Beneficial Artificial Intelligence (AI) and sustainable development through Circularity
Updated: Jul 25
As artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) become more ubiquitous general-purpose technologies, their potential to resolve some of the world’s most pressing planetary challenges, including the apex challenge of climate change, has put them at the top of global research and policy agendas, often under the cloak of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Moreover, the global COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that regional structural economic deficiencies and intersectional inequalities are amplified as the economic and social value of the digital economy increases exponentially.
For Africa, beyond the known potential risks and harms associated with AI systems, the aforementioned challenges arguably highlight fragilities that already plague the continent and will no doubt be worsened if countries continue to design and implement mitigation and adaptation approaches to digitalisation, inequality, and climate change (which have cross-cutting policy implications) with incoherent siloed approaches.
AI presents the opportunity to support efforts that could fundamentally reshape the economy into one that is regenerative, resilient, and fit for the long term; particularly if AI is based on the principles of a circular economy model (CEM), which is underpinned by dynamic and innovative business models, new products and services, institutions, and infrastructure that can create unique, inclusive, and reformative systems across all industries. This has the potential to mitigate rising carbon emissions, reduce socioeconomic inequality, and facilitate a structural transition towards diversified, sustainable, equitable, and thriving African markets in the coming decades.
There is also general consensus that deploying AI systems based on the principles of circularity enhances possibilities to “build back better” particularly in an effort to create post-COVID-19 economic reconstruction and recovery.
Some have argued that an AI-based CEM transition has potential to boost the achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in Africa, and to promote equitable environmentally conscious approaches to tackling the overlapping disastrous impacts of climate change and persistent multidimensional structural inequalities.
While some African communities have been using circular principles for generations, compared with economies at a later stage of development and mature AI ecosystems, many African economies still have significant gaps that will prove problematic for responsible AI deployment, in isolation, and as a tool to harness circularity. These challenges include infrastructure deficits, low digital capabilities (digital skills and literacy), weak capital market maturity, limited funding for research and development (R&D), and inadequate legal and institutional frameworks to regulate dynamic new technologies, to name a few. Furthermore, as the continent with the majority of late technology adopters, many African countries still lack the enabling foundational digital systems, data economy endowments, soft and hard information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure, and critical mass and associated network effects to reap productivity and efficiency gains from the deployment of disruptive technologies, in various ecosystems. These deficits are exacerbated by weak institutional endowments, low levels of industrialisation, informality, policy and regulatory incoherence, and weak human capital development.
Using circularity to reform the global organisation of industrial value chains combined with the disruptive potential of AI-based systems may offer new opportunities to enhance industries without smokestacks (IWoSS) and ancillary phenomena. These industries are among Africa’s most dynamic economic industries with the highest potential to create jobs. They are network industries, value-added manufacturing, and tradable services, such as remote office services, financial services, tourism, ICT-based services, agro-processing and transit trade (logistics), to name a few. Coincidentally, these are also some of the industries that will benefit the most from data-driven systems, such as AI and the CEM.
While they have always been earmarked as priority industries to create spillover effects that promote structural economic transformation and address issues such as food security, climate change, spatial inequality, and unemployment; the aftermath of the Pandemic has heightened the need for transversal market reforms in these industries spurred by policy and regulatory convergence, which are critical in shaping the landscape within markets where these IWoSS increasingly underpin the growth, productivity, and competitiveness of an economy.
Since both AI systems and circularity are underpinned by disruption, innovative business models, and new outputs; leveraging AI in IWoSS based on circularity principles can improve persistent structural economic defects that many African countries face, such as: reducing energy deficiencies and re-engineering economy-wide value-addition in supply chains across wells, fields, urban structures, mines and quarries — ultimately promoting more sustainable “green” energy sources, promoting market diversification, reducing extractive raw material dependency, investing in climate-smart agriculture and mining practices, and minimising waste, amongst other benefits.
Lastly, to inform policies and strategies, creating an evidence base is crucial to understand the institutional and structural economic reform required to combine AI-based systems with other global economic paradigms such as circularity. As new business models and disruptive technologies such as AI emerge, the opportunities for industry-wide transformation can be harnessed to improve livelihoods across the continent. Both AI-based systems and a CE framework have immense potential to support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of achieving sustainable inclusive economic growth. If the risks and harms associated with AI are mitigated and the CEM is contextualised to African realities — combining the potential of AI with a vision for Circularity represents a significant, largely untapped, opportunity to harness disruptive technologies to address the most pressing challenges of our time and ultimately support more contextually relevant sustainable, inclusive, and just outcomes in Africa.