Is Digital Disrupting Development? Can technology be a force for Inclusion?

Digital-Transformation-in-Africa

Author: Aleem Walji, Former Chief Executive Officer at Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. Aleem has also held senior leadership roles at the World Bank and Google.org.

Economic, political, and social exclusion are intertwined. When considering the rise of nationalism and xenophobia across the world, we know that lack of economic opportunity, globalization and the fear of automation contribute to our collective anxiety. Social unrest and instability are exacerbated by growing inequity and inequality.

Today, the richest one percent of the world own half the world’s wealth. Add to the mix disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and bio-engineering (just to name a few), and you have a new and much more polarizing digital divide emerging. 

At the beginning of the twenty first century, we were obsessed with the idea that a digital divide would marginalize the most marginal. There are examples of this happening in many places but the catastrophe was largely avoided. What we didn’t fully appreciate was how quickly some technologies like the mobile phone and mobile networks would penetrate new markets, fall in price, and deliver services that benefit the rich and poor alike. It’s remarkable to consider the spread and speed of digital payments and financial inclusion in Kenya and Bangladesh, public service delivery through digital IDs through the India stack, and the use of remote sensing and AI to launch precision agriculture.

Having led efforts at Google.org, the World Bank, and the Aga Khan Foundation, I’ve learned that innovation thrives when constraints on private enterprises are lifted and governments are enabled by digital platforms, analytics, and data driven decision making. Technologies like AI can be drivers of economic, social and political inclusion rather than exclusion. But a more inclusive and tech-enabled model of development that moves us closer to realizing the UN Sustainable Development Goals will not happen by default. It will require forward-leaning policy makers, far-sighted investors and grant makers, civic-minded tech innovators and businesses, and a robust, digitally savvy civil society to work collaboratively for social and economic inclusion. 

Unless we are deliberate about ensuring that these benefits are accessible to the poor, they will be left further behind. A second generation digital divide could be much worse and affect many more people than the first. We have seen firsthand how robots reduce jobs in manufacturing and how repetitive tasks are replaced by machine learning in industrialized societies. But remote sensing and AI in Africa and Asia can also help farmers know where to plant, when to irrigate and when to harvest to increase their incomes. Fintech has provided millions of previously unbanked people access to financial services.

So what can we do today to ensure that social and economic dividends from fourth industrial revolution technologies (4IR) are human-centered and shared equitably within society? How can we build on and amplify early success with AI in agriculture and water management, natural language processing in education and personalized medicine? Here are some initial thoughts each of which require further attention and work:

  1. Governments must invest further in smart infrastructure. Universal broadband, reliable energy, mobile networks and access to data as a public good are foundational. Putting in place the right regulatory frameworks, governance and procurement mechanisms will catalyze private investment.
  2. Federal and state level government, the private sector and civil society must invest in skilling and re-skilling workers to prepare them for the future of work. Labor markets will shift constantly: skills and micro-credentialing may be more important than degrees. Vocational institutes and universities – many of which have not significantly updated centuries-old methods will need to re-think their roles in this ecosystem.
  3. Foundations, bilateral and multilateral institutions and impacts investors need to unlock capital, de-risk investments, incubate and accelerate new business models allowing more people access to basic services, markets, and opportunities.
  4. Multilateral institutions like the UN and the World Bank, bilateral donors and foundations need to mobilize a multi-stakeholder alliance to create a digital data commons making high frequency, subnational, granular and anonymized data related to achieving the SDGs a global public good.
  5. Leading tech companies need to role-model responsible business practices at the core of their business and not just through CSR. Business models need to be inclusive by design and consider gender, class, ethnicity and other differences between end-users.
  6. Think tanks and universities must interrogate what’s working to bring about social, economic and political inclusion. A responsible media can call attention to successful examples for policy makers, investors and civil society.
  7. Governments must enable social safety nets to protect the vulnerable who will not benefit from economic and social disruption that the 4IR will bring.
  8. Civil society must push governments and the private sector to ensure that the broader interests of society are foremost in our minds. Cyber security, data privacy and ownership, ethics and the threat of disinformation must be skillfully managed.

 

Perhaps it is time for a new social contract to emerge between citizens, businesses, and the state.

It is time we take a sober look at questions of equity and inclusion in society. Who stands to benefit most and how can we use the 4IR as a trampoline for inclusive and sustainable development? No institution can do this alone. It will take an ecosystem. It’s essential we act now in order to shape outcomes that are fair and equitable for all.

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