Closing the innovation gap – and the digital divide

Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Secretary-General

At the heart of the digital divide is a yawning innovation gap. Many national policies and strategies — even in developed countries — often fail to close it.

This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, putting countries with low digital technological capabilities at an increasingly significant risk of marginalization.

The result?

Talent is unfulfilled, small- and medium-sized enterprises are struggling, and slow digital transformation of communities is hampering progress on reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The question is: how can we foster innovation to ensure that advances in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things, and mobile communications are widely and fairly distributed?

The role of standards

International standards are part of the answer. They are an essential aid for developing countries to build their infrastructure and stimulate economic development. Standards development must underpin global efforts to build back better from the pandemic.

Standards also drive competitiveness — not just for individual businesses, but throughout the entire global economy — by fostering efficiency, effectiveness, responsiveness, and innovation.

Standards development has been central to the work of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for over 150 years, from the telegraph to fifth-generation (5G) mobile technologies.

Each new technical standard normally stems from a collaborative process of several years between ITU Member States, equipment manufacturers, network operators, standards development organizations and academia.

Most recently, ITU published the detailed specifications for IMT-2020 radio interface technologies, which can leverage the advantages of 5G for a wider range of uses, from autonomous vehicles to smart cities.

This builds on the innovative 5G applications we have already seen in healthcare, public safety, manufacturing, and education during the pandemic.

Collaborative spirit

Building trust is at the heart of all that we do in the standards community. The collaborative spirit, exemplified by ITU’s public-private membership, is why I am pleased to participate in events like the United Nations Multi-Stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation, together with eminent speakers from government, the private sector, academia and civil society.
Multi-stakeholder co-operation is also characteristic of a major ITU-led forum, the World Summit on the Information Society.

COVID-19 continues disrupting progress on all aspects of sustainable development as well as inflicting loss of life and damage to livelihoods around the world. Consequently, the need for collaboration, cooperation and coordination across sectors and borders has never been more important than today.

In challenging times, we each need to bring our own specific competencies to the table, avoid duplication of efforts, and pool resources to build vibrant digital-innovation ecosystems.

What is at stake, ultimately, is nothing less than the future of our economies, our societies, and our planet. The enabling technologies for digital transformation can be harnessed to put the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development back on track.

Only then can we turn today’s digital revolution into a true human development revolution for all.

Based on Mr Johnson’s remarks during the sixth annual Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (STI Forum), where he opened a virtual side event, “Fostering STI Ecosystems for Impact: Enabling Technologies Advancing Human Infrastructure”.

Previously posted at :