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SDG 12, exponential technology, and the future of sustainable development: an integrated approach

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By Sheri R. Hinish

· 4 min read

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) crafted by the United Nations represent a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. Among these goals, SDG 12, which pertains to responsible consumption and production, emerges as an essential cornerstone to achieving the broader vision. The efficient utilization of resources, waste reduction, and promotion of sustainable practices are at its core. This article delves into how exponential technology, characterized by rapid advancements and expansive influence, is a key driver in actualizing the targets of SDG 12.

Exponential technology defined

Before assessing its impacts on SDG 12, it’s imperative to understand what exponential technology is. Unlike linear technologies that grow incrementally, exponential technologies double in capacity or performance every year or two, leading to drastic, unexpected changes in a short period. Prominent examples include artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), biotechnology, and renewable energy solutions.

The synergy of exponential technology and SDG 12

Exponential technologies are driving the achievement of SDG 12 targets by:

  • Enhancing resource efficiency: With the aid of IoT and AI, industries are now more capable of tracking and optimizing resource use throughout their supply chains. Smart sensors and analytics help predict maintenance needs, minimizing downtime and waste. Additionally, biotechnology has led to breakthroughs in optimizing agricultural yield, leading to more efficient food production.
  • Sustainable management and use of natural resources: Exponential growth in renewable energy technologies, particularly solar and wind, has made them cost-competitive with fossil fuels, driving a transition to cleaner energy sources. Furthermore, advanced material science enables the development of sustainable alternatives, from biodegradable plastics to efficient batteries.
  • Reducing waste and enabling circularity: AI and big data analytics aid in optimizing waste collection, and processing, and enabling reverse infrastructure and materials to be returned in a circular system. Additionally, the IoT has enabled the development of smart packaging that can change properties to ensure food freshness, reducing food wastage.
  • Encouraging sustainable consumption: Blockchain technology offers transparency in production processes, allowing consumers to make informed decisions about their purchases. The preference for sustainable products can be further augmented by digital passports (embedded material intelligence), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) experiences that demonstrate the environmental and social impact of their choices.
  • Disseminating information for sustainable development: AI-driven content personalization ensures that stakeholders, from consumers to policymakers, receive relevant information regarding sustainable practices and their benefits, promoting a culture of responsibility.

Potential challenges and considerations

While the marriage of exponential technology and SDG 12 promises numerous benefits, it's crucial to approach it with a critical lens. The rapid pace of technological advancement can sometimes outstrip our ability to foresee its implications. Here are some pertinent considerations:

  • Equity and access: As is the case with many technological revolutions, there's a risk of widening the divide between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'. While some parts of the world may benefit from smart cities, efficient resource use, and waste reduction technologies, others could remain bereft. Achieving SDG 12 requires that the benefits of technology are shared equitably.
  • Technological dependency: Over-reliance on technology could result in a loss of traditional knowledge and skills related to sustainability, which have been refined over centuries.
  • Ethical implications: As AI and other technologies find applications in SDG 12, ethical considerations, especially concerning data privacy and potential biases, cannot be ignored.

An exponential path to sustainable futures

Exponential technologies offer more than just incremental changes to the way we approach consumption and production; they provide tools to reimagine and reshape the entire landscape. SDG 12, at its core, is a call to rethink our global systems of production and consumption. With the power of exponential technologies, we are not only equipped to meet this call but to transcend it, driving humanity towards a future that's not just sustainable but abundant. To truly harness this potential, collaboration is key. Policymakers, technologists, business leaders, and consumers need to come together, informed by both the promises and challenges of these technologies. As we stand at this unique intersection of SDG 12 and exponential technology, the road ahead offers promise, potential, and an opportunity to redefine our collective future.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Sheri R. Hinish is a member of the Global Executive Leadership Team at EY for sustainability innovation. She has won numerous top industry awards, helped guide the strategy of Fortune 500 companies, and worked with SAP, Salesforce, UPS, Celonis, SAP Ariba, OMP, IBM, and many more in shaping thought leadership in sustainable supply chain and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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