecurity, sometimes from bitter experience. We’re increasingly recognising how powerful a tool the Internet can be for propaganda as well as useful information. We’re beginning to understand the impact which ICTs may have on employment levels. And to worry about the risks of cyberconflict.

So as well as seeking to shape the direction of the Information Society in a positive direction, there are things that we will want to minimise or to prevent.

Six challenges to shape the Information Society

The big issue for policymakers is going to be how to achieve this when the pace of change in technology exceeds the pace of our decision-making processes. How are we going to acquire the capacity, as policy makers to shape the Information Society in ways we want, without stifling the innovation on which we’re placing such high hopes? We need to meet six challenges if we’re to shape the Information Society along the lines proposed by WSIS and the SDGs. We need:

  • good evidence;
  • hard thinking;
  • partnership between government and other stakeholders;
  • quick decision-making;
  • commitment;
  • and investment.

Next week’s blog returns to the subject of multistakeholder participation, in particular the complex, diverse range of stakeholders that is now involved.

Image source: WSIS Team, ITU.


David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter.
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