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Does bridging the standardization gap (BSG) play a pivotal role within the ITU’s (International Telecommunication Union) mission to unite the global community through evolving technology? Among the strategic objectives highlighted by the ITU’s standardization sector (ITU-T), BSG assumes a central position.

The primary aim of the BSG program is to rectify imbalances between member states, particularly developing countries, concerning their capacity to access, participate in, develop, and implement international standards set by the ITU.

“ITU fosters collaboration to support innovation on a global scale. Our work to bridge the standardization gap is central to our mission and values,” commented Seizo Onoe, Director, TSB.

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Aiming for a Holistic Approach

Notably, the mission's backbone is fortified by resources and partnerships. By actively seeking and curating thematic initiatives and partnerships, the goal of bridging the standardization gap is making progress. In terms of development, ITU-T Regional Groups spanning Africa, the Americas, the Arab region, Asia and the Pacific, and EECAT regions facilitate participation and engagement, aligning with the ITU’s mission to bridge the standardization gap globally.

Similarly, when it comes to implementation, the ITU stands ready to aid countries in adopting established ITU-T Recommendations, advocating for their integration into national plans and policy frameworks where applicable. Embracing a comprehensive approach, the ITU utilizes its support structure while nurturing collaboration to drive digital transformation across various thematic areas.

Driving Digital Transformation

The key thematic areas driving digital transformation encompass e-waste management, digital finance security, the development of smart sustainable cities, the utilization of AI for enhancing road safety, and the promotion of safe listening practices.

  • E-Waste

E-waste, also known as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), is one of the most rapidly expanding waste streams globally. The surge in digital society and consumer demand for devices has led to a termed "tsunami of e-waste" by the UN.

Between 2010 and 2022, both the generation and documented recycling of e-waste increased significantly. However, immediate action is imperative to address the health and environmental risks posed by inadequate handling and disposal. Amidst challenges, appropriate recycling methods could yield economic returns exceeding USD 62.5 billion annually.

The ITU is actively engaged in global, regional, and national efforts to address e-waste challenges. In the same context, the Global E-waste Monitor 2024 serves as a vital resource for policymakers and the industry, offering insights into the global e-waste landscape. Despite progress, the growth rate of countries implementing e-waste policies has slowed. As of June 2023, only 42% of countries have these regulations in place, which is below the ITU's target of reaching 50% by the same year.

“We must seize the economic and environmental benefits of proper e-waste management; otherwise, the digital ambitions of our future generations will face significant risks,” said Vanessa Gray, Head, Environment & Emergency Telecommunications Division, ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau.

Located within the Dubai Industrial Park, The Recycling Hub is the largest e-waste recycling facility globally, spanning 280,000 square feet. This plant is equipped to manage a diverse array of waste types, including WEEE, IT asset disposition (ITAD), refrigerant gas, and specialized waste. Concurrently, in partnership with the ITU, Saudi Arabia's Communications, Space, and Technology Commission (CST) has introduced the Development of Electronic Waste Management Regulations initiative.

  • Digital Finance Security

Established by the Security, Infrastructure, and Trust working group as part of the Financial Inclusion Global Initiative (FIGI), the Digital Financial Services Security Lab, housed at the ITU, offers resources for security testing of mobile payment applications and supports the implementation of passwordless, strong, consumer authentication.

Overall, the digital finance services (DFS) landscape involves multiple stakeholders, leading to complex security challenges that extend beyond DFS providers to include customers, network providers, mobile phone manufacturers, and other third-party entities in the ecosystem.

To address these challenges, the DFS Security Assurance Framework offers a systematic approach to security risk management, helping DFS providers and mobile network operators assess threats, vulnerabilities, and implement appropriate security measures.

Given the attractiveness of the financial services industry to ransomware gangs and the prevalence of phishing attacks, which initiate over 90% of successful cyberattacks, robust digital security measures are imperative in the financial sector.

Recognizing this, there's a growing need for standardization to enhance interoperability in payment systems and prevent the creation of isolated environments.

  • United for Smart Sustainable Cities

The United for Smart Sustainable Cities (U4SSC) is a global initiative spearheaded by the UN and coordinated by the ITU, UNECE, and UN-Habitat. Through thematic groups, the U4SSC develops action plans, technical specifications, case studies, and guidelines, offering policy direction for cities to enhance their sustainability and accelerate digital transformation. Focus areas encompass city platforms, urban economic resilience, AI integration, procurement strategies, and digital wellbeing.

