How can ICTs drive sustainable development?

06_shutterstock_237984598There is no disputing that information and communication technologies (ICT) will fuel the global economy of the next few decades. But what role will ICTs play in helping the United Nations achieve its new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which follow and expand on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030?

ITU, as the UN’s specialized agency for ICTs, is forging a path forward on this critical issue. And ITU leadership was on display at the 2015 World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Symposium (WTIS‑15), held in Hiroshima, Japan.

“SDGs are about problems. ICTs are about solutions. None of the SDGs can be achieved without ICTs,” said Brahima Sanou, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau. “ICTs are about people. Our mission is to bring the power of ICTs to ordinary people wherever they live. It is a very noble mission. Let us not miss the opportunity.”

Distinguished government officials as well as leaders from the private sector, international organizations, and academia did not miss the opportunity in Hiroshima. They jumped straight into key ICT development issues in panel discussions, bilateral meetings, and ad hoc hallway discussions. They networked to share challenges, successes, failures — and how to take best practices back home to improve their day-to-day work so that the value of the Symposium could live on throughout the year.

Indeed, Japanese Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications, Sanae Takaichi, stated that the discussions held at the Symposium would be reflected in the ICT Ministers’ Meeting at the G7 Summit in Takamatsu, Japan, 29-30 April 2016.

Framing the challenges

At a ministerial round-table discussion on Day 1 of WTIS-15, ministers and deputy ministers shared the ICT challenges and successes of their countries. Many mentioned the cost of ICT services as perhaps the most critical limitation to connecting larger segments of their respective populations.

“In order for ICTs to play a very important role in SDGs, we have to work on lowering the cost,” said Joao Bernardo Vieira, Guinea-Bissau’s Minister of Transport and Communications. He added that Goal No. 1 of the SDGs (No Poverty) could be strongly advanced if basic digital financial services could reach the extreme poor — and that Goal No. 3 (Good Health and Well-Being) could be greatly facilitated through mobile data applications. Dr Vieira also stressed the importance of the government’s role in fostering ICT innovation. He said governments should create incentives, help mobilize capital, and limit regulation for ICT innovators.

Tonga’s Deputy Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni laid out some of the challenges he faces in a Pacific Small Island Developing State. “Providing central services is difficult. Which one is most important? Roads, health — or ICTs?” asked Mr Sovaleni. “ICT development competes with other more basic and pressing development needs.”

This was a familiar challenge for many in attendance. But Mr Sovaleni offered some advice: “It’s very important to link the ICT indicators to the other development goals,” he said. “Having the link to SDGs will help us [government officials] tap into those development resources.”

Zambia’s Deputy Minister of Transport and Communications, James Kapyanga, said his government had to create a seat at the president’s office to deal specifically with ICTs in order for ICTs to vie for funding amid the other pressing development needs. “If you don’t create that seat, ICTs only get lip service,” he said.

Sharing successes — and failures

The Philippines has found success by making ICTs a key part of broader development efforts, said Mario G. Montejo, Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology. “In all our initiatives, ICTs are embedded either directly or indirectly,” he said, giving two useful examples: One was a “Smart Agriculture” programme that guides farmers when to plant, fertilize and harvest, based on site-specific weather data. The results were that less water and fertilizers were needed and that farmers could lower their costs, improving productivity and efficiency. The other example was disaster preparedness put in place since the deadly 2013 typhoon. Hundreds of data centres were used to gather and analyse data. “Because of the improvement in early warning, we suffered zero casualties despite many recent disasters,” said Mr Montejo.

Underscoring the value of countries sharing best practices, Mr Sovaleni said that Tonga had learned from Japan’s experience on disaster management and put early-warning sirens in place, which had helped save countless lives in the disaster-prone area.

But sharing successes isn’t always enough.

“It’s important to share best practices, but also information about failures” so that we can all make progress, said Areewan Haorangsi, Secretary General of the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (APT). Participants around the conference hall nodded their heads in agreement.

Jaume Salvat Font, CEO of the Aggaros ICT consultancy and former CEO of Andorra Telecom, said that governments need to focus more on end-user services and business needs in order to create more successful policies. “If we want to be happy with the results, we have to do something different,” said Mr Salvat. “The experience of the user is the most important thing. Policy and regulation need to keep pace with technological change. This is why many countries’ policies have failed.” For instance, he continued: “If an operator is interested in investing in rural areas, they should get an advantage in heavily populated areas — to compensate for the added business risk.”

The Secretary-General of Malaysia’s Ministry of Communications and Multimedia, Dr Sharifah Zarah Syed Ahmad, reinforced the need to put the end user first when designing ICT policies. That’s why Malaysia has introduced “citizen-centric” data collection, which aims to work with people on the ground to co-create and co-produce the data. Dr Syed cited Malaysia’s “Connecting the Unconnected” programme, which solicited early feedback from rural populations before launching. She said they are always asking the question: “To what extent do we engage the people who are the users of ICTs?”

Malaysia’s demand-driven approach to ICT development also includes fostering ICT entrepreneurship, something many countries are striving to do.

How to foster ICT innovation

The need for homegrown ICT innovation to boost development goals was widely discussed at WTIS.

During a panel discussion on the topic, Sarah Sung Ju Eo, Senior Researcher for the Korea Association for ICT Promotion (KAIT), presented the Republic of Korea’s approach to innovation, including the country’s more than 20 USD million investment in ICT startup consulting and seventeen“Centres for Creative Economy and Innovation” nationwide. She shared an example of a “Smart Farm” that was able to significantly decrease management time and expenses thanks to services provided by KT that allow a farmer to, for instance, control the temperature and humidity inside a greenhouse and water crops remotely with a smartphone.

Google’s Public Policy Manager for Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa, Andrew Ure, spoke from a different perspective, saying that innovation today is “disbursed, disaggregated, connected and at scale” — and that the key was to unlock people-centered innovation through scalable platforms that best enabled it.

As for the stumbling blocks to innovation, Mr Ure and others pointed to specific regulatory and tax policies, but they also emphasized the need to create a culture where innovation and entrepreneurship can thrive. “Tolerance for failure is right at the top of the list” of what’s needed to create that culture, said Mr Ure.

There was keen interest in ITU’s efforts to help foster innovation, particularly after the panel discussion on that topic. One participant from the Republic of Korea recalled previous ITU announcements about its drive to push innovation for SMEs as part of its Connect 2020 agenda and asked what ITU is doing in that regard. A participant from Bahrain asked: “How can you benchmark innovation?” And another participant from Iran asked what the major obstacles to ICT-enabled innovation are.

Indeed, the strong demand for information on best practices for fostering ICT innovation indicates that ITU’s efforts to connect key public and private stakeholders around this topic will be highly valuable in coming months and years.


itu newsThis article originally appeared in the latest edition of ITU News. The edition also covers:

  • Which countries ranked highest on ITU’s latest ICT Development Index — and why
  • How Big Data can be harnessed to drive ICT development
  • How governments can help drive homegrown ICT innovation

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