As Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary General, reminded the audience at the first Forum Summit session “We meet at a moment when emerging technologies such as AI, blockchain, IoT and 5G can enable innovation and transform life. This event is a catalyst for global action, enabling government, companies, investors and relevant stakeholders to can join forces to stimulate ICT infrastructure development, strengthen demand side and expand connectivity to everyone, everywhere.”
The challenge of making that connectivity meaningful – relevant, affordable, accessible to all, and fit for purpose – was the focus of this lively and far-ranging session. In his opening keynote, Hamad Al Mansoori, Director General of TRA, United Arab Emirates, expressed his concern that new technologies may bring more people online, but the gap between the developed and undeveloped worlds will not be bridged.
“We need cooperation and synergy to innovate and bridge the worlds,” he said, calling for public and private sectors to work together for the development of humanity and “profit from the enthusiasm of youth, outsourcing, collaborative programmes and open societies to provide solutions.” Collective intelligence is the key factor in development, because “one simple stone does not build a wall. We need to collect good creative ideas, innovate together, use collective intelligence, use lots of stones to build a common house and a bright future for us all.”
Outlining key elements of Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision, Abdulaziz Bin Salem Al Ruwais, Governor of the Communications and Information Technology Commission of Saudi Arabia, echoed the need to adopt a new competitive paradigm as the pace of technological development continues to bring dramatic change: “We can no longer rely on natural resources, but on our intelligence and our brains…to change to a bright future.”
Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director, Telecommunication Development Bureau, ITU, had the perfect example of that dizzying pace of change: “At ITU Telecom 1995, only 0.3% of the world was connected to the internet. This year it is more than 50%. Nothing has ever rivalled the internet in terms of opportunities and potential.” But even though millions more are connected, we need to refocus our efforts to ensure that connectivity is meaningful, functional and supported by digital skills.
Francis Gurry, Director General, World Intellectual Property Organization, spoke of the importance of innovation at the centre of competitive advantage. Now that technology is moving so quickly, we are confronting risks and threats, such as AI deep fakes, “a real problem for the integrity of information that we have around the world.”
“Industry wants to make money and governments can’t keep up to speed with changes,” he continued, so it is often left to scientists to set the parameters of responsible innovation. He called for more risk mitigation measures and a greater consciousness and care when advancing so quickly with technological developments.
For Amanda Nelson, CEO, Vodafone Hungary, meaningfulness should be at the core of business strategy. “Doing good and doing good business are one and the same thing,” she said, emphasizing that it must at the heart of the business rather than just on-top CSR measures. The starting point for Vodafone, she explained, was being creative in finding solutions that are scalable – and therefore monetizable – and investing in those which really make a difference in people’s everyday lives.
Peter Halacsy, Chief Technology Officer & Co-founder of Prezi, pointed out that as a Silicon Valley-style tech business, the aim is to make software and mobile apps to keep users online – and using: “You call it connected, but you are addicted. We are developing drugs for the next generation.” Policy makers in government and in the family – the parents – need to put regulation or limits on the use of technology.
Bogdan-Martin agreed that market forces can create great positive transformation, but emphasized the need for all stakeholders across society to be at the table. Collaboration means a holistic approach across all areas of government and society, ensuring the digital skills necessary to participate in society are available to all, including women, the disabled and young people.
Nelson agreed, outlining some of Vodafone’s programmes aimed at bringing young people and women into tech. Inclusivity and collaboration are key. “It is a pivotal time for this industry, this is a very exciting time and we have to be humble and work together… get the right brains in the room and people thinking about real problems to solve” as new technologies bring as yet unimaginable new possibilities.
Halacsy focused on the critical role of education in making connectivity meaningful. Not just digital literacy and public awareness, but also digitizing education itself, empowering students to be part of the conversation and adapting to the ways in which young people think, communicate, chat and collaborate – making it fit for future life.
Two major trends will shape that future, according to Gurry: “the general dematerialization of value as intellectual capital becomes more important than physical capital and innovation moves more and more into the digital space,” and the geopolitical shift to the east. The paradox is that the unprecedented openness of technology has heralded a world that is closing in ever more.
For the panel, major catalysts to connectivity and digital transformation include advanced manufacturing and robotics, a whole government approach with digitized government services, and the precision manufacturing and personal education enabled by Industry 4.0. A holistic approach to development means convincing finance ministers, in particular, of the overarching importance of ICTs to all sectors of the economy and society, moving ICT investment up the priority ladder.
Halacsy concluded with his wish that “connectivity could make us happier” – and the unconnected coming on board now could learn from the experiences of the developed world, leapfrog developmentally and not make the same mistakes. It is our collective responsibility, the panel agreed, to ensure that connectivity is not only available to all, but useful to all.