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Technology brings positive change, but ‘collateral damage’ must be minimized

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Digital technology has the potential to bring about a sustainable future, but the “collateral damage” of this transition must be mitigated, says the head of the UN’s technology strategy team, Salem Avan.

Speaking to UN News, Mr. Avan stressed the importance of acknowledging the negative aspects of new technology – which could include job losses and a drastic shift away from traditional ways of working – and finding ways to achieve a successful transition to the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, which involves the mass adoption of artificial intelligence, robotics, ‘big data’ processing, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles and blockchain technologies.

Mr. Avan, the Director of the Strategy, Policy & Governance Division of the UN’s Office of Information and Communication Technology (OICT), took part in a discussion on the impact of emerging technologies and innovation on society, held on Tuesday during the 2019 UN Civil Society Conference, taking place in Salt Lake City, USA, between 26 -28 August.

The UN, he says, has a strong focus on so-called “smart cities”, which make full use of inter-connected technology to empower disadvantaged residents and tackle challenges in housing, transport, employment and education in urban areas. 

At UN Technology Innovation Lab (UNTIL), a newly-established initiative in Malaysia, researchers and scientists are looking into ways of understanding and expanding the benefits of smart cities, promoting sustainable living, and helping to make inclusive growth possible in the country and region. Mr. Avan noted that, in many parts of the world, positive change is already taking place: “technologies are being implemented to improve the overall communal and individual lives of residents”.

Farming with no pesticides, and no soil

For example, a Malaysia-based company, Vfarm, is pioneering a technology which has the potential to have a transformative effect on the citizens of Kuala Lumpur: vertical farms. 

According to Rahman Roslan, the brand director of Vfarm, it is far easier and cheaper to buy a bag of candy in Kuala Lumpur than fresh fruit or vegetables. Vertical farms could change this harmful situation, and make nutritious food available to all city dwellers.

The company’s vertical farms in Kuala Lumpur look like laboratories, in which plants are grown in environments where heat and light are precisely controlled to ensure optimal growing conditions, and all without the use of herbicides and pesticides.

Even soil is unnecessary, and a tiny amount of water is used, compared to that needed in traditional agriculture. These factors, says Mr. Roslan, coupled with the fact that transport costs are drastically reduced, mean that the crops produced in vertical farms are healthier and have a far smaller carbon footprint.

Speaking to UN News during the Conference, Mr. Roslan explained that, whilst his company’s vertical farms are currently only producing around one per cent of Kuala Lumpur’s food, he can foresee a future in which the majority of crops in cities around the world are grown in a similar way.

Bridging the digital divide

All elements of society must, said Salem Avan, actively assist lesser-developed cities to integrate advanced technologies, and reduce the stark disparity in the digital divide that exists between richer and poorer parts of the world, as well as within cities:

“While it is inarguable that technology is beneficial to improving the daily lives of many, it also runs the risk of excluding certain urban inhabitants who either lack the resources or the capabilities to adapt to the rapid changes that digitization entails”.

One of the solutions he proposes, is to build partnerships across different sectors, including local and national authorities, civil society and others, to ensure that sustainability, and making sure that no one is left behind, are key goals when new technology is introduced.

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First-of-Its-Kind Blueprint for Data Policy Adopted by City of Helsinki

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The World Economic Forum today released Empowered Data Societies: A Human-centric Approach to Data Relationships. The framework put forth in the white paper ensures that data is used in responsible and innovative ways to create progress while respecting, valuing and empowering people and communities.

As part of a year-long partnership with the City of Helsinki, the World Economic Forum convened a global community of technologists, anthropologists and policy and data experts to develop a new way to create data policy oriented around the values, needs and expectations of people.

By leading with the interests of those generating data or most impacted by resulting insights, this approach mitigates the trade-offs between innovation and privacy.

