Role of technology in achieving the sustainable development goals

Cecilia Tortajada

OOSKAnews | September 23, 2016

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the UN General Assembly on 25 September 2015, has the ultimate goal to eradicate poverty in all its forms and dimensions. It builds upon the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals and includes those goals that have not been achieved so far.

The numerous development priorities that have been defined in the Agenda and the economic, social and environmental objectives that have been set, are expected to be achieved with a wide range of goals and targets. Among other instruments, technological development and innovation have been recognized as fundamental to end poverty; end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture; ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all; achieve gender equality and empower women and girls; ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all; ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all; build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation; conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development; and strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.

Goal 6 aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. However, provision of clean and safe water and sanitation services as well as sustainable management of water resources faces unsurmountable challenges posed by scarcity, pollution, mismanagement, misallocation, growing competition by increasing number and type of uses and users, ageing infrastructure and impacts of climate change. To address the numerous economic, social and environmental-related challenges, numerous initiatives are still necessary in terms of policies, institutions, regulation, partnerships, and technological developments

There are many areas where technological and institutional innovations are expected to make a change in the world. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, these include conservation and recovery of energy; nutrient recovery at lower cost and carbon footprint; improvement and greening of water infrastructure; water conservation and reuse; reducing costs and improving techniques for water monitoring; improving performance of small drinking water systems; reducing water impacts from energy production; improving resilience of water infrastructure to the impacts of climate change; improving access to safe drinking water and sanitation; improving water quality of oceans, estuaries and watersheds.

The above areas represent important market opportunities for technology innovation. However, in order to reduce the gap between technology development and implementation, EPA recognises that promotion of technological innovation requires that institutional, financial, regulatory and cultural barriers are addressed.

There are cities that can be considered as “laboratories” for technological innovations for numerous areas such as water resources, transportation, public housing, built environment and city management, etc., one of them is Singapore. While more the exception than the rule, the city-state has numerous experiences from which other cities can learn (EDB,

In Singapore, the environment and water industry represents a key growth industry. According to the Economic Development Board, between 2006 and 2011, the Government has committed a total of $346 million USD to fund innovation and capacity development in the sector. This has not only benefited the industrial sector, but has also had a positive impact in job creation and encouraged significantly research innovation in the universities. Centres of Excellence have been established at the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technology University. In 2013, Lux Research ranked NUS and NTU the number 1 and 2 universities in the world respectively for water research. Excellence has been achieved in the fields of membrane, water reuse and desalination. In terms of provision of clean water and sanitation, Singapore’s research and technological development focuses on intelligent watershed management, membrane technology, network management, used water treatment, water quality and security and water treatment.

Is technology able to contribute towards overall development, better quality of life of the population, transformation of the world and ultimately achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals? Yes, in cities with institutional, policy and regulatory frameworks in place, but not so much in cities where populations do not even have basic services such as clean water, sanitation or electricity, and where institutional, policy and regulatory frameworks are still works in progress.

The importance of technological development is recognised by the World Economic Forum, whose “Top Ten Urban Innovations” rely on solutions to complex urban problems. The Forum supports that innovations in technology, services and governance should not be ends in themselves but means to improve the lives of the population. As the Forum mentions, “If the future of cities cannot be one of unsustainable expansion, it should rather be one of tireless innovation”. The water industry can certainly play a very important role in this tireless innovation with the appropriate policies, institutions and regulatory frameworks.

Dr. Cecilia Tortajada is a Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Editor in Chief, International Journal of Water Resources Development.