By Bernardo Calzadilla-Sarmiento, Managing Director, Directorate of Digitalization, Technology and Agribusiness, UNIDO
Developing countries are constantly striving to enhance their export competitiveness, strengthen their export base and become more integrated with international trade flows. To achieve this, they need to be able to access increasingly complex global markets with rigorous quality standards. In order to “make the grade” in exporting to these competitive markets, it is necessary to demonstrate compliance with global quality infrastructure (QI) markers: standardization to achieve compliance with international standards; metrology services to demonstrate accurate measurements; certification and accreditation to prove that goods and services have been tested according to agreed methods. Convenient and cost-effective conformity assessment services are also vital to demonstrate that products have been tested, inspected and certified prior to entering the market.
It is widely acknowledged that a first step in facilitating acceptance of foreign-generated test results happens through accreditation, using an agreed set of general criteria for the competence of testing laboratories. Without consensus on accreditation, it is impossible to generate the cross-border confidence in product standards necessary to enable international trade.
Today, we are at the early stages of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which brings physical and biological systems into the digital realm. From artificial intelligence to mobile super-computing, we are at the start of a new digital age that is transforming every part of our lives. Quality infrastructure is no exception. QI is the combination of initiatives, institutions, organizations, activities and people that help ensure products and services meet the requirements of customers. Conformity assessment bodies (CABs), as the link between regulators, industry and markets, are at the heart of this important work.
A central characteristic of the 4IR is the ever-increasing connection between people, technology and industry. This is having a far-reaching impact on the future of conformity assessment – and on the work of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Some of these concepts and technologies include smart laboratories, blockchain technology, Metrology 4.0, drones, sensors and real-time information. The 4IR – and this new digital age – poses a series of challenges for CABs.
First, how to operate in a world where products are increasingly digital – either in part or fully. And second, how can CABs embrace digital technology, such as drones for inspection, machine learning, smart sensors, ICT based remote auditing, and much more. And finally, how to meet the ever increasing demand from global consumers for quality and safety. This is where UNIDO is playing an important role, advancing the future of conformity assessment by helping CABs deliver this vital mission in this new digital age.
Accreditation can also play a vital role in sustainable development. A notable aspect of this new digital age has been the continued decoupling of economic growth from the consumption of resources. Conformity assessment can help move us towards a more circular economy, by driving more sustainable production and responsible consumption. Ultimately, these are the kinds of new pathways we need to take to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which sit at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The demands of this new digital age are a particular challenge in developing countries, where systems and laboratories are not always available, or as effective as they could be. Administrative shortcomings can include outdated institutional frameworks, inadequate coordination of laboratories, poor information sharing and unnecessary duplication of efforts. Ultimately, this can lead to valuable resources being wasted. There can be numerous infrastructure challenges too. CABs in developing countries can struggle to fulfill their mandated services – such as testing, inspections and certifications – due to a lack of equipment, facilities, and laboratory staff with the right knowledge or training. For private sector companies, it can be hard to find accredited conformity assessment providers that are both demonstrably competent and recognized in destination markets.
As the largest multilateral player in quality infrastructure development, with a proven track record of enhancing national capacity, UNIDO is the preferred partner of many developed countries (as donors) and developing countries (as recipients of international technical assistance). Policymakers and practitioners turn to UNIDO for their transformative and tailored solutions, from specialized training to the transfer of technical knowledge.
Over the last twenty years, UNIDO has supported more than 1,000 CABs in 58 countries in regions across the world, helping numerous developing countries increase their productive capacity, export base and domestic and foreign investment. In addition, UNIDO has developed a series of complementary tools to help fulfil the demand for quality services in developing countries. These tools help quality infrastructure practitioners and policymakers develop robust, holistic, and demand-driven quality infrastructure systems.
On the occasion of World Accreditation Day, 9 June 2020, UNIDO has launched a new publication, titled: Tested and Accepted – Implementing ISO/IEC 17025:2017. This publication provides practical guidance on the international standard for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories. It intends to aid laboratories to facilitate cross-border acceptance of test results, ultimately contributing to increased confidence in product standards necessary to enable international trade.
An important aspiration for developing countries in the field of conformity assessment and accreditation is not simply to cope with change, but to become leaders and technological innovators in their own right. UNIDO’s role as a convener of partnerships can be crucial in this respect, by allowing for the proper exchange of knowledge and experience. Ultimately, this means it will become easier to adapt technologies to the needs of the market, and pilot new technology further down the line.
It is evident that establishing reliable quality infrastructure can substantially assist a country in pursuing a development path aligned with the SDGs, overcoming the challenges involved, and benefiting from the considerable opportunities generated through the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. Without a rigorous quality infrastructure domestic regime, a developing country will find it difficult to achieve the competitiveness needed to propel inclusive and sustainable industrialization (as embedded in SDG Goal 9) in particular.
As a leader in the field of quality infrastructure, UNIDO will have a big role to play in shaping the future of conformity assessment globally. By aligning its approach for quality infrastructure development and technical support to the demands of the digital era, it can ensure that it continues to provide a diversified and effective programmatic suite of technical cooperation, policy analysis and advice, and convening services for the benefit of its member states.
Advancing Conformity Assessment for the New Digital Age discusses the challenges and the opportunities the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) brings to conformity assessment bodies (CABs). It further provides an overview of UNIDO’s activities in the area of conformity assessment and advocates for the use of new technologies to shape a sustainable future.