The Forum worked with a dedicated team of data practitioners and policy-makers with the City of Helsinki to apply this new methodology to develop a dedicated anonymization pipeline for complex personal data that will allow for maximal data utilisation anchored in respect for individuals and their privacy. New pathways, processes and tools were also created to document a best practice blueprint for human-centric proactive services, which Helsinki will open-source for future expanded use and improvement.

“Throughout this year-long partnership we were motivated by the principle that human-centricity is neither a ‘nice to have’ nor a ‘deluxe’ approach to data. Human-centricity can and should be the foundation upon which to build empowered data societies. With the release of this paper, we aim to share frameworks, insights and best practices so policy-makers around the world can adopt and build systems that use data in responsible and innovative ways to create progress that legitimately serves people and communities,” said Sheila Warren, Deputy Head of the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network, World Economic Forum.

The City of Helsinki created several tools to enable efficient utilization of extremely sensitive data. The main principle behind the blueprint is that the storage, anonymization and processing of data are separated and that different individuals perform each task.

Forging a way to create entirely new data analytics capabilities for Helsinki has resulted in a new technical environment for treating sensitive personal data with the highest ethical, data protection and cybersecurity standards. This environment will be used as the city continues accelerating its use of data to provide more personalized and timely services for its residents and visitors.

“Helsinki’s commitment to serving its citizens requires going beyond traditional service provision and tapping into the full potential of data to deliver the best quality services in the most efficient way possible. Using data responsibly requires the development and implementation of new practices that are human-centric – those that assure citizens’ interests are respected and prioritized at all times, empower citizens to improve their own lives through data, and increase participation in the overall ecosystem by building trustworthy data relationships,” said Jan Vapaavuori, Urban Activist and Mayor of Helsinki (2017-2021).

Much of the data needed to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges is siloed in public and private sources. Even for social good, the various regulatory, commercial and social risks prevent data sharing. The Shaping the Future of Technology Governance: Data Policy Platform works with partners from all sectors, regions and industries to develop agile and innovative approaches to accelerate the responsible use of data and empower stakeholders across the entire data ecosystem.

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Digital billboards bring real-time air pollution data to Nairobi

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Image source: UN Environment

Digital billboards around the Kenyan capital today started to live stream Nairobi’s real-time air pollution in an effort to increase air quality awareness among the city’s 4.7 million inhabitants.

The initiative – by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), in collaboration with IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company, Safaricom, a telecommunications provider in Kenya, Alpha and Jam Ltd and Metropolitan Star Lite Ltd,  Out Of Home (OOH) media – provides real-time air quality information for some of the most harmful type of air pollution, fine airborne particles, known as PM2.5. The pilot aims to engage the public by streaming real-time air pollution information to digital billboards at 4 critical locations in the city: Moi Avenue, University Way, Mbagathi Way and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

PM2.5causes serious health issues, including asthma, lung cancer, and heart disease. Exposure to PM2.5has also been associated with low birth weight, increased acute respiratory infections, and stroke.

“Real time air quality monitoring will help us with the issuance of health advisories as well as for formulation of smart traffic controls that minimize congestion,” said Lawrence Mwangi, Assistant Director of Environment in charge of pollution control at the Nairobi County Government. “Dynamic advisories demonstrated through this collaboration will help people limit their exposure to harmful pollutants.”

Around 3 billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves burning biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal. More than 50% of premature deaths due to pneumonia among children under 5 are caused by the particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution.  Outdoor air pollution in both cities and rural areas was estimated to cause 3 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012 with 88% of those premature deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries.

Policies and investments supporting cleaner transport, energy-efficient housing, power generation, industry and better municipal waste management would reduce key sources of urban outdoor air pollution.  Most residents of the city do not have access to real-time air quality data and consequently, are often unaware of the harmful levels of air they breathe.

“Action on air pollution, which is responsible for millions of premature deaths a year, is critical – efforts should focus on high-risk communities, such as people living in informal urban settlements,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “Innovations to reach and engage the local community and decision-makers alike, can only elevate the understanding of the impacts of air quality and help create an enabling environment improve human and ecosystem health.”

