Setting the tone for this final ITU Digital World 2021 Ministerial Roundtable, Chaesub Lee, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, called for united efforts to collaborate and cooperate across sectors, nations and regions to advance together on digital transformation for all.
“Digitalizing daily life has become an absolute necessity,” he said. “Our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic is a powerful reminder that digital technology is the unifying force at the centre of our interconnected world.”
The key lesson learnt from the dramatic uptake of digital services during the pandemic is the need to put more effort into turning digital transformation into a reality, stressed Tsoinyana Rapapa, Minister of Communications, Science and Technology, Lesotho. His government’s priority is to implement policies supporting broadband development for digital transformation– but no longer as independent activities in siloed ministries. Now “governments should strive to centralize information to promote the effective use of ICT to efficiently and effectively deliver services that are transparent and effective”, he said.
Policies include promoting investment in relevant local content, enabling private sector stakeholder participation, and making use of universal service funds to mitigate digital inequality. Lesotho’s national development strategy includes technology and innovation as one of its four pillars, with an e government project combining digital literacy, cloud computing, mobile broadband and the provision of efficient public services conveniently and affordably. At its core is modern e government infrastructure fostering good governance through different agencies, key applications and an interactive information portal.
Current digital transformation objectives are to improve government digital skills and to overcome the geographic barriers of this “kingdom in the sky” by extending access to reliable digital services and to data and content in rural, remote and underserved areas – driving, in particular, digital finance and financial inclusion.
Promoting digital innovation
With one of the best national 4G internet coverages in the world, the government of Lithuania is well aware of the importance of robust, affordable and wide-reaching infrastructure as the backbone to digitalizing lives, economies and societies. Building on this foundation to develop the digital economy, the country’s three main priorities are the transformation of public information technology governance, open data and the promotion of digital innovation, outlined Agne Vaiciukeviciute, Deputy Minister of Transport and Communications.
Digital governance should create a strong digital basis for the public sector, create better conditions for businesses and citizens, improve competitiveness and reduce public spending. Fully consolidating state information sources will enable public services to be managed efficiently and securely, accompanied by strengthening the cybersecurity of national ID systems. Open data will allow the public, science and business communities to access public policy more easily, and public institutions to develop public services and decision making.
Lithuania is committed to supporting and incentivizing SMEs developing products and solutions for AI, blockchain and robotics. “The improvement of the start-up system is a very important part of our digital policy,” she said. “We seek to create new complex measures to promote innovation activities and increase the availability of financing of business investment in technology, innovation and the development of high value added activities.” These measures include the establishment of an information and communication technology competence centre to contribute to the sustainable development of ICT and promote innovation.
The digital paradox
In Indonesia, too, digital technology has formed the backbone of pandemic response and recovery, explained Mira Tayyiba, Secretary General, Ministry of Communciations and Informatics. Government efforts to deliver digital public services have been accelerated, including an integrated COVID-19 app with healthcare updates, digital screening and vaccine information which has reached over 52 million users. “However, we are particularly cautious about the digital paradox,” she warned. Digital technology creates massive opportunities for everyone, including SMEs, to be involved and benefit from economic activities – but lack of access, affordability or digital skills is widening the digital divide.
Connectivity, capability and capacity must be increased to bridge the gap. Indonesia is focused on providing reliable and affordable access, equipment and knowledge for digital readiness, supported by enabling policies on data governance. Measures include the deployment of 4G base stations in villages, the construction of a high throughput satellite as of 2023 to connect 150 000 public facilities, and a three-pronged digital skills programme ranging from basic digital literacy skills to improving policy maker expertise.
“Digital transformation is a big agenda, calling for a multi stakeholder collaboration, the application of a whole of government approach and private public partnerships at national, regional and global levels,” she concluded. “We must work together to close the digital divide, catalyse digital transformation and improve public policies on digital transformation.”
Transforming the entire model
Digital transformation is the development of thinking and change of societal behaviour to transform government sectors and companies to a business model dependent on digital technologies for projects and services, outlined Salim M. Al-Ozainah, Chairman and CEO, Communication and Information Regulatory Authority (CITRA), Kuwait. And, transformation is only possible when governments move on from traditional processes and find innovative ways to bring together people, technology and processes. Technology is not about adding capability but about transforming the entire model.
