This side event, organised by the UN Regional Commissions Office and the Permanent Mission of Egypt on behalf of the G77, identified the opportunities and challenges of harnessing technology and innovation to address inequalities and generate employment opportunities for young people.
The session was opened by the moderator, Ms Alicia Barcena (Executive Secretary of UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)), who noted that the 2030 Agenda recognises the importance of technology and innovation as a fundamental means of implementation. At the same time, they could impose unforeseen costs on society, especially in the labour market, and exacerbate inequality. She explained that this session is meant to provide more clarity about how different regions confront these challenges.
Mr Mohammed Fathi Ahmed Edrees (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Egypt to the UN) observed a deepening polarisation between ‘technology optimists and pessimists’, aggravated by the high degree of uncertainty about technological change, which is a particular obstacle for policymakers. He explained that it is essential for developing countries to be at the forefront of regulation on technological advancements and to understand the conditions and policies under which new technologies could help reduce inequalities and address gaps in the sustainable development goals (SDGs).
Mr Hala Al Saeed (Minister of Planning, Monitoring and Administrative Reform of Egypt) explained that the road to sustainable development depends not only on scaling up existing technology, but also on fostering new innovation and changing mindsets; ‘technology alone is never sufficient’. Egypt is taking a number of measures in this context, including promoting technology to empower persons with disabilities, hosting the UN’s Africa Technology Innovation Lab, providing capacity building and training to fresh graduates, stimulating innovation and entrepreneurship among young people, and providing better access to technology for marginalised women in rural areas.
Next, Mr Rodrigo Malmierca (Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment of Cuba) focused on the role of education in preparing youth for modern society, considering that digital technology is generating a ‘radical transformation for humankind’. In addition, he stressed the importance of public investment in science and technology, as it will be able to contribute to mitigating challenges, such as those related to an ageing population, climate change, and sustainable energy.
Responding to Malmierca’s intervention from the point of view of UN ECLAC, Barcena raised a number questions: To what extent have modern times generated new features of globalisation, and in particular the dynamics of ‘agglomeration and fragmentation’? How should we understand the impact of the convergence of new technologies, such as blockchain and robotics, on ecosystems and mindsets? How can we prepare young people for jobs that do not yet exist, and what kind of regulations are needed for the modern job market? She called for inter-regional collaboration to work on these challenges.
Providing a perspective from Africa, Ms Vera Songwe (Executive-Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa) pointed out that technology does not only cause a loss of jobs in some sectors, it also creates new jobs in others, especially for youth in the growing service sector in Africa. Nevertheless, the question of how these jobs can be multiplied and scaled up remains. In addition, she identified challenges related to the global governance of data generated by new technologies; the kind of education needed for youngsters to match the needs of the job market; and the role of technology in providing refugees and internally displaced persons with an identity.
Identifying the large number of youth in Islamic countries, coupled with staggering youth unemployment, Mr Rami Ahmad (Special Envoy on SDGs, Islamic Development Bank) called for an updated approach to financing, with greater focus on education and capacity building. In particular, young people’s knowledge and skills should be better connected to the needs of the market. Agreeing with Songwe, he added that technology will cause a destruction of jobs in some sectors, but also the creation of jobs in others. Technology should be used to update the education system, to create new mechanisms for training, to ensure lifelong learning, and to avoid a brain drain in developing countries.
Elaborating on the particular challenges in the Middle East, Mr Mohamed Al-Hakim (Executive-Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia) emphasised the need to focus on ‘innovation’, as compared to ‘science and technology’. Innovation is often not taught in the region, in part due to a reluctance to experiment and accept failure. He encouraged governments to ‘put entrepreneurs in situations to succeed’ with regulations that facilitate the creation of innovative companies. He added that the education system needs to be adapted to promote children’s ability to innovate.
Mr Michiharu Nakamura (Senior Advisor and Former President, Japan Science and Technology Agency) explained that, to harness science, technology and innovation (STI), multidisciplinary, holistic approaches and co-operation among stakeholders are needed. He encouraged governments to develop STI roadmaps and shared Japan’s experience of developing an action plan that promotes ‘society 5.0’. Achieving this requires investing in research and development, strengthening support for start-ups, understanding the impact of artificial intelligence, creating new employment opportunities, and facilitating lifelong learning and youth education.
Mr Kaveh Zahedi, (Deputy Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific) agreed that a ‘radical rethink’ is needed in education and legislative frameworks to avoid the negative impact of new technologies on the labour market. In addition, technology is creating a ‘new frontier of inequality’ and risks further excluding the most vulnerable, considering that big data and online activities will increasingly inform policies and shape commercial activity. At the same time, technology can also be harnessed to minimise inequalities by providing better access to basic services, such as healthcare, education, commerce, energy, and finance.
Mr Dejan Bojanic (Vice President, European Youth Forum) emphasised that ‘there can be no sustainable development without rights’ and noted that underemployment and non-standard, precarious jobs affect young people’s right to work. Many are driven into self-employment with limited access to social protection and basic social and economic rights. Mitigating this challenge requires updated regulation to cover new forms of work, which needs to be designed with the participation of young people. He added that while flexible self-employment for young people is often seen as a ‘silver bullet’, this needs to be accompanied by a stable and supporting environment; ‘We can’t rely on young people to create their own jobs when systems have failed them’.
Ms Olga Algayerova (Executive-Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe) further elaborated on the youth employment challenges in Europe and identified a number of ways for states to support innovation and job creation for young people. For example, she highlighted the commitment of EU member states to spend 3% of their GDP on research and development. She added that governments need to ensure that their education systems provide the skills that employers are looking for, and that they should remove bottlenecks within the public sector which prevent ideas from reaching the market. Finally, she explained that ‘the cost of not acting is much higher’, pointing out the high price of long-term youth unemployment and its consequences for poverty and inequality.
Al Saeed closed the session by enumerating the recurring themes that were discussed: the need for quality education for young people, the challenge of the global governance of data, the simultaneous job loss and job creation caused by new technologies, the role of technology in financial and social inclusion, and the demand for capacity building and investment.
By Barbara Rosen Jacobson