If the region prepares adequately, it has little to fear and much to gain from leapfrogging digital technology.
Entering 2019, the elephant in the room for many in the development discourse is the impact of digital technology on our daily lives. Just look at the impact the pace of technological change has had in the last couple of years. It gives me pause for thought: what is the world going to look like in another 5 or 10 years from now?
I don’t have a crystal ball, but it is not hard to see an even greater proliferation of gadgets governing fairly much every aspect of our lives. Perhaps physical meetings and even workplaces will be replaced by virtual—even holographic—experiences where we can easier interact with each other remotely. It could be that utilities, and even driverless cars, will be activated on command (from the all-pervasive cellphone?) rather than operated manually.
These are just my personal speculations. But what is certain is the world is facing seemingly endless possibilities of change in what is already a new era.
Technological advancements and innovations are having a profound impact on the way people live, interact, and do business. They bring with them opportunities—not for only enhanced productivity, but also new products and services. Mobile apps have vastly improved people’s daily lives and are transforming entire economies. Innovations such as fintech, Internet of Things, Big Data, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and cloud computing are benefitting e-commerce, finance, education, and health care.
The application of digital and online technologies can be massive and has the potential to help emerging economies leapfrog development. Developing countries in Asia stand to benefit immensely from this new era.
To turn this potential into reality though, developing Asia has some work to do, because many countries are simply not ready. For example, less than half of the population in the region has access to the internet. They require information communications technology (ICT) infrastructure before they can jumpstart the digital revolution.
The international development community has a crucial role in helping developing countries build the needed foundations. Governments alone do not have the resources, and the private sector often faces barriers to investment.
My own organization, ADB, is addressing these challenges by assisting its developing member countries to build ICT infrastructure, prioritizing those areas that are not commercially viable. For example, ADB has helped establish submarine cable systems to improve the mobile telecoms networks of Palau, Solomon Islands, and Tonga.
For the last 8 years, ADB has approved about 450 projects that have ICT components across sectors. We believe that ICT can play a key role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Moving forward, ADB will deliver integrated approaches in the areas of smart cities, e-government, and e-commerce.
In Pakistan, ADB is supporting the extension of smart public transport systems in the Peshawar Sustainable Bus Rapid Transit Corridor Project. This includes diesel-hybrid plug in electric buses, Intelligent Transport Systems such as smart card-based fare collection and a real-time passenger information system, a bicycle sharing system, and the use of satellite imagery for engineering design. We believe that the system will improve the quality of transportation service and air quality and attract private sector investments.
Digital technologies also have an important role to play in the health sector. In Mongolia, ADB's health sector projects are connecting health centers through ICT in five provinces and two districts of the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Before the project, patients had to travel to the provincial capital to seek medical treatment and all patient records were typed by health workers. Now local people no longer face these expensive trips and health workers just send patients’ medical histories to the province’s central database via the internet.
It is imperative for governments to take advantage of such digital platforms and improve the efficiency of public service delivery.
For example, in Suva, Fiji, land records are still paper-based. In a small country like Fiji, where land is a valuable resource and 92% of land is ancestral domain, there is a clear need for an efficient, transparent information system to update and monitor land records, and create new ones. ADB is therefore piloting there a digital land registry that uses “blockchain” technology. Gaining traction in industries and governments, a blockchain acts as “an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way.
Many countries have started national initiatives to digitize their economies. Some examples are “Digital Thailand,” “Digital India”, “Taza Koom” in the Kyrgyz Republic, and “Digital Azerbaijan.” While these aspire to bringing about digital transformation, most developing countries recognize the need to address gaps in knowledge, experience, and capacity to carry out these initiatives.
Technological changes can drive economic growth and improve standards of living. A recent ADB study, How Technology Affects Jobs, found that technological advances have transformed the 2 billion worker Asian labor market, helping create 30 million jobs annually in industry and services over the last 25 years, driving up increases in productivity and wages, and reducing poverty.
If we use new technologies better, the benefits of the digital revolution could be massive. However, they can also be disruptive, leading to technological unemployment.
It remains to be seen, how new technologies will play out across different sectors of the economy. For example, there is considerable anxiety about how automation, robotics, ever-expanding computing power, and artificial intelligence will affect the availability of jobs, especially for moderately skilled workers carrying out tasks that can be automated or done by computers.
Governments will need to head off the risk of workers being left behind by ensuring that they are protected from the downside of new technologies and able to take advantage of new opportunities. Clearly, societies, institutions and policy makers will need to think carefully about issues such as skills development, retraining, and means to support workers displaced by disruptive technologies. But if developing Asia prepares properly, then it has little to fear and much to gain from the technological revolution.