The digital world we want

The digital transformation is deep, enduring and dynamic. Digital technologies are effortlessly crossing borders and revolutionising economies, rattling the way we do policy. The unrelenting speed of change has caught not only government, but also business and others off-guard. With society at the heart of this rapid transformation, the OECD Forum 2017 panel The Digital World We Want sought to know how we could be better co-ordinated and more proactive in order to foster inclusive growth and to harness digital technology to build a world that we not only want, but need.

The future is already here…

Smart phones, social media and big data have transformed the way we work, learn and organise our lives. Digitalisation has enabled a new-look globalisation and powered a wider technology revolution but we can’t forget that technology must work for the good of people — be its beast of burden — pulling the heavy loads. Mobile phones are being used to improve the welfare of lower-income and excluded groups in developing countries through the mPesa project, providing millions of Kenyans with access to basic banking services. Cloud computing is reducing IT costs for small business, allowing entrepreneurs from all segments of society to have a shot at business success. Governments are using social media to reach specific groups with information corresponding to their needs, meaning better citizen-government communication, and social media is also helping disadvantaged groups connect and co-operate.

Mobile broadband penetration hits 99% in OECD area

… but is it evenly distributed?

Digital technologies can indeed help serve the needs of citizens better, through easier access to health care, financial services and learning, and create new economic opportunities for firms and individuals. But access and usage of digital technologies are not uniform: in 2015, 2 billion people didn’t have a mobile phone and 60% of the world population didn’t have a broadband subscription. And we can’t forget that the internet also enables criminal activity and poses challenges to privacy and security. Some say digitalisation could be a chance to make up for the shortcomings of globalisation by reducing the divide between those profiting and those feeling left behind. Achieving this means actively tackling digital divides.

Equipping workers with appropriate skills to deal with structural change resulting from automation and other technology-driven changes is necessary to reduce geographical inequality and the divide between generations. While young women are just as much “digital natives” as young men, gender gaps remain to be addressed in use of digital technologies and involvement in digital-oriented industries. Innovation in industry, health and agriculture must reach less-developed economies, while poorer and less-educated people in richer countries need affordable Internet access and the skills to use it, to unleash the opportunities in this new economy. Better distribution of the benefits of the digital transformation will help rebuild the dwindling trust between governments, the private sector and citizens.

Is there a policy → technology gap?

Recognition of the gap between technology 4.0 and policy 1.0 is pushing digital issues higher up on policy agendas. Addressing inclusion is a critical facet of closing this policy-technology gap. There’s much work to do in ensuring that the digital economy is open to all, avoiding domination by a few, and building in protection of consumers and marginalised groups. A more proactive, whole-of-government approach, including unions, civil society and the tech community, can help shape the digital transformation to work better for people and deliver on global action plans such as the Paris Climate Agreement and 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Going digital and leaving no one behind

This session explored why inequalities and gaps exist in the access and use of digital technologies and what we can do to bridge them. Public policy inherently has a key role to play, particularly as we try to rebuild trust in our private and public institutions. We heard from thought leaders about how we can use innovative thinking in policy to maximise the advantages while minimising the negative impacts of digitalisation and create societies that everyone wants to live in.

“Educating users, particularly in developing countries, must be a priority to promote the digital empowerment of individuals.”

Going digital and going for better lives?

Faced with the question, “What can governments do to make the digital transformation work for people”, posed by scene-setter Andy Wyckoff, OECD Director for Science, Technology and Innovation, the panellists quickly agreed that the future is already here but that it’s not distributed evenly. Gaping gaps are obvious in access, age, gender, education, skills and geography. Countries, particularly in Asia, are taking the worst that digitalisation has to offer and people are left vulnerable to the risks of poor privacy and security. These countries are not capitalising on the benefits that increase access to finance, public services and health care for several reasons, lagging policies and unsafe online behaviour topping the list.

The Internet and social media can be a democratic opportunity but we have to recognise that it’s a powerful tool for manipulation. Educating users, particularly in developing countries, must be a priority to promote the digital empowerment of individuals. We have the tools to shape this transformation and some countries in Latin America are showing great leadership in demonstrating that the digital revolution is an opportunity to give people new opportunities and construct future societies that are resilient and inclusive.

The power of data

Much discussion revolved around the power of data and the question arose of whether “data is the new oil”. There was agreement that data has much more value than an entity such as oil. Data portability is very important to a thriving digital economy but we need to work on the trust element in the use of data by giving the customer back control. On the relationship with artificial intelligence (AI), it was noted that we need to pay attention to human intelligence and skills as well. AI is not about computers doing things instead of humans; rather, it’s a complementary, partnering relationship and we need to support AI development to help it become the greatest opportunity for mankind, not its biggest threat.

There’s hope, we have the technology

In order to address the challenges and immense opportunities that the digital transformation presents, governments need to acknowledge that real life is the digital life. A rapid but comprehensive “reboot” of analogue-era policies for a digital age is needed, along with a real effort to bolster skills and digital capacity in government. Governments should foster a spirit of experimentation, exploration and innovation. Frontrunner countries need to lead and show how technology can be used in new ways that improve education, health and social issues which contribute to rebuilding the necessary trust in our private and public institutions. This would go some way in ensuring that as we are going digital, we leave no one behind.


Session panelists:

  • Jason Karaian, Senior Europe Correspondent, Quartz, @jkaraian
  • Malavika Jayaram, Executive Director, Digital Asia Hub, Faculty Associate, Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University, @MalJayaram
  • Carlos Lopez Blanco, Global Head, Public & Regulatory Affairs, Telefonica, @Telefonica
  • Boris Koprivnikar, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Administration, Slovenia, @kobo00
  • Nicklas Lundblad, Vice President, Public Policy and Government Relations Europe, Middle East and Africa, Google, @nicklaslundblad

Watch the video of the session “The digital world we want” at the OECD Forum

OECD work on the digital economy

Originally published on the OECD Forum Network.