Kuwait is creating a competitive regulatory environment, optimizing the ICT market based on positive competition, and ensuring the provision of advanced services through a fast, secure and reliable communications network. Stimulating investment and creativity amongst business, in particular SMEs, will improve e government services and make them more easily available to individuals. CITRA is working to improve its services for citizens by shifting to digitalization based on cloud services, AI and alternative technologies to reduce cost, increase flexibility and efficiency, and drive economic development. Supporting innovative solutions is critical to continue growing and to be competitive in the digital world.
“Achieving digital transformation is a collective effort” calling for combined policies and strategies from businesses, individuals and government, he concluded.
COVID-19 was a mixed blessing, according to Majed Sultan Al Mesmar, Director General, Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority (TDRA), United Arab Emirates. It brought many sorrows, but at the same time opened our eyes to “the wonderful impact of digital transformation on economic, social and environmental sides.” It is the first pandemic in human history in the era of communications and digital technologies.
The robust digital infrastructure in UAE enabled its citizens to move quickly to a digital life, studying, working, shopping and doing business online. One of the lessons learnt is that “digital lifestyle is no longer the sole responsibility of government.” Now is the time for public private partnerships to promote and provide digital services.
Today, government is a platform, including the whole ecosystem of shared APIs, open standards, reliable data sets and services, with governance processes built on top ensuring safety, accountability and sustainability in all sectors. In the API ecosystem all sectors provide all services. This is the future we must prepare for now by introducing digital skills into the school curriculum and encouraging innovation and creativity.
“It is not possible to think of a digital world when almost half of the world population is offline,” he added. We must address the digital divide at both a local level and in a collaborative global framework.
Sustaining the momentum
Chairman and CEO of Viettel Group, Le Dang Dung, outlined how Viettel cooperated with the government during the pandemic to accelerate digital transformation – and is continuing to do so. Measures included delivering more than 3 000 public services online to ensure business continuity under social distancing conditions and assisting in the provision of telehealth solutions at district level to reduce the burden on the central medical system, increase efficiency at local level and increase timely access to expertise. In online education, Viettel provided platforms, materials and tools for students, schools and teachers across the country. The company also provided additional service capacity, reduced charges and access devices to meet the explosion in demand for online access, including from those who had never used broadband services before, with reduced charges.
Government, businesses and international corporations face three key challenges now: sustaining digital transformation in the post pandemic period, specifying the role of global social platforms as misinformation continues to spread unregulated, and maintaining the trust of people to live and work in the digital environment by ensuring safety, transparency and cybersecurity. Collective efforts from government, industry and people, sharing lessons learnt and best practices at regional and global levels will promote digital transformation around the world.
Educating the next generation
Digital life and the digitalization of solutions for children have great potential as an equalizer, said Thomas Davin, Director, Office of Innovation, UNICEF. Technology used well can allow children to progress at an unprecedented pace and in countless ways around the world, including through education technology and medical technology. He cited specific examples of using tech to identify and map school structures around the world; identifying bodies of water through AI and machine learning to provide access to safe water and hygiene, or using a chatbot to help children understand non-communicable and communicable diseases.
Digital public goods, in particular open source solutions, are a powerful equalizer. But the basic starting point is providing connectivity and access. In the world of education, this means connecting schools and communities through programmes such as the UNICEF-ITU GIGA initiative, which aims to connect all children around the world to a digital curriculum enabling them to learn at their own pace on an adaptive learning journey.
“Schools are at the heart of communities, so connecting schools means connecting hundreds of millions of people to a new life, a new chance to benefit from connectivity, from this digital world and digital solutions for day to day life,” he pointed out. A child educated to secondary school level can benefit from more work opportunities, care for themselves and for their families in the future – so this is the world we can build together with digital technologies.
Panelists discussed the need for cybersecurity and protection for the vulnerable online, including in social media spaces, which can be a “jungle,” as well as tackling misinformation and fake news with potentially critical consequences at a time of global pandemic.
One goal, one mission
Digital inclusivity must be our central priority, panelists agreed. “We share one goal and one mission: getting everyone connected by 2030,” said Nguyen Manh Hung, Minister of Information and Communications, Viet Nam. We can make it happen if we work together across the global ICT community, across governments and the private sector. Digital transformation is a fundamental change: it is not just technological transformation, but mindset transformation, and must be driven by strong and committed leadership at the very top of governments and companies.
Wrapping up the session, ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao echoed the fact that digital transformation was above all a mindset, but must be accompanied by strengthened investment, alongside a whole-of-government and human-centric approach to ICT development. From digital skills to content, infrastructure sharing, spectrum policies, enabling regulatory environments and a focus on 5G, government must take centre stage in building the digital world.