Digital inequality a risk to digital economy

By Narinder Kapoor

It has been more than a year since COVID-19 landed on our shores, and the economic fallout continues to unfold in unpredictable ways.

But one thing is indisputable: forced apart by lockdowns and physical distancing, the world devised ways to collaborate and innovate like never before, thanks largely to an accelerated adoption of digital technologies. Indeed, the growth of world’s digital economy has surged in response to this global crisis, and it has brought with it new economic opportunities and scientific breakthroughs. The big questions is – how do we use this momentum to create equitable opportunities for everyone in the future digital economy?

In Singapore, the government managed to respond swiftly and effectively to the pandemic using technology: activating telemedicine, implementing remote working and smoothly rolling out vaccinations. Thanks to the state’s digital maturity, Singapore was able to effectively pivot to virtual meetings, distance learning, and online transactions, while also contributing meaningfully to the international COVID-19 research effort. Yet, other nations in the region have not fared as well. The reality has uncomfortably exposed existing fractures of the widening digital divide and reminded us that those without access to technology will be left behind. Digitalisation and connectivity can fuel the next lap of global economic growth, but to fully realise the potential of a global digital economy and collectively emerge stronger, it is crucial to support digital inclusion for all.

The COVID-19 crisis gives us new impetus to alleviate the inequalities of the worsening digital divide and provide everyone quality access to technology. With public and private sectors currently investing heavily in digital transformation, global governments and technology giants now have an opportunity to intentionally shape what the future digital economy will look like. In a ‘digital first’ world, the digitally illiterate will be excluded from economic advancements. So, it comes as no surprise that the World Economic Forum ranks ‘digital inequality’ among its top five most concerning short-term global threats.1 To build a digitally inclusive playing field that bridges the digital divide we must focus on these areas: connectivity, digital literacy, and access to insights.

Ubiquitous and equitable connectivity

When schools closed and pivoted into online learning in full swing, fault lines emerged in the harsh light of the pandemic. We’ve read news of volunteers rushing to deliver laptops and internet-enabling devices to families in need. Companies—including Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE)—responded by offering Wi-Fi hotspots in buses, stadium parking lots, and even a passenger ferry.

These are stop gap measures. Looking forward, we must aim towards the provision of seamless, ubiquitous, affordable and secure connectivity. Beyond helping students with schoolwork, internet access is paramount in enabling unfettered participation in the digital economy.

Digital literacy – a lifelong learning tool

Channelling the power of technology and good quality education are proven ingredients for advances in social and economic development. In this area, Singapore has steadily topped the charts for digital inclusiveness, according to Roland Berger’s Digital Inclusion Index 2020. But a third of the Southeast Asia population remains excluded from digital technologies, casting a stark contrast on the region’s digital divide.2

COVID-19 has underlined the connectivity chasm, and there is an urgency to alleviate the existing entrenchment of both social and economic inequality. Governments have taken the lead in formulating policies, but more can be done. Technology companies especially, are at the forefront of spearheading

digital innovation and have a front row seat in rolling out initiatives such as upskilling training and STEM programmes to directly impact individuals’ digital literacy. Many countries have already partnered with technology providers—including HPE - to develop innovative STEM programmes such as Cyber Squad games, which help youths learn computer science in an engaging way and build necessary ‘digital muscles’ to brave this new world.

Going beyond data-driven

We are entering the Age of Insight, a new era where value is created from discoveries gleaned from rapid analysis of large amounts of data.

Be it healthcare, climate change, computing, or food security, these industries would require both access and skills to work with frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence, IoT and machine learning. These advancements also need to be made available to organizations that lack the necessary resources to access them. A digital economy works when everyone has the opportunity to participate. Imagine the discoveries we might miss in areas like precision medicine, population health and severe weather events when entire populations lack the insights required to innovate.

We have the technology to advance a more digitally inclusive world today. Inclusive growth requires us to put the digital economy to work for everyone. This takes a proactive, combined effort from governments and companies like HPE. Technology must be a force for good where it can benefit everyone, everywhere, and it’s time that we make it a reality.


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