Digital: the greatest force redefining development
G7 Summit

Digital: the greatest force redefining development

Acting boldly on universal connectivity and sustainable digital transformation can unlock the power of digital to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and they are top priorities for the International Telecommunication Union

What is your vision as secretary- general of the International Telecommunication Union?

I was elected secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations agency for digital technologies, on a platform that called for the ITU to be at the forefront of global efforts to meet connectivity needs and expand digital opportunities for people everywhere. Our members gave us a clear mandate to act boldly on universal connectivity and sustainable digital transformation. These two strategic goals are at the top of my priorities. They are catalysts for progress and can unlock the power of digital to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

What are the major needs and challenges confronting the ITU?

In a world where digital is moving at warp speed, I see three major challenges. The first, and perhaps defining one, is to align digital inclusion with the pace of digital transformation. World-wide, 2.6 billion people are still offline – not to mention all those on the wrong side of the digital divide because 3G is their only way to connect to the internet or they don’t feel safe online, don’t have the skills to use the latest tools or cannot afford them. The second is to strike the right balance between the benefits and risks of digital and emerging technologies, to foster responsible development, deployment and use of these technologies without stifling innovation. The third challenge is to ensure that the radio-frequency spectrum and associated satellite orbit resources are shared equitably and sustainably for all humanity. These finite resources are the building blocks of advanced global communications, on Earth and in space. As the global digital economy continues to expand, they are increasingly in demand.

How is the ITU working to meet these needs and challenges?

This moment was made for ITU. Our work – on emerging technologies, network and digital infrastructure, policy and regulation, statistics, digital applications and inclusion, cybersecurity, capacity development, digital literacy and skills, e-waste and emergency telecommunications – addresses sustainable development in all its dimensions: economic, social and environmental. Consensus building is essential to everything we do. Whether we manage the radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbit resources, develop international standards or support global digital development, all voices are heard and heeded. We see this in our AI for Good platform, the largest UN system-led multi-stakeholder platform for artificial intelligence. As the historic resolution on AI recently adopted by the UN General Assembly recognises, this approach is necessary in developing frameworks for safe, secure and trustworthy AI systems. Today’s challenges are too big for any player to face alone. This is what drives our efforts in key UN processes such as the World Summit on the Information Society, the ITU Partner2Connect Digital Coalition and the ITU-UNICEF initiative to connect every school to the internet.

What results has it achieved?

The ultimate measure of success is progress in advancing our two strategic goals of universal connectivity and sustainable digital transformation. The past few months have seen important strides on both fronts. The ITU World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 reached key decisions ranging from international mobile telecommunications to space research and Earth exploration. It has put the world on a solid path towards a more connected, sustainable, equitable and inclusive digital future for all. The recent UN System White Paper on AI governance, led by ITU and UNESCO, is key to understanding the relationship among AI, the digital divide and sustainable development opportunities. It has identified technical standards among the instruments providing a solid foundation for international AI governance. These standards – a core function of ITU – are a prerequisite for effectively implementing guardrails. They also help level the playing field for countries in the Global South, which are at the heart of P2C, the High-Impact Initiative on Digital Public Infrastructure, the Early Warnings for All initiative, and all ITU’s other initiatives that make the SDGs real in the lives of people everywhere.

What challenges remain?

With only a fraction of the SDG targets on track to be achieved by 2030, one urgent task is realising the potential of digital and emerging technologies for sustainable development across all the SDGs. This means closing the growing gap between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. While 89% of people in high-income countries are covered by 5G, the service is nearly absent in low-income countries. The same is true for AI: a handful of developed countries with sufficient computing power and resources is leading AI research and development globally. And there’s the persistent digital gender gap: only 30% of women in least developed countries have internet access. This holds back the entire global digital economy. It also reminds us that in our interconnected world, what affects one of us has an impact on us all. At this critical moment – with the 20-year review of the World Summit on the Information Society, the Global Digital Compact and the UN Summit of the Future – we need to integrate voices of developing countries, women and girls, youth and civil society into our action plans to ensure they have a say in shaping the digital future.

How can G7 leaders best help?

We are at a moment of opportunity. G7 members play an important role in building and improving digital infrastructure wherever it is needed most. This is also a moment of responsibility. Today’s digital experience must be affordable, safe, relevant and sustainable. In short, it must be meaningful. In March, G7 industry, technology and digital ministers showed leadership and vision by addressing all the core components, from standards to satellites. These priorities are also ITU’s priorities. We are already at work tackling issues such as space sustainability, as at least 40% of the SDGs rely on Earth observation and global navigation satellite systems. As I told the G7 ministers in Verona, ITU looks forward to strengthening our collaboration with the G7 in all these areas. Today, digital is the agenda. It is the single greatest force redefining development as we know it.