Trends that will shape the future of data and development in 2024

As 2024 kicks off, the world faces a confusing mix of optimism and pessimism in the realm of data, technology, and development. Emerging technologies based on artificial intelligence (AI) promise to transform food systems, climate action, service delivery, and much more. Meanwhile, we’re just beginning to understand the harms they can inflict, rights they can undermine, and safety risks they can unleash. The stakes for data and technology governance couldn’t be higher.

After 2023 saw significant national and regional regulatory steps in places as diverse as the EU, China, and the US, the world will come together in 2024 to negotiate a Global Digital Compact under the banner of the Summit of the Future in September. Global challenges form the backdrop of this two-day summit, including the surge of misinformation surrounding conflicts in Ukraine, the Middle East, and elsewhere, a wave of elections affecting forty percent of the world’s population, and the breakneck pace of AI development which is disrupting all aspects of economic, political, and social life. 

Predictions for technology in 2024 are full of corporate power plays, the race for dominance in generative AI, ongoing battles between big tech and government regulation, and so on. Geopolitics loom large as always with all eyes on big players like the EU, US, and China, and powerful groupings like the G7 and G20, to see what steps they take on data and technology in the coming year. Meanwhile, digital transformation and AI have shot up the global development agenda, and many low- and middle-income countries are positioning themselves to get in on the action. Governments around the world are grappling with how to plan for the future in the face of unprecedented rates of technological change.

How will the interplay of these global and national forces shape data and technology governance? Here are three trends I’m watching in 2024: 

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1. Governments will decide the future of multilateralism.

In response to cascading crises faced by the global community since 2020, United Nations (UN) member states decided to hold a Summit of the Future in 2024, billed as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance cooperation on critical challenges and address gaps in global governance… and move towards a reinvigorated multilateral system.” At the Summit, member states will agree on a Pact for the Future covering sustainable development and financing for development; international peace and security; science, technology and innovation and digital cooperation; youth and future generations; and transforming global governance. 

Member states also agreed to negotiate a Global Digital Compact (GDC) to “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all.” The GDC will be annexed to the Pact making it part of the global agreement. This is significant for two reasons: (1) It demonstrates that the digital agenda is important enough to get its own process, and (2) it reflects that, as data and emerging technologies are among the most under-governed spaces, they merit special attention at a summit aiming to transform multilateralism. The Secretary-General has also established a High-Level Advisory Body on AI to feed into the GDC and Pact for the Future.

Whether or not the summit is a success (and irrespective of one’s definition of success) this is a decisive moment for multilateralism. It will set the trajectory of global cooperation for the foreseeable future.

Can the Summit deliver what the world needs on digital cooperation, data governance, and AI? The overall outlook for the Summit is discouraging with considerable polarization over protracted wars and low- and middle-income country frustration over the rich world’s inaction on climate and financial reform. For digital technology, data governance and AI, multi-stakeholder governance is critical because of the pervasiveness of new technology, the unevenness of its impacts, and the outsized role of the private sector in developing new technology and shaping global markets. 

A criticism of the negotiating format for the GDC is that 20th century global institutions are not up to the task of governing new technology because they privilege nation states and lack adequate mechanisms for non-state actors to play a meaningful role. Even with the open consultations on the GDC that were held in 2023 and are planned for 2024, civil society and technical actors have criticized the GDC process for not being meaningfully included. Commentators also worry that the dominance of governments in GDC negotiations will cause geopolitics to skew the outcome to the detriment of human rights and inclusion. But if the institutions we have are not adequate to produce the institutions we need, how can new, essential approaches and institutions be designed, discussed, and established?

There is reason for optimism. The GDC negotiations offer a much-needed opportunity to establish a single global framework for the governance of data, AI, and other emerging technologies. And, while there’s still room and time for improvement, the consultations offer concrete ways for non-state actors to participate. 

In recent years, the global community has seen a proliferation of initiatives, countries, and non-state actors coming together to establish norms, principles, and frameworks. A useful start, this patchwork of norms, rules, and regulations results in overlaps, gaps, and inconsistencies. These weaknesses create more confusion than they solve and are ripe for exploitation by malign state and non-state actors. The world needs a single normative framework to govern digital cooperation, data, and AI—based on universal values of equity, inclusion, transparency, and accountability and rooted in existing human rights frameworks. The global community also needs governing mechanisms that do a better job of bringing together government, business, civil society, and technical actors to shape principles, standards, and actions. Ultimately, multilateralism only works when governments decide it’s in their interest to participate. GDC consultations to date have shown that governments are investing time and energy into these negotiations because they want and need such a global framework, even if they disagree on its scope and character. 

Finally, it is precisely because the digital agenda demands cooperation among state and non-state actors that the GDC is the perfect test case to reimagine an updated framework for multilateralism that gives real meaning to including business, civil society, academia, and diverse communities.

