Amid the severe and ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, how can the world return to the trajectory of sustainability? Brian Kaitano, BSc IT student at Maseno University, Kenya, explores the key role that digital technology can play.
The changing world
The world is changing at an unprecedented speed and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is no longer the future, it is the reality now. This industrial revolution seems set to run much broader and deeper affecting more people than those of the last. As such, the 4IR presents shared challenges and opportunities now and in future, hence global response is needed to overcome the challenges so as to bring beneficial outcomes globally. If the situation regarding internet connectivity is not resolved soon, the benefits of the 4IR will not be felt, living more people even further behind.
The COVID-19 pandemic has focused the world`s attention on the need to take action to deal with threats to our way of life, our health and our future. Global attention will drive government policies and behavioral changes with diseases, climate change, future jobs, conflict and socioeconomic inequality becoming major subjects of worldwide scrutiny. In this light, we must continue to bring visibility to these threats while recognizing and supporting the opportunities for digital technologies and innovations that can best and rapidly address them. The beautiful thing about technology is that once it is invented somewhere it can help everywhere.
The power of digital technology in economies and societies
The Third Industrial Revolution (3IR) opened many doors of opportunities which are good for socioeconomic outcomes globally. Digital infrastructures and services have fundamentally reshaped our daily lives and yet many people are still unconnected globally. Digital technology offers a path to economic leapfrogging but only in combination with institutions, skills and infrastructure.
To understand the power of digital technology in economies and societies, it is essential to tackle several key issues including how digital technology influences the growth of the global economy, the major factors affecting the digital world today, major global pressing issues that can be solved through digital technology, the urgent need to revamp the global education system and how countries such as France and Singapore, perhaps working in collaboration, can build a green, equitable and sustainable global economic recovery plan through digital technology.
These issues can be approached by analyzing the top ten across a number of dimensions*. largest economies. The existing data points towards the assumption that the most digitally advanced nations tend to dominate the top spots while less digitally advanced nations score poorly in all the categories listed below.
As such, the digital divide is holding back the economic growth of poorer countries as they are unable to take full advantage of the opportunities found in global digital ecosystem. Bridging the global digital divide will improve social and economic equality and boost innovation and economic growth globally. It will therefore ensure achievement of all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) sooner within the scheduled period, i.e. by 2030. We must shape technology before it shapes us.
I would assert that the factors that are essential for a successful global economy recovery include: the pathway of COVID-19 pandemic, global consumer demand and financial sentiment and capital flows. We must embrace digital technology as it plays a crucial role in achieving positive outcomes for all these factors.
Bridging the global digital divide and fostering inclusivity
The major factors leading to global digital divide include a lack of digital infrastructures and services, lack of affordable digital infrastructures and services, lack of digital skills to create/add value and lack of coordinated efforts. We can overcome these challenges by: connecting the unconnected, industry innovations, revamping global education system to make it dynamic and future-oriented and coordinating efforts both at national and global level to develop policies, standards and regulations so as to ensure high degree of competition and tackling issues such as cyber security, censorships and internet governance. The internet has become one of the most fundamental and vital infrastructures around the world – according to the World Economic Forum, each additional 10% of internet penetration can lead to a 1.2% increase in per capita GDP growth in emerging economies.
Mitigating climate change
The objective of limiting temperature increases to 1.5°C-2°C by 2100 was endorsed worldwide by policymakers in the 2015 Paris Agreement. This means that emissions must be eliminated/removed from the atmosphere. I believe that the time has come to use digital technologies much more effectively to manage the consequences of socioeconomic change and its impacts on the environment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the largest emissions drop since World War II, though this decline will be only temporary. Under unchanged policies, emissions will continue to rise rapidly and global temperatures could increase by an additional 2°C-5°C by the end of the century reaching levels not seen in millions of years, hence imposing growing physical and economic damage across the planet.
The ICTs sector also contributes to this crisis as CO2 emissions currently stand at 4-6% and are projected to double by 2030 under business-as-usual scenarios. At the same time, ICTs also play a key role in supporting the development of the green economy in two principle ways: By increasing the use of renewable energy sources, reducing use of toxic materials, improving recycling and end-of life disposal of ICTs. And by increasing the enabling effects of ICTs on the development of the green economy through improvements in the efficiency of production, distribution and consumption of goods and services throughout the economy and society.
In sum, digital technology significantly influences the growth of the global economy. The basic drivers of the global economic growth are capital, labor and technology – all of which are affected by education. Seen as one of the major factors causing slow global economic growth today, there is an urgent need to revamp the global education system.
* Global Green Economy Index (GGEI), imports and exports, Economic Complexity Index (ECI), ease of doing business, largest companies, wealthy individuals, FDI inflows and outflows, digital trust and Global Competitiveness Index (GCI), i.e. Human Capital Index (HCI), Worldwide Educating for the Future Index (WEFFI), Global Innovation Index (GII) and Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI).
Sources:  Shenglin, B., F. Simonelli & R. Zhang (2018, January 15). Digital Infrastructure: Overcoming Digital Divide in Emerging Economies. Retrieved from https://www.g20-insights.org/policy_briefs/digital-infrastructure-overcoming-digital-divide-emerging-economies/;  Fleming, S. (2018, October 31). Digital Distrust: We’re Losing faith in Technology to Solve World`s Problems. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/10/digital-distrust-we-re-losing-faith-in-technology-to-solve-the-world-s-problems/;  Frangos, J.M. (2018, September 15). Technology is a force for Peace and Prosperity. Don`t let its Challenges obscure this. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/09/technology-opportunities-challenges-force-peace-prosperity/;  IMF (2020, October 12). World Economic Outlook: A Long and Difficult Ascent. Retrieved from https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/09/30/world-economic-outlook-october-2020;  World Bank (2018, August 3). Investing in People to build Human Capital. Retrieved from https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/immersive-story/2018/08/03/investing-in-people-to-build-human-capital;  World Economic Forum (2018, September 17). The Future of Jobs Report 2018. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2018/
By Brian Kaitano
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