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Promoting information and communication technology, access to technology for all and social innovation

In addition to being an important technology sector in its own right, information and communication technology (ICT) is important for linking agents in the innovation system. The Addis Agenda promotes the use of ICT, greater access to technology for all and social innovation


Rapid universal and affordable access to the Internet

The proportion of individuals using the Internet has quintupled at the global level since 2000 and more than 40 per cent of the global population is now using the internet. Despite the growth in terms of coverage, recent estimates by the ITU show that by the end of the 2016, 3.9 billion people (53 per cent of the world's population) will not be using the Internet, which means that they will be excluded from the social and economic benefits of connectivity.

There are also important differences across regions and country groups when it comes to Internet use. Internet use in developed countries is 81 per cent, which is considerably higher than in developing regions (40 per cent) and LDCs where Internet use is 15 per cent. In terms of regions, the highest number of people off line is in Africa (75 per cent) and the lowest in Europe (21 per cent).


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Current available data associated to access to the Internet, shows a significant growth in terms of coverage. This growth has been led by the growth in mobile networks coverage. This indicator reflects the minimum requirements for ICT access since it allows people to subscribe and use mobile cellular services. The growth in mobile coverage has helped to overcome basic infrastructure divides associated to fixed mobile network which coverage is usually associated to urban and highly populated areas. According to the International Telecommunication Union’s 2015 Measuring the Information Society Report, as of 2014, more than 99 per cent of the global population was covered by mobile networks while mobile cellular subscriptions have grown from 2.2 billion to 7.1 billion since 2005. In many countries, especially LDCs, mobile phones are the only way to access ICTs and benefit from their potential. Africa is by far the leading region in terms of growth in this indicator, which has increased a 78 per cent growth between 2010 and 2016. 

Access not only to basic ICTs but to broadband Internet through third generation (3G) and fourth generation (4G) systems are important particularly because they provide increasingly fast, reliable and high-quality access to the Internet. This means that people can access a broader set of benefits from ICTs. There are considerable differences when comparing access to fixed broadband subscriptions among regions. Despite the increased in the availability of fixed broadband subscriptions in recent years for all groups of countries, estimations show that there would be only 0.8 subscription per 100 inhabitants in LDCs and 30.1 subscriptions in developed countries by the end of 2016. In addition, the number of mobile broadband subscriptions increased from 0.8 billion in 2010 to 3.5 billion in 2015, suggesting that 47.2 per cent of world population has a broadband mobile subscription. There is an even greater broadband divide between and within countries in terms of access, speed as well as affordability. For instance, in terms of prices, Internet access (in particular broadband) remains unaffordable for many people in LDCs and in terms of access, only 29 per cent of the world's rural population is covered by third-generation (3G) mobile networks, compared with 89 per cent of its urban population.

The proportion of the world’s population living in areas without mobile coverage remains significant. The proportion covered by a mobile-broadband network will reach 84 per cent in 2016, but only 67 per cent in the case of the rural population. Just over 53 per cent of the global population is now covered by LTE or higher networks.

National broadband plans

Growth in the number of countries with National Broadband Plans (NBPs) has shown good progress over an eight-year period, but has effectively stabilized over the past three years. The number of countries with a NBP currently stands at 151, with 38 without. A further seven countries are planning to introduce a National Broadband Plan. It is important to note that even once a National Plan is approved it is subject to a constant process of revision and refinement in many countries. A further number of countries are now regularly reviewing their previous NBP. (For example, the United Kingdom has followed up its ‘Digital Britain’ Plan with a ‘Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy’. The Philippines is pulling together a number of relevant institutions as it looks to usher in an interim broadband plan.)


The introduction of ICTs in many different realms of life, for instance through progress in the Internet of Things, also raises many issues with respect to trade-offs between privacy, confidentiality and ownership of data for the sake of greater protection, security, safety, better services and efficiency. Accompanying this growth in ICT policy-making, a growing number of countries are therefore also introducing data protection legislation. According to UNCTAD, at the national level, by 2015, 107 countries had introduced legislation to secure the protection of data and privacy (including 66 developing or transition economies). However, in Asia and Africa, less than four out of every ten countries have introduced data protection and privacy laws (a large number of countries are in the process of introducing draft legislation, including Brazil, Egypt, Namibia and South Africa).

