It is barely 20 years since Sergey Brin and Larry Page registered the domain name google.com, and only 10 years since Steve Jobs walked onto a stage in San Francisco and introduced the iPhone. Yet in this short period, digital technologies have upended our world. We introduced the Digital Evolution Index in HBR in 2015 to trace the emergence of a “digital planet,” how physical interactions — in communications, social and political exchange, commerce, media and entertainment — are being displaced by digitally mediated ones. We identified many hotspots around the world where these changes are happening rapidly and other spots where momentum has slowed. Two years on, depending on where we live, we continue to move at different speeds toward the digital planet.
Today’s Digital Landscape
While much has changed even since 2015, there are roadblocks on the journey that have remained surprisingly resilient. Consider the five most salient features of today’s digital landscape.
Digital technology is widespread and spreading fast. There are more mobile connections than people on the planet, and more people have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet. Cross-border flows of digitally transmitted data have grown manifold, accounting for more than one-third of the increase in global GDP in 2014, even as the free-flow of goods and services and cross-border capital have ebbed in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. While more people can benefit from access to information and communication, the potential for bad actors to create widespread havoc increases; with every year, the incidents of cyberattacks get bigger and have wider impact.
Digital players wield outsize market power. Based on their stock prices on July 6, 2017, Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook were the five most valuable companies in the world. The most valuable non-American company, 7th overall, was China’s e-commerce giant, Alibaba Group. With products that rely on network effects, these players enjoy economies of scale and dominant market share. They have deep resources for innovation with the ability to accelerate the penetration and adoption of digital products.
Digital technologies are poised to change the future of work. Automation, big data, and artificial intelligence enabled by the application of digital technologies could affect 50% of the world economy. There is both anticipation and apprehension about what lies on the other side of the threshold of the “second machine age.” More than 1 billion jobs and $14.6 trillion in wages are automatable by today’s technology, which could open the door to new ways to harness human energy as well as to displacing routine jobs and increasing social inequities.
Digital markets are uneven. Politics, regulations, and levels of economic development play a major role in shaping the digital industry and its market attractiveness. With the world’s largest internet user population – 721 million – China has a parallel digital market because so many of the major global players have no presence there. India, with its 462 million internet users, has a digital economy representing arguably the greatest market potential for global players; however, it operates in multiple languages and multiple infrastructure challenges, despite the government having taken sweeping actions that affect the digital market. The European Union has 412 million internet users, but its market is fragmented; it is still in the process of creating a “digital single market.” In many countries, several websites or digital companies are blocked. Around the world, digital access itself is far from uniform: Barely 50% of the world’s population has access to the internet today.
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Digital commerce must still contend with cash. Retail e-commerce sales worldwide are expected to hit $4 trillion by 2020, about double of where it is now. A major hurdle is the continuing stickiness of cash, which has not been displaced by digital alternatives despite myriad options. In 2013 85% of the world’s transactions were in cash. While the Netherlands, France, Sweden, and Switzerland are among the least cash-reliant countries in the world, even in the Eurozone, 75% of point-of-sale payments are in cash. Most of the developing world is overwhelmingly cash-dependent; in Malaysia, Peru, and Egypt, only 1% of transactions are cashless. Even India’s demonetization experiment has not broken the country’s heavy cash dependence. Five months after the country demonetized 86% of its currency, cash withdrawals were actually 0.6% higher than a year earlier.
Each of these five features contains both upsides and challenges. Moreover, how strongly each of them is felt varies depending on where you are in the world. For global technology players and policy makers, it is essential to understand how the progress toward a digital planet is proceeding in different parts of the world.
Mapping Digital Momentum Around the World
As part of a collaboration between the Fletcher School at Tufts University and Mastercard, we created the Digital Evolution Index and analyzed the state and rate of digital evolution across 60 countries. This evolution is the outcome of an interplay among four drivers, with about 170 indicators across them.
Our inquiry started with the following questions:
1. What are the patterns of digital evolution around the world? What factors explain these patterns, and how do they vary across regions?
2. Which countries are the most digitally competitive? Which actors are the prime drivers of competitiveness: public or private sector?
3. How do countries accelerate their digital momentum?
By measuring each country’s current state of digital evolution and its pace of digital evolution over time, we created the following chart, a map of our digital planet (see chart below). Countries on this chart fall into four zones: Stand Out, Stall Out, Break Out, Watch Out. Some countries are at the border of multiple zones.
Stand Out countries are highly digitally advanced and exhibit high momentum. They are leaders in driving innovation, building on their existing advantages in efficient and effective ways. However, sustaining consistently high momentum over time is challenging, as innovation-led expansions are often lumpy phenomena. To stay ahead, these countries need to keep their innovation engines in top gear and generate new demand, failing which they risk stalling out.
Stall Out countries enjoy a high state of digital advancement while exhibiting slowing momentum. The five top scoring countries in the DEI 2017 ranking — Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, and Finland — are all in the Stall Out zone, reflecting the challenges of sustaining growth. Moving past these “digital plateaus” will require a conscious effort by these countries to reinvent themselves, to bet on a rising digital technology in which it has leadership, and to eliminate impediments to innovation. Stall Out countries may look to Stand Out countries for lessons in sustaining innovation-led growth. Countries in the Stall Out zone can put their maturity, scale, and network effects to use to reinvent themselves and grow.
