The tech revolution is enabling step changes – in access to markets, delivery of healthcare, advances in food production, provision of education – that were unimaginable five years ago. The traditional development paradigm – Global North to Global South, incremental change, zero-sum – has been turned on its head. Innovations are emerging across the world, with many countries in the Global South leapfrogging legacy systems and digitising faster than those in the Global North. The impact this will have on global inequalities – levelling the playing field or widening the divide – will be determined by the critical infrastructure and the supporting policy frameworks that countries have in place.
Who reaps the benefits of digitalisation will depend on who has connectivity, who is equipped with the skills to take advantage of emerging opportunities, who has the credentials to access digital services, and where the regulatory environments are in place to promote innovation and ensure people’s safety and privacy. In the best-case scenario, access to opportunity is no longer determined by geography, historical inequalities in education across regions and access to markets are dissolved, the potential benefits of digitalisation accrue to all, and we see the emergence of a fairer, more equal world order. In the worst case, we see a widening divide between digital haves and have-nots, with those already underserved by basic services left further and further behind.
This transformation is happening at significant speed, with new technologies and applications evolving faster than public policy, regulation and ethical frameworks have ever had to before. In order for digitalisation to level the playing field, governments have a short window to put in place the fundamental building blocks to enable tech transformation that works for all.
The potential of technology to transform key sectors – agriculture, health, education, social welfare – and to tackle some of the most critical development challenges is significant. Over the coming weeks we’ll set out what we see as some of the critical prerequisites for equitable digitalisation, key considerations for policymakers seeking to put these in place, emerging good practice and thoughts on how these investments might be made.
The Critical Infrastructure
Internet access for all. Universal internet access is an urgent development priority over the next decade. The economic benefits greatly outweigh the costs across all regions – the returns on investment for extending universal access range from a magnitude of seven times in the case of Europe and Central Asia to more than 30 times for East Asia and the Pacific. But the potential costs of failing to extend access are even higher. Countries that leave the poorest and most marginalised people offline will see widening inequality and swathes of their populations excluded from the opportunities the tech revolution brings. As a critical enabler of economic growth, we argue that internet access should be seen as a basic need, prioritised by governments and development donors alongside other basic infrastructure, with development spending reflecting this. Read more.
Identity for all in a digital age. As more services and transactions are digitalised, accelerated by the pandemic, the ability to prove your identity using secure digital credentials has never been more critical, enabling access to healthcare, social support and voter registration. More than 1 billion people around the globe have no legal form of identity and, of those who do, 3.4 billion are unable to use these credentials online. Universal digital ID could create economic value equivalent to an average of 6 per cent of GDP in emerging economies by 2030, as well as saving governments 110 billion hours through streamlined systems, and institutions up to $1.6 trillion globally through reduced payroll fraud. There are also policy risks, such as people’s right to privacy, which must be properly addressed. As digital ID systems are extended, they must be designed to protect privacy and personal data, safeguard users and promote public trust. Read more.
Investing in data management and storage. We live in a digital age governed by stubbornly analogue law – both national and international. Where data lives, who owns it and who it creates value for are critical legal and development questions that we need to tackle collectively over the coming years. The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the urgency of these issues. Responding effectively to Covid-19 and preparing for future pandemics requires radical reform of data infrastructure. One aspect of this is how data is stored and what this enables. Hyperscale cloud technologies offer low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) the opportunity to access the digital revolution without having to wait to build out costly infrastructure. Read more.
The Policy Environment
Building the skills to engage in the digital economy. In order for internet access to equalise opportunity, the skills to engage online – from basic digital literacy to the tools to be competitive in a digital workforce, and the skills to consider the ethics and interplay between technology and society – must be built across populations. For governments and communities, this represents a significant challenge and a critical opportunity: to understand the skills needed to engage in and benefit from a digital marketplace, and how to grow these across ages and geographies.
Digital governance that keeps pace with change – promoting innovation and keeping people safe. Policymakers are being challenged to evolve their regulatory infrastructure in ways that keep pace with digitalisation, governing an ever-evolving space that promotes innovation and opportunity while keeping citizens safe and protecting their rights. Governments need to legislate to ensure the benefits of digitalisation accrue to all, while mitigating the risks.
Inclusiveness by default. Recognising that no country on Earth has all of these fundamentals fully in place, we look at some of the approaches being taken to promote inclusive tech transformation in an imperfect world. Building tech policy in ways that leave no-one behind, connect those in rural and low-infrastructure areas, take account of varied digital literacy and device access, and consider the needs of marginalised groups is critical. There are technological and governance dimensions to this challenge, and a clear need for a greater role for users – all users – in the design and development of tech and related policy.
We invite you to join the debate – what’s missing? What other opportunities for building a more equitable digital world exist? What great examples do you see of this happening in practice? What does this transformation look like where you are? Let us know on Twitter @sophietholstrup or by email firstname.lastname@example.org
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