Proportion of youth/adults with ICT skills, by type of skill

Data on ICT skills are hardly available since the indicator was only recently defined. However, some countries have been collecting comparable information, so it is possible to show a range of outcomes. In certain developed countries, 65 per cent of adults could send an email with an attachment, 44 per cent could use basic formulas in a spreadsheet and 28 per cent could download and configure software. Among the limited available data available from the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report 2016 for developing countries, the lowest percentage of people that could send an email with an attachment was 3.6 per cent and the lowest share of people that could download and configure software was 0.6 per cent. In some developed countries, 27.6 per cent would have written a computer program, while in most of the developing countries where data are available, less than 2 per cent have done so.

School access to the Internet and computers

Access to the internet and computers in general depends on access to electricity. According to the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report, in many sub-Saharan African countries the lack of electricity puts constraints on the use of information and communication technology. Even if schools are connected to the grid, power surges and brownouts are frequent events. Electricity is a poor indicator for Internet access of schools though. Several countries with full electrification report Internet access rates of schools as low as 6 per cent.

The availability of computers for pedagogical purposes is another indicator with limited data availability. In some developing countries, the ratio of students to computers is 500:1, while in developed countries it can be as low as 2:1. In most countries, the ratio increases from primary to secondary education. National averages however do not provide information about the differences between urban and rural areas.

Additional regional data on information and communication technology in education is available from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

Facilitate assistive technology for persons with disabilities

According to the WHO, in many developing countries, only 5-15 per cent of people who require assistive devices and technologies have access to them. Production is low and often of limited quality. There is a scarcity of personnel trained to manage the provision of such devices and technologies, especially at provincial and district levels. In many settings where access might be possible, costs are prohibitive.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Articles 20 and 26), the World Health Assembly resolution WHA58.23 and the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities all highlight the importance of assistive devices. States are requested to promote access to assistive devices and technologies at an affordable cost and facilitate training for people with disabilities and professionals and staff working in habilitation and rehabilitation services.

Promote social innovation to support social well-being and sustainable livelihoods

There is a significant lack of data to directly assess progress in the areas of social innovation, social well-being and sustainable livelihoods. This includes the absence of information about social innovation strategies or social entrepreneurship policies adopted by countries.

Advances in this area are currently being conducted by the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD). During the 2016-2017 work period the the CSTD selected "New innovation approaches to support the implementation of the SDGs" as one of its priority themes. As part of the work on this theme the Commission addressed five emergent innovation approaches that can support social well-being and sustainable livelihood, namely: (1) mission-oriented; (2) pro-poor and inclusive; (3) grassroots; (4) social; and (5) digitally enabled open and collaborative innovation:

  • Mission-oriented innovation: It seeks to direct networked research programmes and incentive structures at national or international levels, with the purpose of directing innovation towards the achievement of specific technological, environmental or social goals.
  • Pro-poor and inclusive innovation: It seeks to extend the beneficiaries of innovation - building on ideas of innovation for the bottom of the pyramid. This approach focuses on pro-poor innovation (primarily in the private sector) which, through new concepts, low-cost labour and materials and huge scales of production, can serve markets previously ignored by traditional innovation. It also includes innovations by marginalized groups, introduced under conditions of resource constraints. 
  • Grassroots innovation: By broadening the range of actors in the innovation process to include grassroots innovation movements this approach aims at practicing innovation, in both technology and service provision, in socially inclusive ways.
  • Social innovation: It focuses on organizational innovations and new social practices designed to improve human well- being (e.g. in business models, production practices, finance, or public service delivery).
  • (Digitally enabled) open, collaborative innovation: fostering open, digital collaboration - these innovation approaches draw on and recombine multiple sources and forms of knowledge, especially through open digital collaboration.
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These approaches are highly valuable innovation spaces, in which attempts are being made to reconcile and advance the ambitions of delivering both inclusive and greener forms of social and economic development. These new innovation models can help to better address the needs, interests and perspectives of poorer, marginalized communities, and better serve non-market and environmental goals than traditional, linear models of innovation or conventional innovation systems approaches. This is particularly important given the resource constraints faced by many developing countries, the current levels of innovation capabilities and the transformative changes necessary to realize the SDGs. Moreover, this ambitious and progressive agenda offers an opportunity to foster new forms of innovations for sustainable development. It also provides considerable scope for the emergence of hybrid path to sustainability due to the recombination of new and mainstream innovation approaches. These opportunities are further enhanced by increasing digitalization trends.

