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Exploring UN Sustainable Development Goals by using the UTT toolkits in the classroom

Several UN SDGs can be learned and inculcated through using the Unboxing Tech Toolkit projects, especially with students in the classroom. Let's explore how these connect, and can be used to teach holistically.

What are the UN SDGs?

Adopted in 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are a set of 17 integrated principles adopted by the United Nation to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

The 17 SDGs are integrated—they recognize that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability. Several countries across the world have committed to prioritize progress for those who're furthest behind. The SDGs are designed to end poverty, hunger, AIDS, and discrimination against women and girls.

The SDGs are are important part of education across the world, and are increasingly being interacted into school curriculums as ways in which students can understand the multiple needs of the planet, and holistically understand how society, technology, development and the climate are integrated.

The UN SDGs in the Unboxing Tech Toolkit: The Materiality of the Smartphone

The Unboxing Tech Toolkits seek to take a holistic view of the interactions between technology, society, politics and the climate. The themes in the toolkit are often not restricted to one of these areas, but span across these.

In using the toolkits, therefore, students learn not just the economic cost of the smartphone, but also its costs on the environment in places where minerals are mined for smartphone production, on human societies in which mining and production take place, and finally on the earth's resources when we discard phones containing toxic waste, as well as components which can neither be reused, not recycled.

The toolkit on the The Materiality of the Smartphone therefore, explores the following four UN SDGs:

1. Good Heath and Well-being

Goal 3 of the UN SDGs focusses on good health and wellbeing for all people across the world, and establishes a connection between good health and sustainable development. Communities living in fragile settings with protracted crises, and weak national capacity to deliver basic healthcare also fall under this goal.

the goal target also states to "strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drug abuse and harmful use of alcohol." In the toolkit, students explore this concept through the concept of the 3GT minerals. 3TG, or Tin, Tantalum, Tungsten, Gold are used in smartphones and other electronic devices. Also called 'conflict minerals', in politically unstable areas, the 3TG minerals trade can be used to finance armed groups, fuel forced labour and other human rights abuses, and support corruption and money laundering. There are several points in the 3TG minerals and metals supply chain (e.g.: extraction, refining, transportation) where money from the sale may go to armed groups or criminals. This source of income can help perpetuate armed conflict, violence and human rights abuses, often in weak or unstable countries, the most prominent example being the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This severely impacts the health and wellbeing of people in these areas, and puts them in risk.

Additionally, globally, only 20% of e-wastes are appropriately dealt with, the rest partly goes into landfills which release toxic substances into air, water, and destroy natural habitats for wildlife and cause health hazards to nearby communities.

2. Quality Education

The goal on quality education states that "By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development."

The bringing sustainability into education across the primary, secondary and higher education levels, therefore is given significant stress. The toolkits in this series seek to bring together a personal engagement with technologies such as the smartphone along with the larger planetary concern around sustainability. By understanding that while we may start from individual patterns of consumption, and our needs and desires for technology, understanding how smartphones impact society at large, companies, people and communities across the world gives a more holistic view of technology production and consumption. The arc from us as individual persons to having a larger planetary view is essential to more conscious action vis-a-vis technology. This holistic understanding on how technology we use in our day-to-day life is connected to the larger planet.

Moreover, digital transformations and digitalisation at large play a crucial role in changing, and expanding educational possibilities. If handling technology is discussed in a positive manner with the imparting of right skills- digitalisation can boost access, understanding, experience and unleash accelerated growth for SDG 4.

3. Sustainable Cities and Communities

Sustainable cities and communities are central to the toolkit, owing to their focus on the human and environmental costs of the smartphone supply chain. The toolkit elucidates how the use of Rare Earth Elements (REE) in smartphones means proliferating pollution which impacts communities who inhabit these countries. The environmental impact is not without a human component. For instance, Lithium, which is an important mineral in the battery, harms the soil and causes air contamination, new research from the Friends of the Earth (FoE) shows. In the long term, this impacts access to water for communities living in these regions. The salt flats in South America where lithium is found are located in arid territories. In these places, access to water is key for the local communities and their livelihoods, as well as the local flora and fauna. In Chile’s Atacama salt flats, mining consumes, contaminates and diverts scarce water resources away from local communities.

'Lithium Fields' in the Salar de Atacama salt flats in northern Chile. Credit: Tom Hegen

Lithium production through evaporation ponds uses a lot of water - around 21 million litres per day. Approximately 2.2 million litres of water is needed to produce one ton of lithium. “The extraction of lithium has caused water-related conflicts with different communities, such as the community of Toconao in the north of Chile,” the FoE report specifies.

Explore the The Lithium Series I project by photographer Tom Hegen who captures South America's lithium fields in his work.

While we may think of electric automobiles as the future of sustainability, new enegy sources and solutions have their own environmental and human impact cycles. The mineral crisis continues to deepen in the face of electric alternatives to fossil fuel technologies, and are continuing to change the landscape of where these minerals are mined from. This makes lives of communities in these areas difficult, and unsustainable.

4. Responsible Consumption and Production

At its core, the Unboxing Tech Toolkit series is all about responsible consumption. The core idea of sharing information regarding irresponsible production and its harms is to incentivise better, conscious, responsible consumption by youth. Buying and using a smartphone is consuming a good which has been produced in the world. We are constant consumers of technology, and therefore must think about responsible ways of consumption and production of technology. The toolkit focuses on the global journey of the smartphone, which is not without its problems. From mining till the stage when a phone becomes e-waste, several stages of production often have hazardous consequences for human communities, the environment and long-term deposits which we are mining at a rapid pace to produce devices.

Rating companies on scales of responsible sourcing and production is as important a criteria as features and services we want in our phones. Moreover, knowledge of better alternatives such as Fairphone are also important in the larger movement towards becoming better consumers.

What do we consume? How much? What is its lifecycle? All these questions aid the attempt to make the toolkit users more conscious consumers who understand the complex socio-technical and environmental fabrics within which technology is produced and embedded. The UN SDGs are ways in which we can understand the multiple impacts of technology in our life, and around the world. By using the toolkits in the classroom, we expose students to a holistic way of seeing the social, technological, and the environmental, not as separate concern to be dealt with individually in boxes, but in tandem to understand the complex nature of technology.

Tip: Explore the toolkits with students in the classroom, and use this post to connect it to the UN SGDs.


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