Digital development: technology-enabled, but human-centric

FAO Mobile Agriculture

Webinar on remote control of water pumps with mobile phones (FAO, 2017)

Endorsed content in association with the International Telecommunication Union

Connectivity is a basic human right. A necessity, not a luxury.  Information and communication technologies are the backbone infrastructure critical to driving social and economic development throughout the world, across developed and emerging markets alike. Basic connectivity is the first step on the journey to the intelligent networks of the near future, enabled by artificial intelligence and 5G, upgrading industry, health, transportation, education – all arenas of human endeavour. Development increasingly means digital development.

Connecting the half of the world’s population that remains unconnected, largely in Asia, South America and Africa, is an ongoing global challenge. It requires huge investment in infrastructure, innovative business models and a mix of technologies, facilitated by, integrated multi-stakeholder partnerships between governments, the private sector, international organizations, academia and civil society. Alongside the physical infrastructure, be it wireless or fixed, satellite or fibre, bringing the internet to rural, remote and underserved means providing affordable devices and access to the services, products and applications they make possible.

Demand is the other side of the connectivity conundrum.  There is little point in building it if they don’t come, whether because they don’t know it exists, aren’t equipped to use it or see no value in what it offers. Public awareness, digital skills and literacy programmes are therefore vital. Above all, it is compelling content that will drive adoption – creating content in local languages relevant to each micro-environment is critical. This is an area where governments can take the lead in terms of providing services and applications, such as market information for farmers, local weather, government services, e-health and e-education programmes.

For it is not connectivity itself which creates value, but rather what connectivity enables: economic growth and new business cases across all sectors, social and human development, improving and enriching lives across all matrices. Development is technology-enabled, but human-centric. There can be no smart society without digitally smart people.

How do we make people digitally smart? Through education. Perhaps the single most urgent initiative in making connectivity meaningful is digital literacy – from the ground up, and throughout all layers of society. We need a holistic approach to digital skills at a national level, from the playground to life-long learning in community centres, from the very basics for first-time users in the villages to coding, programming and highly-specialized engineers, data scientists or AI experts. Digital literacy may be delivered and funded through professional, international or local institutions, through private or state schools, formal or informal channels, on the job or online.  And it needs to spread beyond citizens, for teachers to be trained, for civil servants to be comfortable in the digital world, for entrepreneurs to develop the supporting skills in legal, financial, marketing, managerial and business skills.

There is a shortage of advanced skills worldwide, in particular in specific areas or industries where the digital era calls for both technical and domain knowledge. Developing nations perpetually playing catch-up must move fast to avoid the digital divide deepening and widening. Huge potential exists for creating radically new educational structures, revisiting curricula in conjunction with academia, government and industry to produce a workforce with skills relevant now and in the future. The advantage of a relatively blank slate, in comparison to many developed companies, may indeed make leapfrogging possible. And providing connectivity and skills to rural and remote areas will open up new markets, ecosystems and human capacity for innovation.

Looking to the fast-approaching future of intelligent networks, all nations must work hard to prepare their citizens for dramatic transformations in society, particularly in the labour market. Much as a good footballer passes the ball to the space his teammate will occupy shortly – rather where he currently is – so governments must provide education and awareness for the new skills that will be needed, the new opportunities opening up. This, too, is smart digital development: creating new mindsets and cultures.

At the heart of development are people. There is no value in connectivity, even if affordable and accessible, or in content, even if in local languages and highly relevant, if people, the end users, do not have the necessary skills to take full advantage of the benefits provided. Exploring just how we do this – and the mix of perspectives, case studies, strategies and policies on digital development for our smart future – will be at the heart of what promises to be a fascinating debate at ITU Telecom World 2018 in Durban this September.

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