How to bridge the digital divide


By Joe Myers.

The latest World Economic Forum dialogues on the agenda examined the challenge of bridging the digital divide and ensuring equitable access to the opportunities offered by internet connectivity.

Participants: Paula Ingabire, Minister of Information and Communication Technologies and Innovation of Rwanda; Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Digital Economy and Remote Work Applications of the United Arab Emirates; Achim Steiner, Administrator, United Nations Development Program; Tan Hooi Ling, co-founder, Grab; Robert F. Smith, Founder, President and CEO, Vista Equity Partners; Adrian Lovett, President and CEO, World Wide Web Foundation.

The session was chaired by Børge Brende, President, World Economic Forum, and moderated by Adrian Monck, Managing Director, World Economic Forum.

COVID-19 a “catalyst” for the digital transition

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital transition, all panelists agreed. As Paula Ingabire explained, this has been a ‘catalyst’ for digital transformation in many countries – both in tackling the pandemic and in using digital tools to ensure the continuation of essential services.

But a digital divide and disparities persist, she added, and the current pace of digital adoption exaggerates that divide.

And while technology has helped address many challenges posed by the pandemic, there are still broader issues to be addressed, Omar bin Sultan Al Olama said. It’s not enough to just give a child a tablet – you need to make sure their learning environment is appropriate, he said.

Access, despite the acceleration we have seen during the pandemic, remains a major hurdle, however, the panel agreed.

A societal approach

Inclusion must be at the center of digital transformation, insisted Achim Steiner. You have to look at society as a whole, he said. You need to create digital ecosystems that work for start-ups, for entrepreneurs, for coders and programmers, but also to ensure that people are not left behind.

Connection alone is not enough. Steiner asks: How can we build education systems that will allow young people to thrive in digital economies?

And meaningful connections are important, urged Ingabire and Adrian Lovett. It’s not binary, Lovett says – whether you’re connected or not – it’s about ensuring people have an infrastructure they can rely on and a connection they can access on a regular basis.

The potential to close the gap

There are huge opportunities if we can bridge the gap, from education to employment. There is a “massive economic impact” in uplifting communities, if we can take advantage of it, summarized Robert F. Smith.

And as Lovett explained, ROIs matter – we just need the resources.

Digital technology has also helped those who have suffered the disruption caused by the pandemic, said Tan Hooi Ling. Her tech company Grab has been able to offer a lifeline to many who have seen other forms of income disappear, she said.

“The economics of this work,” Al Olama summed up. We just need people to understand the potential and encourage the public and private sectors to work together to win over investors.

The role of public-private partnerships

Panelists were united on the need for collaboration between the private and public sectors – and civil society, Lovett added.

The involvement of the private sector is already a driver of progress in the United States, explained Smith. Various initiatives are already underway to improve connectivity in communities across the country. And it is important that companies are encouraged to engage with the public sector.

This is true around the world, Tan explained. As a social enterprise, Grab wonders how she can work with other businesses and with governments to create products and services that are really needed.

A “unified effort” is needed on the part of the public and private sectors, Al Olama believes.

It’s not a question of how one is better than the other, Steiner concluded. It is about how one can enable the other.

* This article was first published by the World Economic Forum.

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