The quest for sustainable development balancing economic, societal and environmental aspects is a global trend. Russia is no exception with the subject becoming more and more pertinent to the country’s vision for the future. However, the link between digital transformation and sustainable development, while being of the utmost importance to the ICT industry, is yet to be properly addressed and accentuated by the national expert community. For the first time in Russia and with support from Microsoft, the Russian Association of Electronic Communications (RAEC) and TIARCENTER prepared an overview of the issues pertaining to the sustainability of the digital transformation. The authors hope that this overview will initiate a broad discussion of digital sustainability in Russia.
Thus far, when considering the digital transformation’s impact on sustainable development, most analysts and researchers focus on two key subjects:
- The tangible contribution to achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to GeSI, the expected deployment of digital technologies will accelerate progress in SDGs by, on average, 22%.
- The impact of tech companies on climate and other environmental indicators, and the ways to minimize this footprint. For example, as of 2018, data centers accounted for 1% of the overall electricity consumption.
Such a straightforward perspective, centered around the positive effects of ICT in all spheres and the direct footprint of production, operation and disposal of consumer and enterprise digital tools, fails to reflect the complexity of the digital transformation. Humankind has fairly limited experience living with the digital environment. Many risks presented by this new reality are dismissed as insignificant or purely theoretical; for example, ethical issues arising from the use of artificial intelligence by authorities to track people’s movements are perceived by many as hypothetical.
“Techology and AI gives us a lot of opportunities to improve our lives, but it raises concerns as well. It is important to strike the right balance between what opportunities we want to support and leverage and what concerns we want to address in our legislations: a sustainable digital development,” points out Nanna-Louise Wildfang Linde, Area Lead for Corporate, External and Legal Affairs in Central and Eastern Europe at Microsoft.
New challenges arising when the digital transformation meets sustainable development and humanity may, to a significant extent, determine our future. These new challenges may be grouped for analysis as follows:
- deterioration of psychological comfort in an online environment caused by the increasing volume of information and the hostility of fellow users;
- sensitive decisions being relegated to algorithms with unreliable programming of human norms;
- citizens’ loss of control over their privacy;
- increasing costs from security breaches and outages of digital infrastructures amid the increased connectivity;
- digital divide in accessibility to the internet and digital illiteracy;
- a growing ecological footprint of digital technologies.
The challenges of the digital era have already become part of the top-level international agenda. In 2018, the “Paris Call for Trust & Security in Cyberspace” was formulated; in 2019, a UN Resolution on “Countering the Use of ICT for Criminal Purposes” was passed.
The above-mentioned challenges were analyzed for the present overview with input from sustainability experts and ICT executives. The report summarizes measures which have been taken or need to be taken by end users, tech companies and governments to address these challenges.
The role of each stakeholder group varies depending on the challenge. For example, while governments and tech companies can equip people with necessary tools and tackle plain hate speech, at the end of the day, it is up to users to ensure responsible, respectful and meaningful online conversation. In bridging the digital divide, the primary role belongs to the government. And, obviously, it is ICT companies’ responsibility to reduce the sector’s ecological footprint.
To successfully respond to most complex challenges, like ensuring ethical operation of AI, it is imperative to develop and enforce standards through most inclusive and transparent processes. In the case of AI, several platforms have already been established around the world to elaborate sustainable and ethical principles of AI development and deployment, like California-based Partnership on AI and the European AI Alliance.
“Ethics are one of the central aspects in the development of AI. This issue is reflected in the National Strategy for Development of AI, signed by the Russian President in October 2019. The strategy is oriented towards socio-economic agenda and formulates the principles of protecting human rights, including the right to work, citizens’ right to get knowledge and skills for successful adaptation, security as well as transparency and explainability of AI’s work results. We are open to cooperation with the global community on formulating common approaches to ethical aspects of decisions made with the use of AI,” says Oksana Tarasenko, Russian Federation Deputy Economic Development Minister.