Gender Justice: Artificial Intelligence and the Circular Economy

The devastating impacts of climate change, extractive global value chains and growing inequality associated with advanced capitalism require a fundamental shift in the global economic order.

Women who exist at the intersections of other inequalities – class, race, ethnicity, urban/rural gap – are disproportionately affected by climate, technological and now pandemic shocks. They are also unevenly concentrated amongst the poor in Africa and other parts of the Global South.

The last decade has seen the advancement of ideas and practices, which have shifted from the linear economic model now popularly described as “take, make, dispose“, have wrought these negative outcomes on a planetary scale. The current system of production and consumption in which resources are extracted, turned into products, used, and discarded is evolving to a more circular economy. The focus of such an economy is not only on ways that minimise resource use, maximise reuse and recycling, but on the value preservation as well as value creation.

Sustainability in this context is not about neutralising the ecological impacts of industrialisation but creating production systems that have a positive social and economic impact. Notwithstanding those advanced technologies such as Big Data and artificial intelligence (AI) that have the potential to offer solutions to some of these intractable global policy problems, in the context of circularity or under their current trajectory they could potentially exacerbate existing inequalities and injustices.

A Meeting Point for New Economic and Technological Paradigms

Some proffer circularity or the circular economy (CE) as a concrete solution to Africa’s economic development challenges as it is regenerative by design. By approaching local issues with design and systems thinking, CE can develop high-quality value chains with products and materials that stay in circulation and contrary to the linear economy in which resources are disposed of. That is, by relying on system-wide changes, circular economy proponents aim to redefine the design of products and services whilst minimising negative impacts.

An important distinction of CE models from traditional linear economic systems is that the CE seeks to redefine markets by adapting them to social, economic and environmental constraints. The current technological revolution has the potential to support the advancement of this shift to a new sustainable economic model. This begs the questions: does combining the potential of AI with a vision for a CE represent a significant and largely untapped opportunity to tackle the issues of sustainable development in Africa? And can this be done while promoting and preserving human rights, and reducing inequality?

To achieve a meeting point where circularity and AI technologies can equitably advance markets and livelihoods, discussions about circularity would have to go beyond the environmental and economic aspects of sustainability. Economic and social aspects, too, need to be carefully considered in the transition towards a CE, such that economic value creates better social conditions for all humans.

Similarly, it is important that AI adoption is not skewed towards technologically determinist solutions that ignore potential violations of human rights and perpetuate existing multidimensional inequality, particularly in labour markets. The inequitable gender and power dimensions of the “economy” and “technology” are sufficiently documented to require that any transformation of the economy addresses existing social issues that hinder an equitable and inclusive society.

As both AI and the CE are emerging fields in Africa, Research ICT Africa and the African Circular Economy Network have developed a partnership to better understand how a gender responsive AI-driven circular economy in Africa can be realised. The research falls under RIA’s Africa Just AI Project that seeks to facilitate the development of a dynamic, people-centred AI research, policy and innovation ecosystem on the continent. The three-year project seeks to take a research-to-policy-influence approach by providing a platform for collaborative research, evidence-gathering, networking and knowledge exchange on the implications of AI systems for African countries.       

The discussion below offers some provocations on how a gender-responsive AI-driven CE in Africa can be fostered, exploring its potential for furthering an economic order that corresponds to feminist visions of economic and gender justice. That is, an equitable, accountable, and people-powered economy, which puts emphasis on and recognises all women’s work as economically productive by making it visible and distributing it equitably across sectors and industries. It also prioritises human rights above “growth” and other non-nuanced economic metrics such as GDP.

A Gender-responsive AI-driven Circular Economy

How can we integrate African women’s knowledge of sustainable practices into AI-driven circular economy strategies and ensure they fully benefit from local value chains?

The informal economy accounts for 81% of jobs in Africa. However, the lack of social protection reduces the resilience of these businesses to shocks, as was witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic. African women are differentially impacted by these constraints as they constitute 92% of the urban informal economy. Despite African women being key knowledge holders of sustainable environmental practices, they are severely affected by unsustainable production patterns that characterise the traditional linear economy because the livelihoods of many African women depends on strained natural resources.

The CE’s core principles include: eliminating waste and pollution, circulating materials and products, and regenerating nature, which may lead to major structural economic shifts that create employment opportunities, reduce inequality, and address poverty in many growth-enhancing sectors. However, it is important that this shift also addresses the legacy of sectoral vulnerabilities which inhibit women’s full participation in the economy as well as the inequitable distribution of benefits.

Digital gender divide

What is needed to ensure fairness and more even distribution of benefits, particularly for women, from new value chains and business in industries that can leverage AI through circularity?

While the digital gender divide is shrinking in other parts of the world, there is evidence that it is widening in Africa. The two main reasons for this are inequalities in income and education, leading to: (1) more men than women having an Internet connection; and (2) the privileging of male employees who receive the necessary skills for success in the digital economy and who are inevitably paid better for it. Women therefore risk being left behind in an AI-driven circular economy as they do not have the necessary tools or skills to participate fully. African women’s exclusion is further compounded by digital labour practices which extract value from African workers at minimal costs, thus minimising the continent’s role in global value chains.

Optimising market operations and creating circular business models to minimise environmental impact should not be at the expense of human livelihoods. To achieve the visions of sustainability promised by circularity, policy priorities should concentrate on protecting African digital labour rights as well as promoting equitable participation for vulnerable groups.

Negative effects of hype

How can African countries adapt institutional and human capabilities to realise the positive effects of AI-driven circularity for more sustainable economies that are also restorative, regenerative and redistributive?

If adopted uncritically, the circular economy’s objective to reduce the amount of resources needed to generate economic growth can lead to an AI snake oil trap. Or more specifically, the rise of what Abeba Birhane refers to as cheap AI which captures how those who inappropriately propose AI solutions for challenges that it is not able to solve. “AI snake oil” is a term used to describe AI products deceptively sold as solutions to problems which cannot be solved by AI techniques. This follows the hype of finding new ways to design products and services without increased environmental pressure whilst creating jobs. Investments might be made into the development of extractive and exploitative technologies which have harmful effects on vulnerable populations, especially those from underdeveloped African economies, under the guise of creating more jobs. Cheap AI adequately captures the fact that those deceptively claiming to create more jobs by testing their products on vulnerable people do not bear the cost of these wicked technologies.

Critically investigating the validity and sustainability of potential AI interventions in the circular economy can circumvent falling victim to or wastefully investing time and money in harmful technologies that will only benefit an already privileged small minority/elite. ​​More time and money can be channeled into developing just and sustainable AI circular technologies. Research is critically needed to better understand the requirements for advancing this new economic order and drive evidence-led policymaking in this area.

The above considerations inevitably put systemic issues such as the gendered exclusion of women; the undervaluing of industries dominated by women; or challenges affecting local, regional, and global value chains at the forefront. More importantly, foregrounding these issues will position women-led innovations as essential for the successful implementation of a circular economy strategy. There is, however, limited evidence to support the transition to an AI-driven circular economy in Africa. As a first step to build this evidence-base Research ICT Africa and the African Circular Economy Network will host an interactive research workshop on March, 8th at the 2022 Mozilla Foundation Festival.

Registration and session details can be found here.