How can technology help in a holistic approach to ensure inclusion?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum./

Author: Ken Hu, Rotating Chairman, Huawei

  • 2.7 billion people, mostly located in Least Developed Countries, remain offline and are the least connected, creating a more unequal and exclusionary world.
  • 17 May is World Telecommunication and Information Society Day and an occasion to raise awareness about digital inclusivity.
  • Through the World Economic Forum’s Edision Alliance, organizations like Huawei are taking a holistic approach to create a more inclusive society.

Since its humble yet momentous beginnings as wireless telegraphy in 1901, telecommunications and its evolution to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) have taken civilization on an incredible journey, one that is accelerating us towards the intelligent world.

And today, with the sum total of human knowledge at our fingertips coupled with rapid advances in digital technologies, it’s easy to focus on our technological advancements and where we’re headed – especially for those of us in the ICT industry.

But while much of the world has been on the digital journey for decades, a significant number have yet to leave the station.

2.7 billion of the world’s population remain offline, the majority of whom are located in one of the 46 UN-designated Least Developed Countries (LDCs). The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reports that LDCs are also the least connected, with just 36% of people online compared with the global average of 66%.

Image: International Telecommunication Union

On 17 May, this year’s World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD), the ITU is drawing attention to this growing disparity with a call to empower LDCs with ICT.

This theme is particularly resonant for two major reasons:

One, it focuses not on how far we have come with ICT, but on what we still have to do. The divide between developed economies and LDCs is widening, a trend that doesn’t just limit both individuals and communities, but also powers down national capabilities to thrive in the digital economic age.

Two, it positions empowerment as a key concept. Connectivity and digital technology alone cannot bridge the divide. Instead, we must take a holistic approach that focuses on the value technology provides to people and nations, rather than on the technology itself.

How do we do that in practice?

A team effort

The first step is the shift in approach that’s already well underway in the ICT industry. The broader collaborations and more holistic approach we’re seeing between governments, organizations, service providers, and the ICT industry are moving in the right direction. Examples include many initiatives that Huawei is involved in, such as the World Economic Forum’s Edison Alliance, ITU’s Partner2Connect, and UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, as well as broader industry-wide commitments led by organizations such as GSMA.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle inequity.

The Forum’s work on Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Social Justice is driven by the New Economy and Society Platform, which is focused on building prosperous, inclusive and just economies and societies. In addition to its work on economic growth, revival and transformation, work, wages and job creation, and education, skills and learning, the Platform takes an integrated and holistic approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and aims to tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity.

The Platform produces data, standards and insights, such as the Global Gender Gap Report and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 4.0 Toolkit, and drives or supports action initiatives, such as Partnering for Racial Justice in Business, The Valuable 500 – Closing the Disability Inclusion Gap, Hardwiring Gender Parity in the Future of Work, Closing the Gender Gap Country Accelerators, the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality, the Community of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers and the Global Future Council on Equity and Social Justice.

Many of the projects running under these initiatives recognize that a lack of connectivity is compounded by a host of other issues. Alongside a lack of digital infrastructure and affordability, a holistic approach to sustainable development must consider factors like digital skills, the gender gap in ICT awareness and adoption, the urban-rural divide, and financial exclusion.

Our commitment to the ITU’s Partner2Connect (P2C) initiative, for example, aims to connect 120 million people in remote areas in more than 80 countries by 2025. But a key part of the initiative involves providing access to more information and skills, better services, wider business opportunities, and the ICT capabilities needed to thrive in the digital economy. In Cambodia, the ITU P2C’s global pilot country, we’re working with the government and universities to provide 10,000 training opportunities for ICT professionals in the next five years.

The bigger picture of connectivity

The Smart Village Pakistan project also provides a great example of a multi-faceted approach. Led by the Pakistani government in partnership with ITU-D, the Universal Service Fund, and Huawei, the project’s primary aim is to raise the quality of life of people who live in remote villages.

Underpinned by mobile connectivity, the real magic happens through the provision of digital services tailored to specific local needs and the training to use these services.

Launched earlier this year, the pilot project in Gokina village focuses on e-health, e-education, entrepreneurship, digital skills, and on ICT adoption for girls and women. For example, after a needs assessment identified a lack of science teachers, particularly in the local girls’ high school, a local e-education provider set up a platform to enable three science classes per day for more than 100 students, aiming to encourage more girls to pursue STEM subjects.


How is the World Economic Forum fostering a sustainable and inclusive digital economy?

The World Economic Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Digital Economy and New Value Creationhelps companies and governments leverage technology to develop digitally-driven business models that ensure growth and equity for an inclusive and sustainable economy.

  • The Digital Transformation for Long-Term Growth programme is bringing together industry leaders, innovators, experts and policymakers to accelerate new digital business models that create the sustainable and resilient industries of tomorrow.
  • The Forum’s EDISON Alliance is mobilizing leaders from across sectors to accelerate digital inclusion. Its 1 Billion Lives Challenge harnesses cross-sector commitments and action to improve people’s lives through affordable access to digital solutions in education, healthcare, and financial services by 2025.

Contact us for more information on how to get involved.

Improving the bottom line

Financial exclusion is also prevalent in LDCs, with around 17.5% of the world’s population unbanked. In Bangladesh, the figure is significantly higher at 47%. Launched in 2011 by Bangladesh Bank, with Huawei coming on board in 2017, the mobile money solution initially enabled unbanked people in rural areas without access to smartphones to pay bills and send money. Since then, bKash has from strength to strength, and today offers an array of mobile financial services such as savings, e-wallet services, and microlending to 65 million users.

As a member of the World Economic Forum’s Edison Alliance, Huawei and its partners are aiming to benefit 500 million people through financial inclusion and digital skills by 2025 and in turn open the door to the digital economy.

AI: Divider or equalizer?

Alongside a lack of digital infrastructure and services, the nascent rise of generative AI has the potential to either widen or lessen the divide that already exists for LDCs. On the one hand, it could democratize technology, putting the power of cutting-edge AI into the hands of anyone with a device and an Internet connection. A rural micro business with a great idea, for example, could potentially compete with a large business that boasts vastly more financial muscle and resources.

On the other hand, there’s the possibility of creating a new divide between those who can use prompt AI tools and those who don’t, a risk that will be exacerbated if AI tools are available in only a fraction of the world’s 7,000 languages.

And that is something we must think about now when it comes to new technology – anticipating and designing out potential divisions before they occur.

As an industry, we must continue to expand the partnerships and approaches that position technology as a tool to deliver digital services that empower people.

After all, the true power of technology lies in the value it creates rather than pure technical advancements.


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