WEF insights: the digital, livable and sustainable world

WEF insights: the digital, livable and sustainable world

Digital technologies can make the real world more livable and sustainable. Here's how

  • The world is once again at a turning point and, once again, technology is part of the solution.

  • Strong leadership by the business community is necessary to ensure that technology is used in a responsible and sustainable way.

  • The focus should be on deploying digital technologies that make the real world much more livable and sustainable.

by Jim Hagemann Snabe (Chairman, Siemens and A.P. Møller-Mærsk)

When I graduated in 1989, I felt the world was my oyster. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War was ending and globalization was accelerating.

At the same time, digital technologies were opening up unlimited possibilities – the World Wide Web was launched that same year; information technology was flourishing; the internet was beginning to connect people.

The dream was to create a global village where everyone was welcome to communicate, to engage in trade, and to exchange knowledge and information. Hopes were high.

Now, more than three decades later, we are at a turning point again. Long before the pandemic, a reversal of globalization was in the making. Aided by social media, nationalism and identity politics gained ground in many countries and caused geopolitical tensions and trade conflicts to rise.

Today, the same digital technologies that once helped connect the world divide it. They are used to spread misinformation and propaganda and to amplify extreme views. They have made our societies more vulnerable to manipulation and attacks.

Given these longer-term developments, it was disappointing, but not surprising, that coordinated international strategies for containing the COVID-19 pandemic were rare. And now, the war in Ukraine is intensifying the fragmentation of our world even further.

Digital technologies can be a power for good

With all that in mind, is it foolish to believe that technology can once more spark high hopes and drive progress, as it did in 1989? Can technology save the world again?

I say, yes! If we needed any reminder of the power of technology, the recent pandemic provided it. We saw how digital technology enabled people to stay in touch and reach out to others, companies to continue operations, and innovators like BioNTech and Moderna to develop and mass-produce COVID-19 vaccines in record time.

These developments, during the pandemic, demonstrate that digital technology is still a key enabler for a better future. But they also show how vital strong leadership in business is to progress – in particular in a crisis.

While business leaders should not try to be politicians, they can and should address the big, urgent challenges humanity faces. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan once called them “challenges without a passport”.

All of us are affected by these challenges, regardless of nationality and geopolitical constellation. And they are outlined by the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

They include no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, climate action, peace, justice and strong institutions, responsible consumption, and production – to name just a few.

Meeting these goals by 2030 will require a steady stream of innovations and the deployment of advanced digital technologies on a massive scale over a long time. Fortunately, this is exactly what business is good at.

The private sector is the main driver of innovation and technology. In the US, for instance, it accounts for nearly three quarters of the country's total R&D spending. And, of course, it also plays a key role in providing jobs, upskilling the workforce and creating economic value.

SDGs should act as guidance for business models

The SDGs should serve as guidance as far as business models and their impact on society are concerned. In this regard, the Digital Services Act recently enacted by the European Union is a major step in the right direction.

Currently, a number of companies are making substantial investments in the so-called ‘metaverse’ – to further strengthen the virtual world. However, the digital world should not be an end to itself.

Our focus must be on using the digital world to make the real world much more sustainable and liveable. I’m talking about developing and deploying technologies that reduce CO2 emissions, that provide cleaner and more reliable transportation, that deliver affordable and individualized healthcare, and that reduce energy consumption and waste in industrial production.

In other words, harnessing the power of digitalization not just for entertainment and consumerism in the virtual world, but to effect tangible progress at scale in the real world.

Digital technologies can drive positive change

Throughout my career I’ve had the privilege to experience firsthand what a formidable force for positive change digital technologies can be. I began my career at SAP, which at that time was a fast-growing provider of business software, and then later joined IBM, a global leader in software and services.

Yet, it was only in recent years that I fully understood that it was never about digital technology per se, but about the progress we can make collectively when we use it to improve the real world. It’s about combining the real and digital worlds with purpose.

This became even more obvious to me when I joined the boards of AP Moller-Maersk and Siemens. Adding digital technologies to transportation makes shipping and travel more sustainable. Adding them to manufacturing makes production circular. Adding them to healthcare improves the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses and the patient experience.

Making this happen is a question of leadership. To quote a good friend of mine, Professor Subi Rangan of INSEAD: between knowing and acting there is choosing.

If a business chooses to use technology in a responsible and sustainable way, it can indeed be a powerful force in solving the great challenges we face. It can indeed drive the progress our world so desperately needs. It can indeed save the world – even today.

First published @WEF