Economic Growth

The internet can end global inequality. Here's how

An employee speaks on a mobile phone as she eats her lunch at the cafeteria in the Infosys campus in the southern Indian city of Bangalore September 23, 2014. Infosys Ltd's new CEO Vishal Sikka has come up with a novel approach to reviving the financial fortunes of India's trailblazing outsourcing firm: use Facebook at work, tweet, but get the job done. Infosys has long been run as a conservative company known for keeping strict tabs on work hours and sometimes fining employees for not wearing ties on specific days. Such cheerless self-regard could not have come at a more challenging time, analysts say. To retain talent, Sikka hopes to create a more employee-friendly workplace. To match story INFOSYS-CEO/STRATEGY   REUTERS/Abhishek Chinnappa (INDIA - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) - GM1EA9O0EM501

Digital can bring a fractured world closer together Image: REUTERS/Abhishek Chinnappa

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Technological Transformation

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

At every level, our global narrative is increasingly colored by self-interest. More and more states are seeking to withdraw from international agreements, for example. Businesses are investing in new technology to move forward and drive growth, but are not always as enthusiastic when it comes to bringing their people along for the ride.

And as individuals, we often chase our dreams without giving enough thought to building more sustainable and inclusive economies and societies as we do so. This gradual erosion of our shared obligation to progress more equitably is creating a deeply divided world. But it doesn’t have to be like this: we can create shared prosperity through a wholehearted embrace of digital technology.

Perhaps this seems debatable. After all, the role of technology in increasing general inequality has been the subject of heated discussions in recent times. And yet it’s undeniable that this very technology also enhances peoples’ access to every key enabler of economic opportunity – be it information, learning, or finance. But it’s not for technology to determine the destiny it will shape. It is, after all, nothing more than a tool we have created. As such, we can choose the future our tool will craft for us. It’s up to us to make the choices now that will let technology unify, equalise and empower us all in the days to come.

There is still a long way to go before our planet is truly connected
There is still a long way to go before our planet is truly connected Image: Hootsuite, various

Central to this belief is the immense potential for progress that lies in connecting more and more people through the internet and access to technology. Like the Sub-Saharan farmers who are now able to manage risks and significantly increase their yield because they can access reliable and timely weather forecasts, for example, or Latin America’s hitherto unbanked population that can now prove their creditworthiness using data gathered from their use of telecom services. Or rural artisans from India who are today able to compete in the global fashion market thanks to digital supply chain innovations.

The big hurdle now is scaling up these success stories. We must bring online the 52% of the world’s population who are not yet connected to the internet. We must bridge the massive disparities in internet connection speeds globally. Men still outnumber women as web users in every part of the world - this must change, too. And it can, if there is a concerted effort on the part of global corporations, governments, civil society and investors to bring online the forgotten half of our world. A significant first step would be to categorise the internet as infrastructure as basic as roads, sewage, water and electric systems.

The biggest advantage of this digital unification will come when we all learn to create and produce using technology, rather than merely consume it. I don’t mean simply training our workforce of today, although they will obviously benefit from this essential career skill. I am particularly keen that we begin earlier; that we teach our children to code. Digital has become the language of our world. In the future, not knowing the language of computers will be as debilitating as illiteracy. If we can bring this ‘superpower’ to everybody across the global, economic, social, professional, gender and age divides, then i believe it has the potential to become the great equaliser of our humanity and the amplifier of our potential.

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While digital skills can amplify individual potential in an equitable way, the creation of and participation in vibrant digital ecosystems can play a huge role in empowering us as a globe. One recent example is the Government of India’s Aadhaar online identity verification system, which, despite some early teething troubles, today rivals Facebook in its usage by Indians. Scaled to include over one billion people, Aadhaar allows governments, businesses, startups and developers to use a brand new digital infrastructure to solve some of the country’s hardest problems through paperless, cashless and even presence-less service delivery.

Harnessing the power of digital technology to unify, equalise and empower people on a global scale is no easy task. But then, problems worth solving rarely are - and yet they must be tackled. If we all play our part, we will all benefit from living in a truly global village. When the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan first introduced the concept of a global village in 1989, he predicted a world so unified by an electronic nervous system that the human experience of living anywhere in the world would be one of deep connectedness and social cohesion – much like life in small villages. Digitisation can deliver that much-needed sense of oneness for our fractured world. It’s up to us to embrace it.

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