Innovation That Matters

Consumer tech and the UN SDGs

Sustainable Source

The rise of consumer technology has arguably been the most significant development of the past 30 years. How can it help to deliver the UN SDGs?

From 2016 to 2022, the number of smartphone users increased from 3.7 billion to 6.6 billion. And in 2021, the number of internet users around the world topped 4.9 billion. This rise in the prevalence of consumer technology – smartphones, mobile tablets, laptops, and household computers – has been a defining feature of the past three decades.

While the permeation of society with consumer tech has had many benefits, from broader access to finance, education, and information to more narrowly ‘green’ developments such as sustainable shopping apps, the digital world has a real-life footprint. In fact, the carbon footprint of electronics, including smartphones, accounts for about 3.7 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s estimated that, by 2030, we’ll produce 74 million tonnes of electronic waste (e-waste) each year.

Harnessing the full potential of consumer tech while simultaneously tackling these problems is a challenge facing innovators around the world. But as the countdown to 2030 continues, innovations in consumer tech are helping to deliver on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production

E-waste is one of the biggest issues related to consumer technology. The amount we are producing has risen steadily since 2010, increasing by 44 million tonnes in just five years from 2014 to 2019. And only around 17 per cent of this waste is properly recycled. As a result, a number of startups have formed to target the issue. In Malaysia, for example, ERTH is providing an on-demand service for e-waste recycling through an app.

And in addition to improving the logistics of e-waste recycling, innovators are coming up with creative ways to incentivise consumers to trade in their old devices. For example, Norwegian tech retailer Elkjøp Nordic has teamed up with Minecraft owner Microsoft to launch Urban Miner, an initiative that rewards Minecraft players with in-game currency, Minecoins, for returning their e-waste for recycling. 

SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy

The link between tech and emissions from energy is sometimes easy to forget. Yet storing all the data generated by the billions of devices in use around the world requires a large amount of energy. In fact, data centres contribute more to man-made climate change than the aviation industry, being responsible for 2.5 per cent of global carbon emissions.

To tackle this, innovators are exploring ways to power data centres cleanly. For example, a research partner in Singapore is exploring the possibility of powering data centres through hydrogen. Others are helping businesses to reduce the impact of their data and IT. In the UK, Greenpixie is helping organisations track the carbon footprint of their cloud computing. And elsewhere, in France, Fruggr has developed a platform for measuring, improving, and communicating an organisation’s IT footprint.

SDG 9: Industry, innovation, and infrastructure

Today, so many of the uses for our tech devices rely on the internet that it’s almost impossible to imagine one without the other. And target 9.c within SDG 9 sets out the ambition of ‘universal and affordable access to the internet. But despite this lofty goal, 2.9 billion people have still never been online.  

To tackle this, several companies are aiming to use satellite technology to bring the internet to remote regions. In the US, Mangata Networks is using a smaller number of higher-orbiting satellites to bring down the costs of connecting remote communities. Meanwhile, Astranis is taking a different approach with smaller, lighter satellites that are quicker and cheaper to produce. Another startup, Bridgefy is circumventing the problem altogether by using local mesh networks to enable offline messaging and social media.

SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth

Recent months have seen high-profile redundancies in the tech sector. Yet consumer tech, and the broader ecosystem that supports it, still provides excellent opportunities for employment and economic growth. And a number of startups are working to make these opportunities as widely accessible as possible.

For example, in the UK, Vektor AI is democratising access to vital mentoring opportunities through an online platform. Another platform, Teilur, helps US tech startups build long-term relationships with remote coders in Latin America.

SDG 4: Quality education

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools were shut in many countries, students relied on personal devices for education to a greater degree than ever before. And, beyond the short-term impact of coronavirus, consumer tech is transforming education more broadly.

Innovators are developing a range of educational tools available through consumer devices. In Korea, for example, Google-backed Mathspresso has developed a mobile app, called Qanda, that lets students take photos of their maths problems and receive AI-powered guidance. And, in the US, an app developed by Stanford researchers is making it far easier for students to take notes from online videos.

Words: Matthew Hempstead

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