Shaping our digital future – CEOWORLD magazine

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Asia and the Pacific is the most numerically divided region of the world, and Southeast Asia is the most divided subregion. The Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed a “digital big bang” that has prompted people, governments and businesses to go “digital by default”; a sea change that has generated vast digital dividends. Those benefits that weren’t evenly distributed, however. New development gaps have emerged as the digital transformation reinforces a vicious cycle of socioeconomic inequalities, within and between countries.

Closing these gaps and ensuring that technological advancements benefit everyone will be a major challenge as the region seeks to achieve a more inclusive and sustainable post-pandemic recovery. A new ESCAP report, Asia-Pacific Digital Transformation Report 2022: Shaping our digital future, identifies five key “digital divides”; fault lines that separate those who can easily take advantage of new technologies from those who are more likely to be left behind. These divisions are related to age, gender, education, disability and geography.

Typically, the people most comfortable with technological innovation are younger, better-educated people who grew up with the internet as “digital natives”. Older people may be more suspicious or slower to acquire the necessary skills or suffer a decline in ability. But at any age, poor communities – especially those in rural areas – are most at risk because they may not be able to afford electricity or digital connections or lack the necessary skills, even if the necessary infrastructure and connectivity exist.

The most important driver of digital transformation is business research and development and the adoption of advanced technologies. Another major element is e-government; the provision of information and public services via the Internet or other digital means. This has the potential for more efficient and inclusive operations; especially when linked to national digital ID systems. However, since e-government services often operate in complex regulatory environments, it has become more difficult to provide appropriate levels of accessibility to older generations, people with disabilities, or people with little education.

It is clear that digital technologies enable the provision of previously unimaginable services while improving productivity and optimizing the use of resources, which has contributed to reducing greenhouse gas and pollutant emissions. These technologies have also helped track and contain the spread of the pandemic. Social networks promote and diversify communications between people of all ages who share common interests, regardless of their place of residence. It helps them stay in touch, broaden their experiences, continue their studies or deepen their knowledge. It provided a real lifeline that has continued as we enter the post-pandemic era.

At the same time, risks have also proliferated. Social networks have also created social “echo chambers” and generated torrents of misinformation and hate speech. New cryptocurrencies have paved the way for speculative financial bubbles, while cybercrime has increased alarmingly assuming prolific variations. Additionally, digital gadgets and the internet are said to contribute over 2% of the global carbon footprint. Manufacturing electronics can also deplete reserves of natural resources such as rare earth elements and precious metals like cobalt and lithium.

Additionally, digital transformation has led to the creation of an immense amount of digital data that is becoming an essential resource for understanding digital transformation. However, this raises concerns about the ethical and responsible use of data for the protection of privacy. A common understanding between countries on the operationalization of these principles still needs to evolve.

The Asia-Pacific Digital Transformation Report 2022 highlights the importance of digital connectivity infrastructure as “meta-infrastructure”. 5G and other high-speed networks can make all other infrastructure – such as power grid transmission and distribution – much smarter, thereby optimizing the use of resources for sustainable development. To meet these needs, the report recommends three courses of action, which are not mutually exclusive and are aligned with the ESCAP action plan of the Asia-Pacific information superhighway initiative to 2022-2026.

The first path focuses on the supply side and provides policy-relevant practices for the development of a cost-effective network infrastructure. The second looks at the demand side and recommends capacity building programs and policies to promote the wide adoption of new, more affordable and accessible digital products and services. The third is to improve systems and institutions related to data collection, aggregation, and analysis in ways that build public trust and deepen policymakers’ understanding of the drivers of digital transformations.

Finally, in a world where digital data can circle the globe in an instant, the report highlights the importance of regional and global cooperation. Only by working together can countries ensure that these technological breakthroughs benefit everyone; their peoples, economies and societies, as well as for the natural environment, in our new “digital by default” normal.


Written by Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana.
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