“We recognize that some of the world’s most vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected by poor air quality,” said IQAir CEO Frank Hammes.  “Through our partnership with UNEP, we are able to leverage real-time air quality monitoring data, machine learning and data visualization to help identify those that are most affected by global air pollution. The real-time visibility of the impact of air pollution on mankind, combined with the outreach and support that the UNEP offers, can help governments and communities around the world take actions that lead to cleaner, healthier air.”

The Nairobi air quality awareness demonstration project is the result of a unique collaboration between the UN, the private sector, academia, non-governmental and local governmental organizations and is expected to accelerate efforts to change how transport, waste management and other services are managed in cities so that air pollution from these activities is significantly reduced, if not eliminated.

“This partnership lies very much at the heart of our sustainability agenda that seeks to address environmental issues such as air pollution which remains a major challenge especially in urban centres. We intend to use our digital platforms and expansive network infrastructure to support the air quality monitoring project to expand across more urban areas in Kenya. We will also foster partnerships with other stakeholders including regulators, relevant ministries and private organizations to help build a compressive and sustainable air quality monitoring system in the long run”, said Peter Ndegwa, CEO, Safaricom.

The demonstration project comes as the world celebrates the 2nd International Day for Clean Air and blue skies on 7 September, this year held under the theme, Healthy Air, Healthy Planet. The Day calls for increased international cooperation at the global, regional and sub-regional levels. It provides a platform for strengthening global solidarity as well as political momentum for action against air pollution and climate change, including the increased collection of air quality data, carrying out joint research, developing new technologies and sharing best practices.

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Artel to strengthen position as a leading innovator in Central Asia

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Artel Electronics LLC (Artel), Central Asia’s leading home appliance and electronics manufacturer and one of Uzbekistan’s largest companies, continues to strengthen its Research and Development (R&D) position to bring new, innovative products to its customers.

Artel’s custom R&D center in Tashkent is one of the most extensive manufacturing research facilities in Central Asia. The center’s designers, engineers and technicians develop new technologies to advance the next generation of contemporary products for the modern home.

The expansion of Artel’s R&D center is at the heart of the company’s forward-looking strategy. In the near future, the company will strengthen its in-house expertise through employing over 100 additional specialists and by attracting leading international talent. The center will also establish a number of departments dedicated to research priorities, including in automation and robotics. Moreover, to capitalize on international trends, Artel is exploring establishing branches of the R&D center overseas, including in Turkey and China, and partnership opportunities with technical universities worldwide.

The R&D center also plays a central role in the identification and training of the next generation of Uzbek technicians, designers and engineers. The R&D center has had long lasting cooperation with the Department of Mechatronics and Robotics at the Islam Karimov Tashkent State Technical University, and a branch of the center focusing on automation and robotization of production operates on site. Since establishment, the Center has provided state-of-the-art training to over 250 young specialists who now work throughout Artel’s operations. By investing in and nurturing homegrown talent, Artel channels expertise, ideas and creativity into its operations.

Rustem Lenurovich, Director of the R&D Center, said: “At Artel, we know that the constant development of new, sophisticated products and processes is fundamental to our business and growth. Through our hard work and innovation, and by investing in energetic young talent, we will continue to deliver the most advanced appliances and electronics to our customers. We look forward to strengthening our R&D position even further in the coming years.”

Artel’s R&D facility was established in 2016, and the main center was opened in 2017. The center’s team of specialists develop technologies to continuously refresh the company’s product portfolio and optimize production processes. The onsite VR laboratory and pilot production facilities are used to create and test prototypes. In the first half of 2021 alone, the center initiated over 30 projects. The center has also recently partnered with Gree company on the development of washing machine and air conditioner technologies.

Artel Electronics LLC manufactures a wide range of household appliances and electronics, and operates in all regions of Uzbekistan. The company currently exports its products to over 20 countries throughout the CIS and the Middle East, and is also the regional partner of Samsung and Viessmann.

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