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A world of opportunities & risks

Article - April 18, 2016

Over the past three decades, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has changed the way we work, shop, read, travel and how we spend our money. Forecasts of the future of the Internet point to an ever-more connected world in which the role of the digital economy will take on even more importance.


No discussion of the global economy, poverty, transparency, education, or even climate change is complete without mention of Information and Communications Technology (ICT). And not just a nod in its general direction; ICT is now an essential component for solving the global challenges of the 21st Century.

If harnessed properly, communications technology can open a world of opportunity for businesses and consumers alike. It can also reduce carbon emissions, make government and education more easily available to citizens – in short, improve the lives of all those who have access to it.

The forecasts by GeSI, the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, point to exponential growth in global connectivity over the next 15 years. In its GeSI SMARTer2030 report, the think tank predicts there will be an additional 2.5 billion people connected to ICT services by that time. This would bring the global total to 5.7 billion, up from just one billion in 2005. That is, 5.7 billion people with access to unlimited information, products and services - all of them potential customers for every company with an online presence.

The GeSI report predicts this growth in connectivity will bring $6.5 trillion in revenue opportunities and $4.9 trillion in cost savings worldwide. The former will be a result of sales of services and devices, as well as of increased productivity and decreased waste in numerous sectors, such as the food industry. Farmers with access to smart agricultural apps, for example, could boost yields by 30%. Cost savings would come from reduced electricity, fuel and miscellaneous expenditures.

If harnessed properly, communications technology can open a world of opportunity for businesses and consumers alike.

Continuing with the domino effect, GeSI estimates a reduction of 12 gigatons (GT) in carbon dioxide emissions - 11 times what the European Union has saved over the last 25 years.
For individuals, e-work solutions and smart metering could translate into a saving of 100 hours of travel time per year and $200 in energy bills.

“Our findings show an ICT-enabled world by 2030 that is cleaner, healthier and more prosperous, with greater opportunities for individuals everywhere,” says Luis Neves, chairman of GeSI.

The economic benefits of ICT are effectively seen as neon signs by the business community, and countless entrepreneurs have established their own niches, some even displacing traditional, well-established businesses in what is known as digital disruption. Whether intentional or not, these young, 21st century businesses are contributing positively in several ways to the climate change challenge. However, some commentators believe the public sector should take on a greater role.

The Secretary General of International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), John Danilovich, said, “It’s clear that the business community sees the potential opportunity in taking action to meet the climate challenge. ICT innovation is a key element to spur green growth, but many governments do not sufficiently tap the sector’s innovation potential. A new global climate agreement must play a catalytic role in speeding the introduction of smart policies to drive private sector innovation and investment across all sectors.”

On the other hand, more and more governments are aiming for greater transparency, using ICT as the ideal tool in this endeavour, creating not only e-government portals, but also Open Data systems. Colombia, for example, is making outstanding strides in this field as its Minister of ICT, David Luna Sánchez, pointed out, “Colombia is classified as the leading Latin American country in matters of Open Government and e-Government,” he said.

“We are making the necessary efforts to get the companies to understand that we consider them to be important partners, and notice that we are ready to make all the adjustments that are required,” he added. “We have received many recommendations and we are responding to them.”

Colombia has also made impressive progress in connectivity nationwide. Five years ago, when President Juan Manuel Santos took office, there were just 200 connected cities, 2.2 million connections, and only 20% of homes were online. Today, as Mr. Luna Sánchez indicated, Colombia has “1,078 connected cities, 10 million connections and almost 50% connected homes.”

Moreover, the country’s “Vive Digital” (Live Digital) programme plans for 6,000 digital “kiosks”, which offer open access to all residents, to be installed around some 5,300 municipalities by the year 2020. Now in its second phase (Vive Digital 2018), the original plan successfully met its goals of quadrupling Internet connections and tripling the number of municipalities on the fibre-optic network.

For 2018, Colombia hopes to triple the online presence of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), from 21% today to 63%. The new plan also expects the number of jobs in the IT industry to triple and the number of software companies to double.

The government of Guayaquil in Ecuador has an initiative in which by 2019, there will be 6,000 free access points in the city, with each point providing four blocks with accessibility. They have begun with a speed of 4 Mbps and within four years’ time, this will increase to 8 Mbps.

Qatar is another nation that is successfully pushing ICT development at a dizzying rate. According to Dr. Hessa Al Jaber, Minister of ICT, the 2015 National ICT Plan, announced in 2011, called for “the doubling of the ICT sector’s contribution to GDP ($3 billion); doubling the ICT workforce to 40,000; achieving ubiquitous high-speed broadband access for households and individuals (95%); achieving mass ICT and Internet adoption by all segments of society (90%); and achieving wide accessibility and effectiveness of all key government services (160 services).”

By the end of this year, with the exception of doubling the ICT workforce, all these goals will have been achieved.

Yet Dr. Al Jaber recognises that the challenges are not over. “The future shape of ICT seems more ambiguous and complex now than ever before,” she says. “Technology is moving at such a rapid pace that it is even difficult to understand how our society and ICT sector will look five years from now.”

What is clear, however, is that the ICT sector can create a virtuous cycle. “In the new emerging digital economy, SMEs have not just local competitors, but regional and international competitors as well. As SMEs increasingly adopt ICT in order to stay competitive, they will increase the overall demand for technology companies in Qatar and thus, help grow the ICT sector,” Dr. Al Jaber says.

While the potential of ICT for transforming the world is virtually as limitless as the Internet itself, the emerging digital economy and the Internet of Everything do not come without their perils.

In the B20 Coalition’s policy paper, business leaders outlined six recommendations to the G20 governments. They included improving digitisation of government processes and easier access for companies to the digital economy and infrastructures.

The paper also highlighted the economic and regulatory challenges that must be addressed.

These are, namely, “the need to strengthen multi-stakeholder Internet governance and increase collaboration between different stakeholders; the necessity of fostering digital trust in an era that has witnessed an explosion in collection and usage of personal data to stimulate innovation; the challenge of bringing regulation in line with new disruptive business models and complex technologies; and the need to bridge the digital divide to increase the consequent positive socio-economic impact on businesses and citizens.”  

If the G20 and B20 leaders can agree on these policies and effectively put them into practice, ICT may prove to be the linchpin in the world’s strategy to fight inequality, poverty and hunger, not to mention climate change and economic crises. •

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