Bridging the Global Technology Gap

UNTIL is a quite unique organization as Dianne Dain explains. She is currently the head of partnerships for UN Technology Innovation Labs as the organization is fully spelled out.

She was a founding patron of the Prince’s Trust, Women Supporting Women programme; the National President of American Mothers, founded by Eleanor Roosevelt; the Global Ambassador for Insperity (educational games); and the Executive Director for Operations of the Poverty Museum, a Grameen Social Initiative. She was named the California Mother of the Year and the 75th National American Mother of the Year in 2010. 

What is UNTIL and why was it founded?

The UN Technology Innovation Labs (UNTIL) are designed in response to Member States requesting support to help bridge the growing technology gap between countries and to operate as a space where new cutting-edge technologies can be developed, shaped, and mobilized in support of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). The driving vision is to make technology inclusive.

What are your goals and how do they fit in the overall?

Each UNTIL Lab functions as a start-up environment and operates as a platform for collaborative problem solving between UN resources, the private sector, academia, and civil society. The Labs link these platforms with innovators, mentors, and implementers from across the globe as well as support the global exchange of ideas and resources. UNTIL offers development and technology advisory support and guidance that is facilitating problem solving through hands-on-workshops, immersion-learning, and incubated projects.

How do you work and who do you work with?

We are an initiative of the United Nations Office of Information and Communication Technology (OICT), UNTIL has established 4 Labs in Cairo Egypt, Espoo Finland, Haryana India, and Cyberjaya Malaysia.

Each UNTIL Lab focuses on thematic areas connected to the SDGs which are central to the needs and goals of each individual Labs specific geolocation. The Labs use AI, Blockchain, IoT and other emerging technology tools to develop solutions that will be available globally to all Member States.

How can someone pitch to work with you?

We work through the member states invitation and the UNTIL’s value proposition can be best summarized as follows: when technology succeeds in solving a problem in our lives, it becomes invisible. The ticking of a clock so constant as to fade into the background. Too often, we begin to take this transformative force for granted. But technology is not, by nature, an inclusive phenomenon. Its availability in every context cannot be assumed. And as the clock ticks on unnoticed, lives are lost. The right combination of capabilities and conditions must be created to give technology a more humane dimension and allow the benefits it can confer to be enjoyed more widely. The right connections must be made, at the correct moment. This is our role at UNTIL. Until technology includes all. 

What are your key projects at this point and how did they do?

We are still in early stages, so one of our key activities this year was the “Reboot the Earth” (#ClimateReboot) social coding event. This was launched with the UN Youth Envoy and was an organization-wide initiative, with all four labs participating. There was also an online competition and a hackathon in New York City. Events at the Labs were for two days, culminating in an event at UN headquarters during General Assembly Week. Over 1,000 youth applied to participate in these events. Teams at each Lab competed to devise new technology solutions to mitigate climate change, and the winners at each location are now exploring ways of building prototypes and being incubated within UNTIL offices.

The winning solutions included:

  • Egypt: A mobile application that uses sensors for measuring water needs and temperature of crops across agriculture fields.
  • Finland: A tool that utilizes cutting-edge direct air capture technology to extract CO2 as part of public transportation, which could enable cities to go beyond carbon neutrality.
  • Germany: An AI platform that allows communities to collaborate on data collection to solve climate challenges.
  • India: A solution combining machine learning, virtual platform and knowledge sharing to empower marginalized women.
  • Malaysia: A solution combining blockchain and gamification to identify agricultural smallholders of palm oil plantations and track goods along the supply chain, promoting responsible production and consumption.
  • United States: A video game that helps raise awareness on the importance of sport as an agent for change for climate issues.
  • Virtual: An app that crowdsources greenhouse gas measurements and is accessible by local and global communities.

What are you next steps and what will be upcoming highlights?

We have multiple labs opening in 2020, including four in partnership with the UN Technology Bank for the Least Developed Countries. 

In response to requirements to establish a clear legal framework for co-creation of digital solutions with private and public sector partners, UNTIL established the UNTIL Open Source and Intellectual Property (OS and IP) Advisory Group. This Group is working to address legal issues and propose legal frameworks for UNTIL and the whole UN system to engage with relevant stakeholders in co-creating, co-developing and open/close-sourcing relevant technology solutions. The OS and IP Advisory Group is composed of experts in the legal, opensource communities and technology innovation fields who meet regularly to build a legal framework for UNTIL to establish “shareable” technology solutions that will maximise technology adoption. A second physical meeting was held in Helsinki in July. The OS and IP Advisory Groups meets online monthly.

At both the headquarters and Lab level UNTIL teams have been engaging with UN funds, agencies, and programmes to partner and this will form the basis of UNTIL’s technology implementation and delivery. These engagements include: WHO, ESCWA, UNICEF and many others.

New technologies and their rapid progress create lots of fear in our societies. What will our future look like? Are these fears justified?

We have serious concerns, especially regarding the Climate Crisis and its impact on vulnerable and marginalized populations. Women and children will suffer the greatest impact of all these rapid technology changes if we do not include them in early stage technology development and use gender disaggregated data collection. The intersection of climate change and migration is a fragile condition and technology innovations can provide solutions or further exacerbate and accelerate the inequalities and harm.