For instance, developments in ICTs, such as crowdfunding, peer-to-peer lending, and social impact bonds are new ways to access capital, creating alternative sources of finance and contributing to community and business initiatives that might not get funds through traditional credit markets. Blockchain, a distributed ledger technology, where the information is recorded and shared by a peer-to-peer network using state-of-the-art cryptography, is behind Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. This technology makes transactions possible without a middle man. It is important to note that while these services have the potential to reduce the financial dimensions of the digital divide, they may also reinforce or create new ones. Furthermore, Blockchain services are still in early stages and a number of technological and regulatory issues can hinder their wide proliferation. ICTs developments have also broadened the ways to collaborate in innovation. The following Box briefly discussed some examples of this type of innovation.

Digitally enabled open and collaborative innovation: case studies
Open science allows scientists to collaborate in different stages of the research process with scientists from other disciplines and other parts of the world. In some cases, open science also calls for the collaboration of the public in citizen science projects such as e-Bird, Galaxy Zoo and others. Open science practices seek to share data, outcomes, tools, problems and the efforts of producing relevant knowledge. 
Hackatons are co-design marathons that originated in hacker culture to speed up the creation of solutions to certain problems. They typically last from one to five days and are organized around specified challenges. CAMTech Uganda Medtech Hackatons, for example, are 48-hour events that bring together clinicians, engineers, entrepreneurs, industry experts and end-users to co-create and crowd-source innovations for pressing clinical needs and barriers to care in Uganda. 
Civic innovation labs are spaces supported by local and national governments focused on generating innovations to improve governance, public service management and citizen participation. They are usually based on participatory design techniques, are often open to the public, and can be characterized by collaboration between citizens and public officials, sharing public knowledge and experimentation or prototyping new solutions to urban and regional problems. 
Open source ecology is an initiative to create 50 tools with open-source blueprints and instructions that any farm will need to be sustainable and autonomous. 
Citizen driven data is a practice that uses available data or produces new data to make visible hidden problems and processes and to create reliable information in relation to issues such as climate change, environmental pollution and inclusive development. In one project, for example, technology-enabled girl ambassadors (TEGA) are trained and offered the opportunity to collect data on their everyday experiences. The project is operational in Northern Nigeria and plans to launch in Rwanda, Ethiopia, India and Indonesia, with potential contributions to SDG5 through the analysis of gender-specific data, and the provision of digital skills that can enhance girls’ employment and other opportunities.
An example of recent collaborative efforts to achieve innovation goals is the grand challenge established by USAID as a response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, which after receiving over 1,500 ideas, it identified 14 for their potential to stop the disease and some of these ideas are already making their ways to users on the field. Additional examples of this type of innovation identified by the CSTD include those promoting innovation areas relevant for the achievement of the SDGS such as resource-efficient, and socially and environmentally friendly production in Switzerland; energy, water and urban issues (Iran); and environmental protection, and energy production and efficiency (Bulgaria).

Recent examples of pro-poor and inclusive innovation include the Mitticool low-cost fridge created in India and that can be easily and cheaply built at around USD30-50 dollars, and collaborative initiatives aimed at strengthening women’s empowerment and capacity building in poor communities such as the Unilevel Shaki initiative. Several countries as well as international organisations are also implemented social innovations in areas such as organic farming by smallholder farmers (Thailand), elderly care (UK), and women’s ICT enabled entrepreneurship (UNWOMEN).

A notable example of grassroots innovation is the One Million Cistern Project, which has enabled the construction of family-scale cisterns built by users in a large, semi-arid region of Northeast Brazil. The project was originally devised by the Semi-Arid Association, a network of more than 700 institutions, social movements, NGOs and farmers’ groups. It was later adopted by the Ministry of Social Development in 2003. Since then, over 1 million water cisterns have been built by local inhabitants with the support of the STN and the Ministry of Social Development.

To conclude, each of the ‘new approaches’ described above can make important contributions to the SDGs. However, many of the most marked impacts will come from ‘hybrids’ between them, and with more conventional approaches. In addition, for novel approaches to contribute to meeting the SDGs, diverse new organisational forms and policy mixes are required. These have to consider the different historical environmental and cultural contexts seen in developing and least developed countries and they also need to take into account the varying levels of capabilities of these countries. Moreover, to take advantage of the development potential of these new innovation approaches, countries need to take into account several considerations and challenges. These include facilitate infrastructure and network for innovation; consider different ways of financing and understand incentives for innovation; help innovation through regulations; strengthen innovation capabilities; include multiple stakeholders in setting priorities; and promote digitalization as an enabler for innovation.