Highlights from Day Three of SRI2022

Considering ethics in AI, healthcare in communities and making nature count

The ethical concerns around the development and application of Artificial Intelligence (AI), harnessing Africa’s natural capital, and taking healthcare solutions to where they are needed most, local communities, were just some of the insightful discussions held on the third day of the Sustainability, Research and Innovation Congress (SRI) 2022.

The Congress is being held in Pretoria this week, and is one of the largest convening of sustainability scholars, researchers, scientists, and innovators in the world.

Professor Emma Ruttkamp-Bloem, Head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Humanities presented in the morning plenary on AI for Environmental Sustainability, zooming in on UNESCO’s Global Recommendations on the Ethics of AI.

UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and the recommendations were adopted by 193 member states at the organization’s 41st session in November last year and can be seen here.

She argued that from a societal and environmental aspect, the use of AI technology had potentially large-scale impact, and not all of it positive – from disrespecting the right to privacy, to manipulating agency, exclusion of certain groups at levels perhaps not seen before in history and above all, environmental harm.

Asked whether the UNESCO guidelines applied to the private sector AI powerhouses, which produce a hefty carbon footprint, Ruttkamp-Bloem acknowledged, “It’s a big problem.”

She continued, “UNESCO recommendations are directed to member states, given the nature of UNESCO. But we took great care to say member states and the private business sector. The idea is that the recommendations would now be implemented within different countries, and that those countries would come up with their own ethics guidelines that would be binding to the private sector.”

The Community-Oriented Primary Care Research Unit (COPC) at UP, a transdisciplinary research entity involved in multiple implementation science projects in the primary health space, held an interactive engagement on their work. 

Dr. Mori Boshomane, a family physician at COPC, shared on the work her team conducted in vaccinating vulnerable groups such as undocumented migrants, people who use substances, and the unhoused against Covid-19 across South Africa, and the importance of working with community leaders and organizations for such projects.

“In collaboration, trust is very important to establish because we are generally ‘outside people’ and to earn the trust and build proper relationships with that community you actually need to work with the people that are already there.”

In a World Wide Fund (WWF) session titled, Africa Ecological Futures: Making Nature Count for People and the Planet, Peter Scheren, leader of the WWF Africa Ecological Futures Initiative,  presented on behalf of Nancy Rapando on food systems in the context of Africa’s ecological futures. Rapando is the Programmes Director with VEDCO Uganda.

Africa is already experiencing a triple challenge of food insecurity, biodiversity and climate change, and these issues were made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the diminishing food supply from Ukraine to the continent.

“Of the potential for agriculture expansion, 90% of potential areas for agriculture expansion are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Compared to Asia, where most of the land has been cultivated already. While the population of Africa is only 11% of the world’s population, it’s 50% of the world’s arable land,” Scheren said.

“How we produce, consume, and waste food is the single biggest threat to nature.”

Christine Mwangi, WWF’s regional coordinator for Africa Sustainable Investments and Infrastructure, highlighted nature-based infrastructure developments (NBI) in Africa which enhanced climate resilience and promoted economic competitiveness.

“Nature-based infrastructure developments in Africa are less expensive than gray infrastructure, however, many governments revert to gray infrastructure… But NBI is the future. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the world needs US$85.791 trillion to close the infrastructure gap. That’s just gray infrastructure, 11.4% of that need for gray infrastructure can be met with nature-based infrastructure. Savings of billions.”