Advancing AI and Data for Sustainable Development in Bhutan

June 3, 2024

AIRA Workshop Participants and Project Team

Photo: UNDP Bhutan

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is rapidly becoming a powerful force in the global economy. Preparing to implement ethical AI in public service delivery will help governments maximize AI's benefits while minimizing its potential drawbacks. Governments that are ready to deploy and utilize AI will gain a significant competitive advantage in various sectors, including trade, production, and security. To effectively harness AI, governments must be deliberate in advancing its use while simultaneously safeguarding people’s rights and freedoms.

As an AI Policy Analyst in UNDP's Chief Digital Office (CDO), I recently had the privilege to travel to Bhutan to support a series of workshops focused on AI readiness and data-informed policymaking, in collaboration with UNDP Bhutan and the GovTech Agency of Bhutan. This mission, part of UNDP’s Artificial Intelligence Assessment (AIRA) and the Data to Policy Initiative, aimed to explore Bhutan’s AI readiness and support capacity for data-informed policymaking. These efforts are part of a larger, enduring UNDP initiative to leverage AI and data for sustainable development.

Honorable Secretary of GovTech Jigme Tenzing Presenting at AIRA Workshop

Photo: UNDP Bhutan

We began the week with the AIRA Workshop, where over 30 civil servants from various ministries across Bhutan gathered to discuss core AI concepts and contribute to UNDP’s ongoing AIRA. The workshop was attended by the Honorable Secretary of GovTech, Jigme Tenzing, and Deputy Resident Representative, Khurshid Alam, who emphasized the importance of ethical AI deployment in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Bhutan. By the end of the workshop, we launched the AIRA survey and collected more than 30 responses. This achievement marked a key milestone in the project, providing critical data to draft a report that will equip Bhutan with insights for developing broader strategy and policy efforts.

Throughout the mission, my colleague Tshering Choden, Head of Exploration at UNDP Bhutan Accelerator Labs, and I engaged with key stakeholders from the government, private sector, and academia in Thimphu. To gain a comprehensive understanding of Bhutan's AI ecosystem, we conducted key informant interviews and focus groups with over 20 stakeholder groups, including seven government ministries, three academic institutions, five private sector partners, and other relevant civil society groups. One particularly engaging discussion was with the Bhutan AI Society, a grassroots civil society organization dedicated to ensuring ethical AI deployment in Bhutan. These on-the-ground discussions have provided us with in-depth insights into the current state of AI in Bhutan and are invaluable for shaping our analysis and informing future recommendations. 

Bhutan AI Society Focus Group Discussion

Photo: UNDP Bhutan

Complementing the AIRA, we also convened an interactive workshop on the role of data in policymaking, which brought together over 60 participants from government, private sector, academia, and the UN system. Along with Ugyen Tenzin, GovTech's CTO of Data Science and AI, we explored global and local use cases of data-informed solutions to sustainable development challenges. During the session, participants were divided into working groups and tasked with designing locally relevant solutions to real-world challenges in Bhutan using AI and data. The creative project ideas generated, ranging from data-informed electric vehicle charging station infrastructure to innovative AI educational tools, showcased the remarkable potential and passion for leveraging emerging technologies. With such an engaged, enthusiastic, and forward-thinking stakeholder community, Bhutan is well-equipped to harness AI and data to drive sustainable development.  

Tshering Choden facilitating a project group in the data-informed policymaking workshop

Photo: UNDP Bhutan

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in making UNDP’s effort a success. It has demonstrated the power of building local capacity and fostering inclusive collaboration by bringing together diverse voices and perspectives from various sectors and communities. Looking ahead, our goal is to deliver insights and actionable recommendations for AI policy, infrastructure, skills development, safety, and other critical areas. Additionally, we aim to advance the broader discussion on safely leveraging digital technologies to accelerate progress towards the SDGs and create a brighter and more equitable future for Bhutan.