2. This is a big year for democracies around the world. 

This year, more than 40 countries representing more than 40 percent of the world’s population and a significant share of global GDP will hold elections. The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall calls it “Democracy’s Super Bowl” happening in a year when the latest data from International IDEA indicates a global decline in democracy. Upcoming electoral processes will be most meaningful for the citizens of these countries, but the global implications will also be significant.

Recent history suggests that we will see more misinformation, AI-generated deep fakes, and cyber interference in campaigns and electoral processes. As with many other aspects of AI applications, no one—not even its designers and creators—knows exactly how this technology will be used or what the effects will be. What we do know and have seen before is that the application of technology in this way threatens the integrity of electoral processes and will likely contribute to further polarization and erosion of trust in public institutions.

A less obvious byproduct of having elections in so many countries in the same year, is the general slow-down of day-to-day governance. When public officials are focused on campaigning, there’s less room to propose and pass legislation or to exercise accountability. Governments may be less ambitious in global negotiations or be so preoccupied with domestic affairs that they leave their diplomats with limited instructions. Leaders that emerge from electoral processes that are mired by technology-enabled interference may be less able or willing to engage constructively in multilateral negotiations and may see less value in global governance of data and technology. This doesn’t bode well in a year when global digital cooperation is urgently needed amid rare opportunities to establish foundational global frameworks like the Global Digital Compact. 

At the same time, elections dominating news around the world provides a platform to remind us why good data and facts matter. To borrow the tagline of the Washington Post, “democracy dies in darkness.”

High quality, well-governed data are fundamental to a healthy democracy and a thriving social contract. This is why the global community needs to invest in robust national data systems to underpin our digital economies and another reason that we need a global framework for governing data and digital systems.

3. AI will influence development, but how and for whom is an open question.

There is a lot of optimism around the potential for AI applications to address major challenges across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Whether and how governments are able to harness AI to deliver for their people depends on a mix of domestic and global factors. Development partners are increasingly prioritizing AI but their goals may be at odds with those of the governments they are meant to be supporting.

National leadership and politics play a significant role in determining what legal, regulatory, and policy decisions are adopted and what investment decisions are taken. The wave of elections in so many countries will determine what kind of national leadership prevails, and what the government’s approach to AI will be. Other factors such as countries’ vulnerability to environmental, economic, and other shocks, their level of indebtedness, and their position in global markets affect governments’ ability to attract private investment and drive domestic innovation in data and technology. The Summit of the Future is set to touch on some of these issues and could help even the playing field by reforming multilateral institutions. 

Development cooperation will continue to play a key role in expanding AI access around the world. Countries need investments in foundational infrastructure such as connectivity and computing power, in human capacity across technical, analytical, and governance functions, and create the policy and regulatory environment that both nurtures private sector innovation and governs AI that is responsible, equitable, and safe. Old and new development partners are responding. 

The EU has the digital component of its Global Gateway program. GIZ, the German technical agency, has its FAIR Forward program. At the UK AI Safety Summit in November last year, the UK, Canada, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and USAID announced an £80m ‘AI for Development’ flagship program. China is investing heavily through its Digital Silk Road initiative. Each development investment comes with its own priorities and can create tensions for recipients internally and with their partners.

How these large development investments evolve in 2024 alongside multilateral negotiations on the Pact for the Future and national politics will set critical trajectories for years to come. 

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There’s still time to create the digital world we want to see. 

The Power of Data Initiative is one of many global initiatives that can help set AI and digital development on a positive trajectory by keeping national leadership at the center. It is one of twelve High Impact Initiatives launched at the SDG Summit to accelerate progress on the Goals. At the heart of the Power of Data are cutting-edge national data partnerships, announced by an initial group of 15 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America and supported by the UK. Driven by strong political leadership, these partnerships will strengthen national data systems to revolutionize decision-making, accelerate countries’ digital transformation agendas, and open up new economic opportunities. 

This strong political leadership has historically been missing. A mix of domestic and global pressures have led to a proliferation of fragmented data, digital, and AI initiatives.

The national data partnerships will marshall political leadership to drive coherence and complementarity among existing initiatives and actors in alignment with national priorities and plans. 

The Power of Data countries are at the forefront of shaping these 2024 trends working to create a virtuous cycle of data and technology governance and development globally and nationally. As a co-lead of the Power of Data initiative, my organization (the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, which is also behind the Data Values campaign) hopes to see a new way of doing business emerge in 2024 where data and technology are well-governed and harnessed to drive development in support of national and local priorities.

The AI wave is moving fast – faster than any technological change humanity has ever seen. But, it is still early days.

There is still time to set the parameters for the digital world we want—one that is grounded in values of equity, accountability, inclusion and human rights—and to take steps to ensure that benefits are distributed fairly.

Contending with the rapid pace of technological change is testing our global and national institutions and changing the way international cooperation takes place. As the negotiations for the Summit of the Future and the Global Digital Compact kick-off soon, I hope that member states don’t miss the opportunity to establish a global governance framework that supports a fair digital future and enables strong national data and technology systems. Meanwhile, the rest of us must continue to find opportunities to engage with and support efforts to create the future that we want to see. 

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