Emerging Technologies

For Latin America to thrive in the digital era, it must first teach minds, then the machines

Latin America's “can do” attitude combined with emerging technologies could turn the region into a driving force. Image: Redd Angelo/Unsplash

Claudio Muruzábal
President, Latin America and Caribbean, SAP International
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Latin America

This article is part of: World Economic Forum on Latin America

Latin America is a region of entrepreneurial masterminds. Our people carry the innovation gene and often turn complex challenges into opportunities for transformation and growth. When combined with emerging technologies, this “can do” and innovative mindset has the potential to turn this region into a driving force, strengthen industries, provide meaningful work and impact the lives of many.

Now is the time to act. Many emerging technologies have already emerged. Technology is the greatest agent of change in the modern world. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, conversational systems and the Internet of Things are a reality across the developed world, and are quickly permeating Latin America and other emerging economies.

This development is reflected in the Digital Evolution Index 2017, as reported by the Harvard Business Review. This study analyses the state and rate of digital evolution across 60 countries. Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Bolivia are considered “break out” countries that are rapidly evolving to widespread digitally-driven innovation, and Chile is almost a top tier “stand out” country, with high digitization and innovation scores.

As new technologies make their way into our homes, our businesses, and our governments, they are changing the way we interact and work, presenting new opportunities to grow as a region and develop stronger communities. New technologies can help individuals and organisations become more efficient, and create more effective outcomes that translate into higher productivity and economic growth. However, to achieve this, it’s crucial to first provide the proper training so people can make the best use of the latest technologies and perform at their full potential.

Education is the only path to build a future where the word ‘intelligent’ is not just applied to machines, but one that continues to describe humanity.

Through the right education, we can enrich the minds of people at any stage of life, to provide them with the skills they need to work alongside automation technologies, robotics, or any form of artificial intelligence they may encounter in the workplace. We must first teach the minds, to then teach the machines.

How does this translate in Latin America, a region that is ripe for innovation, but has a deep education gap?

Developing talent at every stage of life

A recent study by The Interamerican Development Bank (IDB) uncovered that, despite an average investment of 5% of GDP in education in Latin America (which is on a par with similar regions), only 30% of children in third and fourth grade actually meet the minimum benchmark for critical skills required in the digital era, such as maths proficiency.

Intervention is required at every education level. Whether it’s primary, secondary or university level education – that currently serves less than 10% of the population – we need to scale educational programmes and equip students with the skills and tools that will ensure that no one is left behind. Preparing for the highly skilled jobs of the near future, entails teaching both hard and soft skills.

As governments and private enterprises collaborate to bridge the education gap and enable the next generation workforce, critical focus is also required on retraining and developing new abilities for a continuously changing, digitally-driven workplace.

A flexible, adaptable workforce

We’ve observed that to succeed in the technologically advanced economies of today, strong and adaptable skills are required. It is also considered that, to date, over half of known occupations are prime candidates for partial automation through technology. This has important implications for the workforce, that include the need to embrace lifelong learning and constant skills retraining, to remain flexible, consequential and productive. Reinventing yourself is a must when the career or role you studied or specialised for no longer exists.

With the right policies and programmes in place in Latin America, we can secure effective innovation and offset job displacement, a concern of many who study the impact of new technologies in the workforce. It is noteworthy that in developing economies like Latin America, the balance between jobs lost and jobs gained from transformational changes and automation technologies, actually appears favourable. The “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained” study from the McKinsey Global Institute predicts this favourable outcome in the short to medium-term in emerging economies, due to the acceleration of growth in the middle class.

While these changes in the workforce are gradual (McKinsey estimates that by 2030 between 3% to 14% of the global workforce will need to switch occupational categories, depending on how quickly automation is adopted) technology growth is always exponential. If we wait too long, we won’t have time to catch up. Latin America’s tendency to adapt to change is critical, and offers a singular opportunity to advance transformative growth and productivity by adopting new technology.

Innovation that changes our world

It is often said that a region’s technology innovation is reflected in its level of entrepreneurship. Latin America’s entrepreneurial nature is well represented by a number of unicorns and successful digital startups that have gained global relevance.

These determined entrepreneurs and innovators have great opportunities to create and sustain social impact for the region through technology. By leading with a purpose, they can help address many of the region’s most pressing social issues, and contribute to shaping the future we want to live in.

However, adopting a social mindset in this new digital age is not only for the region’s entrepreneurs. It requires leadership and participation, teaching and learning at all levels of society.

As new technologies grow, become “smarter” and take over the more repetitive and labour-intensive jobs, we will have more time to focus on being innovative, and mindful of our impact and contribution to our families, communities, towns and cities, countries and region. Our region’s future rests on enabling our workforce to trust technology while applying higher cognitive skills to drive sustainable growth and set into action unprecedented, exponential social progress.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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