How the UN uses AI in the Sustainable Development Goals

Interview with Pedro Conceição, Director for Strategic Policy, Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, UNDP.

Artificial intelligence is fast transforming governments. Agencies can predict train breakdowns, make procurement decisions, diagnose diseases, and carry out literature reviews at the push of a button, so to speak. The United Nations Development Programme, in particular, is using AI to automate processes as part of its efforts to help countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), says Pedro Conceição, Strategic Policy chief at the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, UNDP. “Technology is changing our economies, changing our societies - and of course, it will change our government. I see it already in the work I do,” Conceição declared during the keynote speech at Innovation Labs World on 26 September in Singapore. Sustainable Development The UN’s ambitious 2030 Sustainable Development Goals are trying to mobilise the international community to end poverty and ensure prosperity for all, while protecting the planet. To keep track, Conceição’s colleagues now use a tool that compares the priorities of governments, as expressed in budget or national development plans, with the SDGs to see if there is alignment. This process, which would normally take the team two to three weeks to complete, now takes a couple of hours, he explains. The algorithm simply compares text strings that are in government documents with the text strings that are in the SDGs and 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “With AI, now it's possible to have enough interpretative capability in these algorithms,” Conceição notes. What does AI mean for citizens? For developing countries, technology will play a “fundamental role” in boosting agriculture and energy as they work towards achieving the SDGs, Conceição tells GovInsider. Governments need to take a leading role in transforming agriculture to reduce food loss and waste. “Globally, estimates suggest that as much as a third of the food that is produced is either lost or wasted,” Conceição says. And for the first time, “the share of capacity in renewables is higher in developing than developed countries,” he adds. Cost is less of an issue these days, as these technologies become cheaper and cheaper to produce. “It's already possible to deploy these tech without subsidies,” Conceição points out. But for the transition to happen, governments need to send “very strong signals” to the economy that they need to seize and capitalise on these opportunities, so that there is a flow of investment into renewable energy or sustainable agriculture. Openness Ultimately, governments need to engage with new technology “not in a defensive way, but in a way in which they are embraced”. This will only work in tandem with citizen inclusion initiatives, that hopefully will “protect people from instability in ways that restore or strengthen citizens' trust in government”. Inclusion is key to ensuring people are not trapped in the “last mile of exclusion”. For example, the ethnic Roma population in Europe have been “systematically excluded for generations” in some of the richest countries in the world, where there is ready access to services - and no good reason for these people to be left behind, Conceição notes. Vulnerable groups like the Romanis face “more fundamental drivers of exclusion and discrimination that we need to understand and address”, Conceição says. Government must keep in mind that designing services for citizens is really about “being inclusive from the outset”. Technology can enable amazing things to happen, but Conceição warns against focusing on it as “the endgame”. The endgame has to be: “What are we doing for people? What are you doing for the citizens in Singapore? What are we doing to help people around the world that are mobilised to meet this ambitious 2030 agenda and SDGs?” Governments can introduce lots of shiny new tech, but must keep in mind that it is the user of that tech that matters most. A sustainable vision, and an ambitious one.