Beneficial Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Sustainable Development through Circularity


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 (OECD, 2019; World Bank, 2020; UNCTAD 2019). 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 (UNEN, 2020; Ahmed, 2020b).

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 (CE) model, which is underpinned by dynamic and innovative business models, new products and services, institutions, and infrastructure that can create unique, inclusive, reformative systems across all industries (EMF, 2019). This has the potential to mitigate rising carbon emissions, reduce social inequality, and facilitate a structural transition towards diversified, sustainable, and equitable thriving African markets in the coming decades (UNEP, 2021; EMF, 2013). 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 CE 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 (ITU, 2020; EMF, 2019). While some African communities have been using circular principles for generations (ACEN, 2022), compared with economies at a later stage of development, many African economies still have significant gaps that will prove problematic for 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.

It is crucial to understand if and how AI can play a beneficial role in the adoption of CE models within the African context and whether this is a key to more equitable and sustainable development on the continent. The emerging policy paper will consider the dynamics of circularity in an African context from two key themes:

  • Deployment of AI based on a CE framework in the most dynamic industries of economies such as industries without smokestacks (IWoSS). The global organisation of industries and the disruptive potential of AI-based systems may offer new opportunities to enhance IWoSS and ancillary phenomena, ultimately creating pathways for a structural transition towards a thriving African economy in the coming decades (Newfarmer et al., 2018). These industries are among Africa’s most dynamic economic industries which encompass 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) (Newfarmer et al., 2018). Coincidentally, these are also some of the industries that will benefit most from AI (Forbes, 2021). While they have long been earmarked as priority industries to address issues such as food security, climate change, spatial inequality, and overall create spillover effects to promote structural economic transformation, the aftermath of the pandemic has heightened the need for transversal market reforms in these industries and policy and regulatory convergence, which are critical in shaping the landscape within which markets where these industries increasingly underpin the growth, productivity, and competitiveness of an economy  operate (SA Gov, 2021; AU, 2021; AU, 2020). Since both AI systems and circularity are underpinned by innovative business models, new products, and services, leveraging AI in industries based on circularity principles can improve structural defects that many African countries face, such as: reducing  energy deficiencies and re-engineering or establishing economy-wide supply chains in wells, fields, urban structures, mines and quarries — ultimately promoting more sustainable “green” energy sources, promoting market diversification and reducing extractive raw material dependency, investing in climate-smart agriculture and mining practices, and minimising waste, amongst other benefits.
  • Creating an evidence base 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. Combining the potentials of AI with a vision for a CE model 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.

Suggested citation

Ahmed, S. (2022). Beneficial Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Sustainable Development through Circularity. Research ICT Africa.