Dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion is nei­ther a panacea nor a curse

Shanghai Daily - - OPINION - Mark Suz­man

TECH­NOL­OGY is of­ten over­sold as ei­ther a panacea for the world’s prob­lems or an un­shake­able curse in­flict­ing dis­rup­tion and dis­place­ment on the most vul­ner­a­ble. But his­tor­i­cally, nei­ther of these char­ac­ter­i­za­tions is ac­cu­rate.

From the steam en­gine to the per­sonal com­puter, in­ven­tions have trans­formed so­ci­eties in com­plex ways. On bal­ance, how­ever, tech­nol­ogy has al­ways cre­ated more jobs and eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties than it has de­stroyed. That trend is likely to con­tinue.

Why am I so up­beat? Be­cause ev­ery­where I look, lead­ers are repo­si­tion­ing their economies to en­sure that tech­no­log­i­cal change and au­to­ma­tion are as­sets rather than li­a­bil­i­ties. As the Univer­sity of Ox­ford-based Path­ways for Pros­per­ity Com­mis­sion re­cently ob­served, with “op­ti­mism and col­lec­tive ac­tion,” so-called fron­tier tech­nolo­gies can em­power even the poor­est coun­tries.

For much of mod­ern his­tory, ex­port-driven in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and nat­u­ral-re­source wealth were viewed as the only mech­a­nisms for sus­tained growth in the de­vel­op­ing world. But to­day, new tech­nolo­gies, and the abil­ity to com­bine them with old in­no­va­tions, have given peo­ple more say over their eco­nomic for­tunes.

For ex­am­ple, the Africa Soil In­for­ma­tion Ser­vice, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion, has com­bined re­mote sens­ing soft­ware and open-source data to lower the cost of soil map­ping by 97 per­cent. This has given Africa’s small­holder farm­ers new tools for mak­ing ev­i­dence-based de­ci­sions about their op­er­a­tions, thereby in­creas­ing crop yields and re­duc­ing op­er­at­ing ex­penses.

Sim­i­larly, Twiga Foods in Kenya is us­ing tech­nol­ogy to op­ti­mize its sup­ply chain by match­ing ru­ral fruit and veg­etable grow­ers with small- and medium-size ven­dors in Nairobi. Twiga’s ap­proach has helped farm­ers ac­cess more lu­cra­tive mar­kets, in­creased con­sumer choice, and dra­mat­i­cally re­duced post-har­vest losses and waste.

Dig­i­tal in­clu­sion can be a pow­er­ful force, par­tic­u­larly for women.

Go-Jek, a ride-shar­ing and food-de­liv­ery ser­vice In In­done­sia, has in­creased driv­ers’ in­come by an av­er­age of 44 per­cent while con­nect­ing many of its sup­pli­ers, who are usu­ally women, to bank­ing ser­vices for the first time.

To be sure, cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the trans­for­ma­tive po­ten­tial of tech­nol­ogy will re­quire in­vest­ing more money in peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly in women and chil­dren. As we ar­gued in this year’s Gates Foun­da­tion Goal­keep­ers Re­port, bet­ter health care and ed­u­ca­tion — two pil­lars of the World Bank’s “hu­man cap­i­tal in­dex” — can un­lock pro­duc­tiv­ity and in­no­va­tion, re­duce poverty, and gen­er­ate pros­per­ity. These gains are es­sen­tial to coun­tries’ abil­ity to achieve the tar­gets set by the United Na­tions Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goals.

Ac­cess to tech­nol­ogy

Har­ness­ing tech­nol­ogy will also re­quire sen­si­ble eco­nomic re­forms, bet­ter in­fra­struc­ture, more ca­pa­ble in­sti­tu­tions, and strate­gies to de­liver dig­i­tal so­lu­tions to marginal­ized pop­u­la­tions. Some coun­tries are al­ready tak­ing these steps. In­done­sia, for ex­am­ple, has launched an am­bi­tious pro­gram to con­nect an ad­di­tional 100 mil­lion peo­ple to broad­band, a recog­ni­tion of the im­por­tance that con­nec­tiv­ity plays in fos­ter­ing eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity.

And yet, for the bulk of the world’s “bot­tom bil­lion,” ba­sic phone and In­ter­net ser­vices re­main pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive. That is why gov­ern­ments, donors, and the pri­vate sec­tor must work to­gether to cre­ate busi­ness and pric­ing mod­els that al­low for cost re­cov­ery while still pro­vid­ing an ad­e­quate level of dig­i­tal ser­vice to the poor­est con­sumers. One pover­tyre­duc­tion strat­egy worth ex­plor­ing is com­mu­nal ac­cess to tech­nol­ogy.

Af­ford­abil­ity is not the only fac­tor that keeps tech­nol­ogy out of the hands of the poor. The dig­i­tal di­vide mir­rors larger pat­terns of so­cial dis­crim­i­na­tion, es­pe­cially for women. Wher­ever women live, they are about 40 per­cent less likely than men to have ever used the In­ter­net.

To­day’s cut­ting-edge tech­nolo­gies are evolv­ing at a dizzy­ing speed. But with fore­sight and prepa­ra­tion, the world can min­i­mize the dis­rup­tion they will in­evitably cause to en­sure last­ing and in­clu­sive growth. If we co­or­di­nate our in­vest­ments in peo­ple with our spend­ing on in­no­va­tion, the new “dig­i­tal age” will leave no one be­hind.

Mark Suz­man is chief strat­egy of­fi­cer and pres­i­dent of global pol­icy and ad­vo­cacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion. Copy­right: Project Syn­di­cate, 2018. www.pro­ject­syn­di­cate.org

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