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ITU Telecom World 2017: Day 1 highlights. Leadership Summit: Digital transformation – visions of smart societies

Education, security, connectivity, public private partnerships, cooperation: any vision of a smart society is dependent on all of these, but above all, on developing human capacity, our very way of being. This was the conclusion of the opening session of the Leadership Summit, moderated with zeal by Jeremy Wilks of Euronews.

 

Digital transformation is about much more than just technology. It is about changing the way we do business, in government, in the private sector and as citizens. “It is not an incremental change, not just a question of using technology, but of transforming our lives and our ways of thinking,” said H.E. Debretsion Michael, Minister of Communication and Information Technology, Ethiopia “The biggest challenge of digital transformation is the cultural change. We have to move out of our comfort zone and into a new world, a new mindset.”

 

Beate Degin, Partner, EY, echoed the need for new ways of working, communicating and interacting. Technology may be the great enabler, but it all comes down to people. And not everyone will see the immediate benefits of smart societies: many will be overwhelmed by the extent of change, or worried by the real danger of losing their jobs. This, she warned, is something we must plan for, given that whole nations will be transformed, not just an industry or a sector: “Smart societies need to embrace everyone and not leave anyone behind”

 

ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao reminded us that connectivity is fundamental to any smart vision, particular in world where half the population still has no access to the internet: “If you want to have a smart society, you first have to make sure people are connected. That’s the challenge.”  It is increasingly accepted that ICTs are enablers for development around the world. But with the private sector developing new technologies and networks, and demands on government spread over a variety of key areas such as health, education and transport, it is not easy to find the investment in ICT necessary to move ahead with connectivity and, ultimately, smart cities.

 

The solution may lie in collaboration, international cooperation, and public-private partnerships – such as this panel, composed of representatives from government, international organizations, operators and manufacturers.

 

This joined-up approach was seconded by Hossein Moiin, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Nokia Mobile Networks, who called for additional intelligence not just in communications but also in all interconnected fields, bringing the benefits of digital innovation to transportation, energy, education, food, health, environmental sustainability and sanitation.

 

As for the challenge of connectivity, he recommended: “Allow innovators to do what they do best, allow diffusion of technologies to take place, and the lack of a digital divide will become a fact, not a fantasy.”

 

There is also the very real danger of increasing the digital divide with smart technologies, rather than bridging it, reminded Patrick Masambu, Director General and CEO, ITSO. But perhaps the solution to the underlying connectivity problem is closer than we think: the satellite industry can offer point to point services, metropolitan and rural reach, and established infrastructure providing global coverage in the sky – if not yet on the ground. A technology-neutral approach and a willingness to take advantage of what we already have in place may enable us to move forward quickly.

 

Developments in satellite technologies enabling higher throughput and the ability to reuse frequencies will put management of resources in the hands of the users, creating a more cost-effective way of delivering services. Innovations in mobility and power, including small antennas on vehicles to provide mobile services and solar-powered VSAT systems, will connect rural communities from space with cheap and easy-to-install ground equipment. Yet again, the key word is public-private-partnerships: “It is important to pilot PPP projects as proof of concept. Once you have proved that something is viable, financing then become easy, deployment more acceptable and you can reach connectivity.”

 

How can we encourage the private sector to invest in partnerships and infrastructure? A mixture of the right spectrum policies, government commitment to connectivity as a necessity rather than a luxury, a level playing field for service providers and cross-border measures, according to Nokia’s Moiin.

 

H.E. Michael reminded us that even with networks, hardware and software, people remain key. Technology alone is not enough. Education, in particular digital literacy, is the single most important step necessary to bring about transformation and move towards smart societies. Developing human resources is critical, from basic digital literacy, to coding in primary schools and higher technical education, from private sector innovations to government initiatives. Raising awareness of the importance of technology is the first step; human capacity is at the heart of smart transformation.

 

The panel agreed on the need to be realistic about the “dark side” of smart societies, as far as we can foretell: some jobs will be lost forever, the nature of the workforce will change, we will become increasingly transparent in the era of algorithms, and the need for a delicate government balancing act between ensuring security and safeguarding privacy. And the long term impact of smart technology on our ability to make up our own mind and take decisions is unclear; as Degen put it, “We all need to have the courage to say no, to questions things, otherwise we will just follow one or two big machines in the world – which would make us not a smart society, but the opposite thereof.”