A collaborative effort between UNECE and the ITU involving over 300 international experts resulted in the jointly developed definition of ‘smart sustainable cities.’ Such cities utilize ICTs and innovative approaches to enhance quality of life, urban efficiency, and competitiveness while ensuring holistic development across economic, social, environmental, and cultural realms for present and future generations.

Various elements contribute to the establishment of a smart and sustainable city, including social cohesion, human capital, and economic performance. Notably, European and US cities dominate the IESE ranking of the world’s most sustainable and smart cities.

By and large, international standards play a pivotal role in the development of smart cities by facilitating effective data utilization and implementation. These standards cover diverse areas such as data management in cloud computing, the establishment of trustworthy data infrastructures, reliability of AI technologies, data governance, processing, sharing, and more.

  • AI for Road Safety

The AI for Road Safety initiative aligns with the UN General Assembly Resolution on Enhancing Global Road Safety and the UN Secretary-General’s digital cooperation strategy. This initiative supports the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG target 3.6, which aims to reduce global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents by half by 2030; and SDG Goal 11.2, which aims to provide safe, affordable, accessible, and sustainable transport systems for all by 2030.

Bearing this in mind, AI plays a crucial role in proactive traffic safety management by utilizing sensors and computer vision systems to gather data on road infrastructure conditions and traffic events across entire networks. Additionally, through predictive models, AI can identify high-risk crash locations based on learned patterns. In regions with precise and relevant data, AI can proactively identify dangerous locations before accidents occur.

For instance, earlier this year, the Sharjah Roads and Transport Authority (SRTA) enhanced 48 traffic lights across the city with artificial intelligence. This system utilizes sensors, cameras, and advanced algorithms to collect and analyze real-time traffic data, including vehicle counts, types, and speeds. Sophisticated algorithms then process the data to swiftly identify traffic flow patterns and trends, such as peak congestion times. Moreover, in 2023, Dubai's Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) revolutionized road maintenance and safety with the deployment of the latest AI technology.

However, the effectiveness of AI models in road network safety relies heavily on the provision of quality data on road assets, traffic, and events. Lack of data provision currently limits, and will continue to limit, the performance of AI models in this domain. This is a work in progress that will continue to be addressed in time.

  • Safe Listening

According to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics from February 2024, it is projected that by 2050, nearly 2.5 billion people will experience some degree of hearing loss, with at least 700 million requiring hearing rehabilitation. Additionally, over 1 billion young adults are at risk of permanent hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices.

Safe listening hinges on three factors: decibels, time, and distance. Higher decibel levels lead to shorter listening durations. Increasing distance from the audio source can mitigate the effects of high sound levels, enabling longer listening periods.

To address the rising issue of sound-induced hearing loss from recreational exposure to loud sounds, the WHO's "Make Listening Safe" Initiative has partnered with the ITU to convene governments, health professionals, academia, and industry stakeholders. This collaboration aims to explore how ICTs can promote safe listening through policy briefs, international standards, and awareness campaigns, ensuring that people of all ages can enjoy various audio experiences without compromising their hearing.

ITU-T Q28/16, in collaboration with WHO and other experts, spearheads the development of technical standards for safe listening devices, such as mobile phones. These standards will enable users to control their exposure to loud sounds and make informed listening choices.

To facilitate the effective implementation of these standards, WHO, ITU-T, and ITU-D's Digital Inclusion Program have developed a Toolkit for Safe Listening Devices and Systems. This toolkit offers guidelines for governments, private sector entities, and civil society organizations to ensure practical implementation of the standard through public policies and industry adoption, promoting responsible enjoyment of audiovisual content and preventing sound-induced hearing loss.

The increasing popularity of video gaming and esports—captivating up to 3 billion enthusiasts globally—has led to increased concerns about prolonged and loud audio exposure, particularly related to hearing damage and loss. Earlier this year, the ITU and WHO initiated a joint effort to develop a global standard for safe listening in video gaming and esports activities, which involves hosting a series of technical workshops.

The ITU's commitment to driving digital transformation across thematic areas like e-waste management, digital finance security, smart sustainable cities, AI-enabled road safety, and safe listening practices underscores its dedication to fostering collaboration and innovation. Within its mission to unite the global community through evolving technology, bridging the standardization gap (BSG) stands as a pivotal objective highlighted by the ITU's standardization sector (ITU-T), emphasizing its central role in advancing global connectivity and interoperability.

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