Break Out countries are low-scoring in their current states of digitalization but are evolving rapidly. The high momentum of Break Out countries and their significant headroom for growth would make them highly attractive to investors. Often held back by relatively weak infrastructure and poor institutional quality, Break Out countries would do well to foster better institutions that can help nurture and sustain innovation. Break Out countries have the potential to become the Stand Out countries of the future, with China, Malaysia, Bolivia, Kenya, and Russia leading the pack.
Watch Out countries face significant challenges with their low state of digitalization and low momentum; in some cases, these countries are moving backward in their pace of digitalization. Some of these countries demonstrate remarkable creativity in the face of severe infrastructural gaps, institutional constraints, and low sophistication of consumer demand. The surest way for these countries to move the needle on momentum would be to improve internet access by closing the mobile internet gap — that is, the difference between the number of mobile phones and the number of mobile phones with internet access.
Notably, two of the world’s most significant economies, the U.S. and Germany, are at the border of Stand Out and Stall Out, with a third, Japan, in the neighborhood. It is essential for them to recognize the risks of plateauing and look to the smaller, higher-momentum countries to explore how policy interventions could be effective in pushing a country into a zone of greater competitiveness. In the meantime, the UK’s digital momentum is stronger than its EU peers.
Clearly, the most exciting region in the world, digitally speaking, is Asia, with China and Malaysia as exemplars. We can expect to see plenty of investor and entrepreneurial interest in this region; it is critical that the political institutions are stable and supportive.
India, with many policy-led pushes for digitalization, including a Digital India campaign and initiatives to give a boost to digital payments, ought to pay attention to the overall low level of evolution in the country. This can act as a drag on any initiative. Broader, more systemic changes are needed to boost digital evolution in this type of environment.
In Africa, while the two largest economies, Nigeria and South Africa, remain in Break Out and Watch Out zones, respectively, digitally savvy Kenya has picked up an impressive level of momentum by assembling a thriving ecosystem. In parallel, countries in Latin America can learn some lessons from smaller, faster-moving countries, such as Colombia and Bolivia.
Toward a Digital Planet
Our analysis of digital evolutions yields several implications for both public- and private-sector leaders as they explore ways to enhance the state of the digital economies across the world.
First, more digital innovators should recognize that public policy is essential to the success of the digital economy. Countries with high-performing digital sectors, such as those in the EU, typically have had strong government/policy involvement in shaping the digital economies. So do high-momentum countries (such as Singapore, New Zealand, and the UAE) as well as many Break Out countries (including China, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia).
As for the U.S., it is at risk of falling into the Stall Out zone. One of us (Bhaskar) has made the point that there is a “missing political debate” in the U.S. over the digital economy, despite that fact that American digital companies and innovations are pre-dominant worldwide. To avoid stalling out and rebuilding momentum, policies need to be adopted for: public-private partnerships on digital innovations; better integration of automation, data, and new technologies into the legacy economy; investments in reskilling workers and teaching students in schools the skills and thinking to thrive in a digital world; improving access to capital and digital infrastructure and reducing the many inequities; sensible regulations that keep pace with the transforming rules of competition and have a dynamic view of protecting consumers’ interests without stifling innovation; and reimagining U.S. competitiveness in terms of its digital economy and international data flows and thinking beyond traditional manufacturing and trade of physical goods and services. Within the digital entrepreneurship sector, IPOs and exits have not been keeping pace with the record sums of capital being pumped in. More sensible and value-creating investments are needed, rather than a herd mentality that has resulted in a stampede of unicorns, while starving more complex, less fad-driven venture ideas that take on deeper problems.
Second, those working to accelerate their country’s digital momentum should focus on specifics: identifying and amplifying the country’s unique drivers of digital momentum. Depending on a country’s level of digital evolution and economic advancement, there are different drivers that are primarily responsible for digital momentum. This has different implications for what advanced economies and developing economies ought to prioritize: innovation for the former and institutions for the latter. The least digitally advanced countries must allocate limited resources wisely. Enabling internet access on the mobile phone provides the biggest bang for the buck.
Country size is also a factor. Smaller countries with strong institutions can create high value as early adopters and create a demonstration effect for the world by assembling the right ecosystem. Traditional trading hubs (such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and the UK) and emerging digital hubs (such as New Zealand and Estonia) can take the lead in creating such “smart” digitally enabled ecosystems.
In conclusion, the world’s digital economy stands at a threshold where opportunity and risk stand in balance. Even in the short period since we published the previous edition of the Digital Evolution Index, much has changed in the journey to the digital planet, and just as surprising, there are many speed bumps scattered along the way. Clearly, much of this has to do with the digital momentum being experienced in countries around the world, as well as with the systemic nature of the forces that govern digital evolution. Without question, the Stand Out and Break Out countries are benefiting from a combination of the strong rates of digitalization and the involvement of governments in orchestrating digital economies.
Will the world order as portrayed in this year’s Digital Evolution Index get overturned as transformational technologies, such as artificial intelligence, cause widespread changes or regulatory and political considerations add to the unevenness of digital markets? The picture that summarizes the state of the digital planet will evolve when it does.