Growth and Equity: Achieving SDGs in South Asia in the Age of 4IR

The world is on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which is affecting the way people live, work, do business, and interact. Newly emerging technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IOT), virtual reality, and 3D printing are fast becoming the new normal.


Home to a quarter of the global population – 1.8 billion people – South Asia accounts for 4% of the world’s GDP. Although the region is growing at a rate 6.8% and is striving to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, it is hampered by persistent challenges such as poverty, malnutrition, political instability, climate change, and natural disasters.


As such, it is important to explore the development challenges for South Asia in the new era of the 4IR. In this context, one of the plenary sessions at the 12th South Asia Economic Summit (SAES XII), organised by the IPS, explored the links between 4IR and SDGs at the regional level.


SDGs, South Asia, and the 4IR


The Director of the South and South – West Asia Office of the UNESCAP, Nagesh Kumar, referring the  latest assessment by the UNESCAP, warned that, with the current trajectory, Asia and the Pacific will not achieve any of the 17 SDGs by 2030. Some concerns specific to South Asia are malnutrition and stunting, infrastructure, inequality, and environment-related SDGs.


On a positive note, the 4IR could help the region to leapfrog developmental stages and close gaps in equity, Dr. Kumar further said. Echoing similar sentiments, the other panellists also noted that technology is helping disadvantaged groups obtain opportunities that did not exist previously, and accelerating the SDG agenda. Utilising big data, harnessing technologies that can reach underprivileged and differently-abled people, creating electronic agricultural markets, and using technology effectively in remittance transfers are some of the ways South Asia can benefit in the 4IR. The Aadhaar system in India, for example, uses a digital identification structure to enable other technologies such as digital cash transfer systems. This highlights the interdependence of these new digital platforms, and the need for countries using existing technologies to collaborate to build new ones.


Catching Up with the 4IR


The Former Vice Chair of the National Planning Commission of Nepal, Swarnim Wagle, stressed the importance of exploring the ways in which countries that are lagging behind their counterparts can reap the benefits of the 4IR. Unfortunately, while the world has moved on to the 4IR, most of the South Asian countries are still perfecting 2IR and 3IR technologies. Therefore, the 4IR presents a burden for the region struggling with unfinished and inadequate accomplishments of the previous technological revolutions.


The good news is that the key features of the 4IR, such as speed, scope, skills, and scale, can create new opportunities for lagging countries by providing greater fluidity and mobility and generate new jobs and new products, Dr. Wagle added. Further, the technologies of the 4IR would make weight and distance less relevant. This will change the production patterns in South Asia by allowing the region to exploit global production chains, increasing employment, and creating new paradigms, jobs, and markets. New technologies such as blockchain, which help track and record operations, can be used to boost exports and scale up traditional industries and niche businesses in South Asia.


4IR and the Social Sector


Speaking on the impact of the 4IR on the social sector, IPS Director of Research, Nisha Arunatilake, emphasised that technologies of the 4IR are expected to have a significant impact on the social sector, especially on education and health. The 4IR has opened up myriads of opportunities in these sectors. Today, digital libraries, smart classrooms, and teaching modes such as the Khan Academy are widely available. In the health sector, AI is being used to diagnose illnesses and GIS helps track health epidemic outbreaks.


However, according to Dr. Arunatilake, while technology helps fill the gaps in the social sector and thus enables the countries to achieve SDGs, it also creates inequality. Therefore, governments should be creative when harnessing the opportunities created by the 4IR.


Although Sri Lanka has a good track record when it comes to health and education-related achievements, the country is still facing huge problems in both of these sectors. As such, looking into different options such as distance learning, distance medical consultancy, and the formalisation of the informal sector are important.


Environmental Impact of the 4IR


Executive Director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute of Pakistan, Abid Suleri, drew attention to the environmental impact of the 4IR. He pointed out that the three past industrial revolutions have put enormous pressure on the natural environment by exploiting natural resources as well as by producing heaps of waste. On the contrary, as 4IR technologies use less materials and produce less wastage, it can mitigate the negative impacts created by its predecessors to a greater extent. That said, Dr. Suleri emphasised on the need of a sustainable energy strategy to meet future energy demands with the rise in population and the increase in connectivity.


Way Forward for South Asia


The way forward for the South Asian region in harnessing the benefits of the 4IR and achieving SDGs is dependent on four factors; removing the existing digital divide, creating an enabling environment for startups, encouraging research and development, and regional cooperation for technological development. Further, it is important to pool together resources to address shared concerns and challenges at the regional level (e.g. disaster warning systems), conduct joint research on low carbon pathways for industries, and use big data to efficiently track SDG performance. By focusing on skill development and improving partnerships at all levels (sectoral, national, regional, and international), the South Asian region will be at a better position to face the complex challenges created by the 4IR and reap the maximum benefits of the new digital era.