Mark Tsang | From ICT to the SDGs: Diving into sustainability

By Mark Tsang

A birthday is not the only thing Albert Einstein and I have in common. A desire to understand the world around us through the study of science and, in turn, building technologies, grew in me from childhood. Marveling at shooting stars in the night sky led to a 26 year career in information technology. The technology that society has created in the last 250 years has provided many wonderful benefits to humanity, but at the same time has left a legacy of unintended consequences that threaten the very progress it set out to achieve. This conundrum must be solved.

Advanced digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and big data are tools that amplify our own capabilities. Used wisely, they can speed us towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), leaving no one behind. I knew that the intersection of technology and sustainability is where my experience in information and communications technology (ICT) could provide the most benefit, but I had only just heard about the SDGs and had no real knowledge of what they were about. So my first task became studying the SDGs. Where better to understand them and connect with likeminded people than on the SDG-dedicated education platform, the SDG Academy?

Tech for Good: The Role of ICTs in Achieving the SDGs was my first course with the SDG Academy, and it was right on the money. “From ICT to the SDGs” has a nice ring to it. This course really galvanized my desire to pursue this direction, and I followed it with Climate Action: Solutions for a Changing Planet, then Macroeconomics for a Sustainable Planet to give myself a broader understanding of sustainable development. This newly-acquired knowledge was great on its own, but I knew I wanted to apply it to create positive impact.

It was my wife who came across a social media article on the Australian Volunteers Program (AVP) and thought that volunteering would be a great way to get me started on my sustainability journey. The AVP is funded by the Australian government and places skilled volunteers with partner organizations around the Indo-Pacific region. The program has a foundation focused on the SDGs, and volunteers use their specific expertise to help in-country partner organizations build capacity toward objectives that they themselves specify.

My assigned role with AVP was as an ICT Mentor with the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI). I was to assist in business planning after the landing of Solomon Islands’ first subsea Internet cable in December last year. It was a perfect role for me. I had the technology and business experience to help the SICCI members develop digital commerce strategies and to advocate with the Solomon Islands government in fostering a country-wide digital business environment. I also had under my belt the Tech for Good course to guide me in applying technology in a sustainable development context. I was as ready as I could be to start my volunteer assignment, but no one could have known what was to happen next. As I was packing my bags for the flight to the capital, Honiara, coronavirus shut down the world and my assignment was put on hold. (You can read more about my volunteer assignment, and its abrupt end, here.)

Global borders are now shut. Much of my country is staying at home and self-isolating. All social activities are on hiatus and so many plans for the future are paused until further notice. However, I was still ready to get involved; so in the midst of this upheaval, I contacted an interesting organization I had discovered during my research. AgUnity is a social enterprise committed to addressing SDG 1: No Poverty for rural and remote communities worldwide. They do this through a unique and ingenious use of advanced technology, blockchain, to engender trust and secure transactions for small-holdings farmers in developing nations. The AgUnity platform is designed to support a multitude of digital services from other providers, all in support of the SDGs. This was another bullseye for where I wanted to be, and the opportunity to assist AgUnity on a project related to regulatory compliance in a new jurisdiction of operation is exciting.

One thing about lockdown is that it gives you time and opportunity to do plenty of reading and online research. The SDG Academy has many courses on offer, and I will be looking at which courses to enroll in next as I continue to steer my career in a “Tech for Good” direction. I am also applying for Master’s courses in sustainable development to gain more knowledge, qualifications, and connections in the field. As I don’t have any work or volunteer experience yet in sustainable development, I’m hoping I can demonstrate my commitment to this field through my SDG Academy study and my other efforts so far. Wish me luck.

The targets of the SDGs are currently at the boundaries of our achievability. Technology can accelerate our progress towards these targets if consciously and deliberately applied by practitioners that are well-educated and interconnected in the field of sustainable development. My own progress on this front has been through MOOC studies and, now, volunteer work. Through continual education and application in real-world scenarios, I hope to build a career and make meaningful contributions towards the SDGs and the progress of our humanity.

Mark Tsang attained his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Queensland, Australia, and followed that with three years in offshore surveying, working out of Singapore and the Middle East. He returned to Australia and began a career in information technology, which is now midway through its third decade. His last role was with a leading Australian institutional fund manager, QIC, where he was the head of a multi-team technology department. He now focuses his efforts on the intersection of information technology and sustainable development to support societal change and make tangible, positive impacts on the issues facing today’s world.