The importance of collaboration in the digital economy

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ITU Telecom World 2016 Signing Ceremony © ITU

What’s the future for the connected car, for digital financial services, or for smart and sustainable cities in the new industrial reality? How are innovations and technical developments in 5G, the Internet of Things and spectrum management impacting on future networks and future businesses? And if meaningful, affordable connectivity is the single best bet for accelerating socio-economic development and meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs), how can we ensure we reach the billions of unconnected most in need?

These are some of the key questions at the heart of the agenda at ITU Telecom World 2016, four days of debate, networking and exhibition on the theme of “Collaborating in the Digital Ecosystem.” In an industry and era of intense transformation, collaboration is essential to make sense of the possibilities – and make a success of it for us all.

Rapid technological developments, societal changes and radical new business models are enriching and enlarging the ICT ecosystem. Never before has connectivity offered so much potential for economic growth and social development in the digital economy. And never before have the challenges of extending that connectivity to all been so pressing, from providing universal access to technology to meaningful local content, fair and open competition, up-to-date regulation, security and education.

More and new stakeholders are involved in making it happen. Governments decide policy and shape regulation. Major ICT companies face competition from new internet players and innovative small and medium enterprises (SMEs). New technologies open up new markets, often involving new partners in vertical sectors such as transport, health or agriculture. The borderless world of the digital economy opens up business in developed and emerging markets across the globe.

Finding the right public sector policies, the business models and market strategies for success may not be easy. It will certainly involve new approaches to cross-sector partnerships, whether between public and private organizations, or between new industries or market players. The benefits of collaboration need to be balanced against competition, commercial interests and embedded cultures.

A good example is 5G. As the technology evolves and develops to meet the growing demands of societies and economies, so does the potential for new opportunities. Delivering on the promise of effective future networks won’t be possible, however, without some form of collaboration on the standards that take solutions to scale and at speed. The mix of players, established and new, manufacturers, vendors and application developers, may lead to interesting joint ventures to streamline investment. The long-heralded convergence of fixed broadcast and mobile may be given a boost by the new technology. But then again, competition and entrenched mindsets may kill off any new form of shared investment or working together.

Or take the connected car. Intelligent transport systems and self-driving vehicles are speeding towards widespread commercialization. The focus is on developing communication technologies that use the internet to integrate cars with smart devices – bringing a whole range of new players into the mix. Car manufacturers and suppliers must negotiate and collaborate with app developers, communication technology companies and OS developers. Combining such different industries, cultures, regulatory and business approaches as software and automotive cannot be without challenges. And given the key issues of security, safety, liability and public policy, it’s clear that the government will have an important role to play, too.

The same balance between opportunity and challenge, between collaboration and competition and between multiple, often new, stakeholders applies to digital financial services. In a world where around 2 billion adults have no access to basic financial services, digital technology has the unprecedented potential to offer secure, cheap and reliable transactions for the unbanked or underbanked. Financial inclusion is a critical step to socio-economic development. Leapfrogging traditional banking to deliver financial services can have a profound impact on the underprivileged throughout the emerging world.

But success here relies on the creation of a new ecosystem of government, business and individuals – centred around a sound working relationship between financial and ICT sectors. In its early stages of development, the market calls for convergence between mobile network operators, banks, microfinance institutions, payment platform providers and payment services providers. This dizzying array of players and potential partnerships must establish joined-up regulatory approaches, standards to enable cross-market interoperability, and accepted international good practice. All of which is not possible without collaboration.

The smart integration of manufacturing and advanced information and communication technology – or Industry 4.0 – is making it possible to deliver tailored products to individual customer specifications at low cost and in high quality. The impact on companies, economies and societies across the globe is potentially enormous. But this, too, depends on the harmonious and fruitful coming together of a number of players, orchestrated to different degrees in different markets by committed government leadership.

The digital economy is the single most important driver of innovation, competitiveness and growth worldwide. ICTs have tremendous potential to improve development outcomes in both emerging and developed markets, from measuring progress and success in the meeting the UN’s ambitious Sustainable Development Goals  (SDGs) to enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of development initiatives, and providing access to a whole new range of digitally-enabled products and services which strengthen local economies, innovation and communities. Meeting the SDGs through ICTs, however, will only be possible if the industry can work together with corporate social responsibility departments, public sector, non-governmental and development organizations to build feasible business models.

Any way you look, across all fields of ICT activity, in the macro digital economy and in the detail of each potential future market, it’s all about working together. Finding new partners, exploiting new opportunities, considering new stakeholders and new markets. Using new services, segments, solutions and devices to drive revenue and increase socio-economic development.

But will there be stronger collaboration or will industry players default to a winner-takes-all approach? How clear are the benefits of working together both within the telco sector and with web players, disruptive market entrants, customers and the open source community, to stimulate and sustain growth in the industry?

How can public policies and industry incentives attract investment into the network infrastructure and technologies that are the backbone to the digital economy? Can cross-regional, even international, initiatives maximize opportunities at scale? And what are the key innovative technologies and collaborative initiatives focused on expanding connectivity through access, affordability and relevance?

These are the questions that the Forum debates at ITU Telecom World 2016 will discuss, with expert speakers, international perspectives and a unique audience of public and private sector leaders from emerging and developed markets, from SMEs fresh to the market to established major corporate players. The event itself works on the principle of collaboration, of coming together face-to-face, of meeting, exchanging knowledge, ideas and experiences, debating, working together – the very principle of collaboration on which the future success of the industry, our societies, economies and world may be built.

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