“We need to have innovative ideas in new technologies, but also ways in which to invest our limited resources,” noted ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao in his keynote address to the first plenary forum session at ITU Telecom World 2018, ably moderated by Damon Embling of Euronews. “Inclusiveness is very important – we must not leave anyone behind.”
Taking up the challenge in his opening remarks, Mr Cesar Alierta Izuel, Executive Chairman, ProFuturo Foundation, highlighted the importance of one single element: digital literacy. In the digital era, where the potential growth of the world economy in the period from 1995 to 2030 is four times greater than during the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, digital technologies are affecting every aspect of life and opening up tremendous opportunities. “Innovation is key.” he said, “In today’s digital world, the capacity for innovation is spectacular. The key to progress has always been education, and now more than ever we need to change the whole system, make it digital.”
Reminding us that some 65% of today’s schoolchildren around the world will work in professions within the digital landscape which do not yet exist today, he stressed how critical it is to equip children with digital skills in preparation. Algorithms are the key to analysing big data on a scale unprecedented in human history, and will enable us to solve problems in all areas of human activity, from health to logistics to sanitation, transport and employment.
He stressed that educating the children of the world as digital citizens did not have to be expensive – and that digital education is particularly important for women, providing new opportunities to move beyond discrimination. “We need women. And we need collaboration,” he said.
This was a theme echoed by H. E. Dr. Siyabonga Cyprian Cwele, Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, South Africa.. “It is tough to connect the unconnected if we are working alone – but we are not alone,” he said, emphasising the need for partnerships between government and global companies to find innovative ways of deploying connectivity.
Finding local use cases relevant to local contexts is crucial, developing compelling local content in local languages. Innovation and development go hand in hand, and are not limited by geography; creativity is not the reserve of Silicon Valley or any other single part of the world, noted Alierta.
Dr Amani Abou Zeid, commissioner for infrastructure and energy, African Union, highlighted the link between physical communications infrastructure and energy as a major issue throughout the African continent. Quoting the President of South Africa’s Opening Ceremony speech on Africa as the next big thing, she noted the rush to invest in the huge potential of the continent, welcoming not just foreign partners but the African private sector.
“Africa is a vast space with concentrations of population differing strongly from one region to the other, so cables and fibre optics can be difficult,” she said, calling for a hybrid approach to connectivity through drones, balloons, satellite and a mix of technologies to link those in rural areas. She also highlighted the need for tariffs and pricing in rural areas to be addressed urgently in order to close the gap in both internet penetration and usage.
We are leapfrogging to the future, and there is no going back, but harmonization across the continent is critical: “We cannot ask investors to come and have different regulation and policies over 55 counties, so in order to create economy of scale and attractive packages we have to have harmony in policies and regulations,” she stated.
Harmonization has an equally important role to play in cybersecurity, data protection and providing secure online spaces for our children, she added
Ms Elisabeth Medou Badang, CEO, SVP African & Indian Ocean, spokesperson for Middle East and Africa, Orange pointed out that the private sector also has a critical role to play in supporting start-ups and entrepreneurs, the driving force behind the digital ecosystem. It is the SMEs and local developers who are, after all, largely responsible for the local content and applications that will increase digital take-up in Africa and beyond.
“African problems need African solutions,” concurred Mr Rob Shuter, Group President and CEO, MTN Group, noting that rolling out national data networks in Europe, where countries are small, populations dense and basic national infrastructure is in place, is very much easier than in Africa, with its diverse markets and challenging geographies.
He pointed out that solar-powered base stations might well be nice-to-have sustainable options in Europe, but here in Africa they are critical: “We will not get large scale development in developing markets unless we take charge of our own destiny,” he said, mixing selected elements of what works elsewhere with Africa-specific, innovative new elements.
Regional and international collaboration and harmonization, digital education, and local applications, the panel agreed, are critical to connecting everyone. And it should start with governments, urged Minister Cwele, from training young people to be at the forefront of innovation, to increasing innovation budgets, and using the huge amount of data in government hands to drive data analytics and monetization. “Data for the digital economy is always local, and if we start with local companies to exploit the data, we will be able to move as a nation and continent together to exploit the digital economy so that people can benefit from it.”