Digital transformation to recover into a green economy

August 4, 2020


As some economies begin to reopen and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, UNDP’s Human Development Report warns that on some dimensions of human development, we are seeing deprivation equivalent to the mid-1980s levels. Yet, as we look forward, one would argue that the goal is not to return to ‘normal’ — in 2019, the progress on many SDGs was not on track to meet the 2030 deadline — but to build back better, which is a more inclusive, green and resilient economy.

The pandemic has shown the importance of technology and in many cases has sped up digital transformation. We have looked at emerging trends on some key technologies in developing economies which have the potential to contribute to realizing a green, climate resilient economy in the longer term.

New or cheaper technologies have made geospatial data more accessible. In Small Island Developing States, which are facing immediate risks of sea rise and extreme weather induced by climate change, new technologies play a key role. In the Maldives, UNDP uses drones to map disaster risks. In Tuvalu, a Light Detection and Ranging technology-enabled accurate measurement of the situation on the impact of the rising ocean level.

In Peru, we use spatial data to identify how to increase forest management between indigenous groups and the government and help the government chart a forestry recovery plan.

Satellite data can also be used to develop microinsurance programmes for farmers, although there are some chasms to cross. A consortium of insurers through the Blue Marble Alliance develop microinsurance plans in partnership with the World Food Programme. Satellite precipitation data and a mobile app enable seamless, automated payments to farmers in the event of crop loss due to precipitation significantly above or below the mean. This can improve the resilience and livelihoods of many farmers in developing countries.

Innovative mechanisms are emerging in fintech, including the GCash Forest Platform supported by UNDP’s Biodiversity Finance Initiative in the Philippines. People sign up on an app and gather points for sustainable activities such as walking, forfeiting paper bills or buying organic produce. More than two million people already up for the app since it was launched one year ago, and more than US$500,000 has invested in tree planting.

In Lebanon, UNDP’s AltFinLab piloted a cryptocurrency called Cedar Coin. A tree is planted for every coin purchased. These are native species, and each type of cedar has its own price. The specific trees are registered in a ledger using blockchain.

Smaller and cheaper sensors enable real-time environmental data collection and efficient management of resources. Applications of the ‘internet of things’ are growing, from smart mobility and smart cities to smart agriculture, such as irrigation systems and value chain management. Smart metres are key for scaling renewable energies, both on- and off-grid. They allow real-time monitoring of demand and supply and open doors to other applications such as smart payment and metering, which is one of the tools for de-risking renewable energy investment in many developing countries. NGOs and academia are also exploring unique applications in project monitoring and learning cycles.

To reap the benefits of technology, we still need to get the basics right and 3.6 billion people are still unconnected, the majority in developing countries. We cannot expect countries to utilize technologies to their full extent without having a reliable and affordable connection.

If we were to break the paradigm of the global north developing solutions to test in the global south, we need more people to have training and skills-building, so people in developing countries won’t only use the available technology but innovate locally. And, of course, we should also find models for sustainably financing expensive technology such as very high-resolution satellite imagery, which is important to machine learning, and we must invest in local networks to nurture innovation. Sometimes, a cheaper, simpler solution will do the job when you have people who understand the context from within. During a hackathon several teams of young engineers in Rwanda proposed the use of new technologies to transmit sensor data from remote areas without internet coverage to the nearest internet point. Similarly, an idea to send meteorological data collected at manual weather stations through Unstructured Supplementary Service Data was accepted right away. A strong vision and strategy for high-tech and universal coverage, combined with appropriate bottom-up attempts could be key.  

The upward trend in businesses' commitments to sustainability is well documented, but whether those commitments are for branding purposes, or for mitigating climate change is an important question. Carrying on business as usual and then reporting on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an afterthought is not enough. Substantive change must come from thinking through the impact across all layers of operations, from the supply chain, to hiring, to running facilities, to production and beyond.  

For businesses to successfully promote sustainability, they cannot work in siloes. It is necessary to build a cross-sectoral ecosystem of partnerships across governments, companies, and nonprofits. This will ensure that organizations benefit from best practices and avoid reinventing the wheel where possible.  

One such example of a cross-sectoral partnership is UNDP in Armenia’s ImpactAim Venture Accelerator. In cooperation with the Enterprise Incubator Foundation and Innovative Solutions and Technologies Center Foundation, the Accelerator is calling on tech ventures focused on energy efficiency and renewables to apply. Exploring the application of technologies like artificial intelligence and data science in the environmental sector can better inform policymakers and lead to revolutionary results. By working across sectors to scale innovative solutions to climate change, this accelerator is effectively building a better future.

The UNDP Nature, Climate and Energy team together with the Chief Digital Officer’s Office are open to hearing more ideas on how digital technologies can bring impact on the ground for sustainable development. Please send feedback and ideas to