Leadership Summit: Collaborating in the digital economy: why working together is critical for growth

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Connectivity, collaboration, sustainability and inclusiveness were the key themes of the opening session of the high-level Leadership Summit, sponsored by TRA, UAE and moderated by Jeremy Wilks of Euronews, media partner of the Leadership Summit.

Extending connectivity – and the tremendous potential for social, economic and human development it brings – is critical. “The digital divide is very much still with us, a divide of geography and gender, of education and resources. It is imperative that we continue to work to close that digital divide,” urged ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao.

Summarizing the challenges involved in tackling digital exclusion, Air Chief Marshal Prajin Juntong, Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand and Acting Minister of Digital Economy and Society, focused on four key pillars of acitivity, which resonated throughout the discussion: the digital economy, connectivity, cybersecurity and capacity building.

“Governments must create policies that focus on citizen empowerment, digital skills and the creation of a business environment that allows business to grow by leveraging technology,” he said, citing the example of Thailand’s dynamic SME and entrepreneurship ecosystem.

What extending connectivity means in practice may vary greatly. The European Commission’s Digital Single Market strategy, explained  Fátima  Barros, Chair of Portuguese regulator ANACOM, puts digital centre stage to grow the economy within and across the region. Its ambitious new broadband targets aim for at least 100 Mbps download speed for all households, 1 Gigabit for institutions such as hospitals and universities, and full 5G wireless broadband coverage in urban areas and major transport routes by 2025.

In India, the scale and nature is somewhat different – as  R. S. Sharma, Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), pointed out, “45% of the unconnected are in India”, and supplying basic power is often the first priority, rather than top broadband speeds. But both Europe and India face the challenges of uniting different states with different languages and at different stages of development; and the need for large-scale investment, a technology-neutral hybrid approach to networks and regulatory reform are universal.

The government’s Digital India initiative will digitally empower society and transform the country, explained Sharma, through three parallel strands of development: infrastructure, including digital identity data in the cloud; software; and the services riding on top. Providing those services, whether in education, agriculture, health or any other sector, will only be possible through collaboration and partnership.

New regulatory approaches must enable open standards, software and systems to break down silos, encourage multiple technologies and ensure growth. For Barros, it is a balancing act: “The big challenge to achieving connectivity is keeping the goal of building the single market whilst sustaining competition.”

Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) noted that finding “a confluence of interests, a dialogue” between regulators and international ICT organizations is critical, as often “the regulator is so far behind, but the state doesn’t know that it doesn’t know”.

Regulation needs to adjust to encourage entrepreneurship, digital inclusion and sustainability, he urged. The digital economy moves us away from the flawed top-down architecture, empowering the edge of the network. The economic powerhouse of the digital economy are young people and small buisnesses, “the sector with the biggest growth and the biggest effect on society”.

Kathy Brown, President & CEO of Internet Society, agreed that it is overwhelmingly the young who are building the networks and creating apps throughout the world – and who are now finding it difficult to enter the market due to outdated regulation. “We need to see regulatory reform for the networks themselves, for vertical sectors and for entrepreneurship markets”, she said.

Suphachai Chearavanont, President of The Telecommunications Association of Thailand agreed, pointing out that ICT infrastructure in Thailand is rapidly advancing, but as the world is moving so fast towards digitalization, the IoT and the fourth industrial revolution, the private sector is moving much faster than the government. “Good governance, transparency of information and usefulness of information are the basis of the digital economy”, he noted.

Calling for all stakeholders to be responsible for security in their respective area of the ecosystem, Kathy Brown pointed out that, “If trust is gone, we have nothing. This is a collaborative, collective responsibility.” She warned against seeing the IoT as an “economic panacea” without understanding or prioritizing the need for building in security throughout the system.

Tackling cybersecurity starts with education, according to Suphachai Chearavanont. “It is time for us to work ahead of time on the younger generation, teaching them to use the tools of connectivity effectively and ethically,” he warned. “In the old days, the centre of knowledge used to be the teacher; now it is the Internet.” Not being able to use it correctly, extracting value but always questioning and analysing, risks damaging the educational system and creating further social discrimination.

Cybersecurity must be approached collaboratively, looking at multiple layers, from the network transport to software and the services on top, at government, national, regional and international levels. “We cannot do it alone,” said Kathy Brown, “we need collaborative security, not just connection, but also safe connection”.

Collaboration and inclusiveness means breaking down the silos of industry and government, establishing common goals on sustainability. For Dr Kituyi, public private partnerships, including partnerships with small enterprises and entrepreneurs, can be used as a learning experience, “transforming trust into synergy.”

Public private partnership and co-investment initiatives are critical to extending connectivity to rural and remote areas that are commercially inviable, reminded Barros.

Sharma stressed the need for the government and private sector, to work together, but each working to their own strengths. Governments should make policy and regulatory guidelines, leveraging the investment of the private sector.

Kathy Brown highlighted the grassroots low cost solutions to connectivity thar are already up and running, with creative, innovative community frameworks based on solar power or WiFi networks and adapted to local needs.

Inclusiveness and sustainability are key to long-term economic growth, agreed the panellists, enabling us all to benefit from the enormous potential of “the Internet of Oppportunity.” To achieve that, we must break down silos, engage in dialogue, and work together.

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