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A DIGITAL FUTURE FOR ALL

July 15, 2022 | Expert Insights

The digital revolution has changed life in ways previously considered unimaginable; new digital tools and techniques are delivering far-reaching material benefits and solving intractable problems apart from providing global connectivity at affordable rates. 

The UN predicts that digital transformation and the climate crisis could be one of the "two seismic shifts that will shape the 21st century." COVID-19 has succeeded in accelerating this technological change.

But there is a darker side to the digital world. It is generating tension in the most unexpected ways- by fuelling inequalities between nations and within nations- with millions finding themselves locked out of the knowledge economy. There is also the risk of mental health and the creation of monopolistic market forces by a few monolithic corporations. This is evident in the creation of new digital hubs spread out between Silicon Valley in the U.S. and Stockholm in the West to Tokyo/ Singapore/ Seoul /Beijing/ Bangalore in the East.

Digital access can be correlated with overall economic development in any society. The UN has estimated that nearly half the world's population, the majority of whom are women and mostly in developing countries, remain offline.

Living up to its Potential

Access to the digital world is multi-dimensional and spans connectivity, skills, scale, and access to data. Thus far, digitalisation's reach has remained uneven across all these dimensions from country to country.

The U.S. and China have been clear front runners while Europe has lagged. Within countries, some sectors have made more use of the digital revolution than others, such as information and communications technology, media, and finance. Construction, hospitality, and agriculture sectors remain primarily untouched in many countries. The government and education sectors also took time to catch up.

During the last decade, artificial intelligence (AI) brought about another wave of digital innovation; in voice recognition, natural language learning and translation, robotics, autonomous vehicles, algorithmic prediction etc. AI's spread is uneven, with the U.S., China and India being regarded as the front runners. Combined with other digital-enabled enhancements, AI shapes the "Second Machine Age" and "the Fourth Industrial Revolution."

A Systems Approach

The Global Lighthouse Network (GLN), established by the World Economic Forum, is a platform for sharing best practices, learning, facilitating collaboration, scaling innovations, setting benchmarks, and celebrating success. By early 2022, over 100 facilities around the world had earned a "lighthouse" designation—meaning they serve as examples to guide others—including six "sustainability lighthouses" that demonstrated how new industrial operations could contribute to the green transition.

Western Digital, the American hard disk drive and data Storage Company, has earned several lighthouse designations, with its Penang, Malaysia facility earning the "sustainability lighthouse" designation in 2022. This intelligent factory had expanded its volume by over 40 per cent per year over four years and simultaneously delivered dramatic improvements in its sustainability. At the same time, it reduced its energy consumption by over 40 per cent, its water use by 45 per cent, and its waste by 16 per cent. This resulted in a drop in greenhouse gas emissions at the Penang facility to nearly 40 per cent.

Western Digital achieved these combined business and sustainability results by integrating the best of the digital revolution into its operations. At the heart of the change lies a network of more than 1,000 industrial Internet of things (IIoT) sensors monitoring equipment and utility systems, all of which are linked to an advanced analytics plant monitoring system. 

Ushering Equality

The digital revolution can become the essence of capitalism's power and potential for change. As envisaged by the Trilateral Commission, the fifth stage of capitalism should work towards eliminating inequalities resulting from unequal access to the digital revolution. To bridge the gaps and improve capitalism's working, the Commission has suggested some key pointers.

To bring about transformational change in the world economic order and to make it more sustainable and inclusive, the digital revolution must be impressed into service without further delay. It would involve establishing inclusive national digital strategies, closing the connectivity gaps, promoting universal digital literacy, empowering workers with digital tools, establishing hubs to disperse digital innovation, and transforming government operations.

The Trilateral Commission has emphasised the need to address the multiple digital divides so that no person or individual is prevented from reaping the full benefits of digitalisation. The Commission recommends setting up a forum for collaboration across a range of digital issues covering scientific and technical to economic and commercial to security, military, and law enforcement.

This forum could be an alliance of "techno-democracies" with like-minded technological leaders. The forum would build a digital order that preserves and promotes open societies, combats the illiberal use of emerging digital technologies, and maximises these innovations' economic potential.

The Financial Stability Board (FSB), set up after the G20 summit of 2009 in response to the 2008-09 global financial crisis, provides a model that could work for the digital ecosystem. The FSB-like group could set up common standards- in digital technologies and definitions of cybercrime, common approaches to antitrust rules, and a framework to address ethical issues arising from AI and harmonising privacy issues versus data ownership. Let's not forget that global connectivity and economies of scale require interoperability and standard data portability and transfer rules.

As a long-term goal, this forum could look to address more sensitive topics such as online propaganda, disinformation, and cyber threats. It could also coordinate investments and share intelligence among democratic countries to counter autocratic regimes' misuse of digital technologies.

The UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also need digital technologies to narrow inequalities. They assist micro-entrepreneurs in connecting to new markets, allow children on the move to access education and give vulnerable communities a voice. The rapid growth of telemedicine, which enables doctors to reach remote areas, is just one opportunity with the potential to save millions of lives. The Giga initiative to bring every school in the world online is an example of one such effort.

Digital transformation, like the climate crisis, is a global issue that calls for global solutions. Social media is a prime example which has the power to transform and, at the same time, threaten with disinformation. Social media platforms are also used to fuel genocide, exploit children and spread an atmosphere of mistrust. The UN has created the office of the Envoy of Technology to address technology issues and digital cooperation.

The UN's new Digital Strategy 2022-2025 aims to support countries and communities to use digital technology as a lever to help drive down inequality, support inclusivity, tackle climate change, and open-up economic opportunities. Digitalisation forms a vital component of the UN's efforts to meet SDGs. 

Assessment

  • It is a blotch on human nature that corporate profit remains the driving force behind the digital revolution, with only marginal spillovers being made available to their poorer cousins by the rich and powerful developed world. This mad race for commercial supremacy must give way to a more equitable technology sharing with no strings attached.
  • The extremely high cost of R&D associated with cutting-edge technological innovation is the biggest stumbling block as the innovators are forced by economic compulsions to recover their tremendous investments. In the real world, this fact of life cannot be ignored, and a time lag between the Global North and South should be acceptable regarding the universal use of advanced digital technology.