Follow On

Sustainable development goals through the care and concern for environment and good governance is trending all over the world. An insight

The corporate world today is buzzing with new terms like ESG (Environment, Society and Governance) and SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) as shareholders and world citizens are holding CEOs accountable for preserving the planet for future generations and will not permit them to sacrifice sustainability on the altar of profits and shareholder value maximisation.

In Japan, a new movement has started called Society 5.0, which is expected to sweep across the world as well. Last but not the least, the sweep of artificial intelligence is expected to add over15 trillion dollars or over 14 per cent to global GDP by 2030 and a trillion to India by 2035. How do these exciting developments interconnect and how do we develop an agenda for people, companies and society in a developing economy like India?

Let us start with understanding the SDGs. Formulated by the United Nations as goals for nations to achieve by 2030, the 17 goals start with no poverty and elimination of hunger, point out specific areas for improvements in education, skills, natural resource harvesting and climate change and some other important areas and end with a specific goal for collaboration. This naturally converges with the vision for Society 5.0 as the world moves from the hunter-gatherer (1.0) to agrarian (2.0) to industrial (3.0) to digital (4.0) to a society where the quality of living gets enhanced by new technologies and wiser choices.

Artificial Intelligence (and Machine Learning) has emerged as a recipe for moving business thinking from descriptive historical analysis of events to predictive and prescriptive analytics that enrich decision-making. There is a consensus today that what developing economies like India need from artificial intelligence it is not brute force automation and autonomy of machines by eliminating jobs but a more value-adding assistive or augmentative approach.

A study by ICRIER (Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations) has related innovative uses of AI in various parts of the world to the attainment of each SDG. Cases in point are analysis of day and night satellite images in various African countries to predict where and when poverty could hit hardest and smart crop image capture and analysis of crops in Australia to pre-empt failures and resultant hunger. Canada has used sensors to always ensure clean water availability while a unique application called SEEING AI is helping visually changed folks to increase their learning efficacy. Computer Vision is helping countries solve waste management and machine learning is providing global suggestions on climate action.

In our own country, the Smart Cities Mission has used many predictive analytics tools for traffic management through command and control centres and two extraordinary initiatives that are scaling rapidly are Educate Girls which is using AI and ML to predict when a girl child might drop out of school in the rural areas of Rajasthan, MP and UP, and Lighthouse Communities which are trying to predict which skills course could be the right program for individual youth from City Slums and motivate them to secure sustainable livelihoods and stay in their chosen employment and entrepreneurship pursuit for a long period of time. There are many areas, which need to be explored to further the cause of ESG and Society 5.0.

One imperative is the enhancement of capabilities in SME clusters with the resultant deurbanisation and distribution of jobs that can eventually put another two hundred million Indians into gainful vocations. Another is the use of digital tools in healthcare to improve health outcomes everywhere, particularly in the identified “aspirational districts.”

The opportunities of Society 5.0 can only be achieved in societies, countries and even cities and communities that embrace the principles that enabled the best in the West-Open and free societies, the rule of law and dispersal of power in a way that inequalities do not open huge chasms of economic and ideological disparity. In our country, we have a long way to go but the changes must be made if we are to leave behind a happy planet for future generations.

Finally, an example from my career demonstrates the difficulty one faces in developing economies to further an ESG or Society 5.0 agenda. A few years after I was appointed as the Managing Director of a struggling young company, Zensar Technologies in Pune, I was talking to a group of financial analysts about my determination to take a Triple Bottom Line (People, Planet & Profits) approach to build the company. A cynic asked, “In a company that has not paid a dividend to its shareholders for decades, shouldn’t profits be the only focus?”

Ten years later with increasing profits and jumping market value of the company’s shares and a reputation of being an exemplar in people management as well as doing good social work in the city and the other locations where we had centres and offices around the world, nobody asked that question again. The value of an ESG approach is manifold. It multiplies the good that a company can do and makes every stakeholder including shareholders extremely happy. Now is that a cause worthy of committing one’s life to? I would certainly think so!