• In June 2020, the United Nations published its Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, which plotted the way forward for connectivity, digital public goods, digital inclusion, digital human rights, AI, trust and security, among other things.
  • UN Undersecretary-General Fabrizio Hochschild spoke at the World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Summit.
  • He said businesses and start-ups have a key role to play to bridge the digital divide, making digital technologies more accessible and inclusive to help achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

Among the many inequalities that have become searingly evident this year, COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the digital divide.

In 2019, according to the United Nations' Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, close to 87% of individuals in developed countries used the internet, compared with only 19% in the least developed countries.

Closing the gap and using the tools of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for good can help the world achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. But it will require a joint, multistakeholder effort between governments, the private sector, tech companies, civil society and others.

'Digital is no longer a luxury'

"With the increased digitalization of the world, digital is no longer a luxury. Those who don’t have digital are pushed further back, especially with COVID-19," said Fabrizio Hochschild, UN Undersecretary-General, in a session on digital solutions at the World Economic Forum's Sustainable Development Impact Summit.

"The lack of digitalization does not mean a loss of access, it means no access to education or health. It means no access to work in many cases.

"When everybody had horses, if you had a car, it was a luxury; but when 60% of world has cars, and you belong to the 40% that have horses, you’re left much further behind, you’re disadvantaged massively and that’s the point where we are today with digital technology."

Less than 1 in 5 people in the least developed countries are online.
Image: UN

Hochschild said the gap between developed and developing countries is only going to get worse and the SDGs are going to become more elusive.

"It’s only partially an infrastructure challenge, the potential for connectivity is six times higher than the actual connectivity in terms of network availability, so the problem is affordability, skills, public policies and regulation and we have to attack all those.

"In many countries, it’s about having local language content available, in many countries, it’s about boosting literacy rates."

5 connectivity commitments

The UN's Roadmap sets out guidelines for all stakeholders to play a role in advancing a safer, more equitable digital world - bringing a brighter and more prosperous future for all.

To ensure every person has safe and affordable access to the internet by 2030, the UN has committed to:

1. Support efforts to establish a baseline of digital connectivity that individuals need to access the online space, as well as a definition of “affordability”, including universal targets and metrics.

2. Convene a global group of investors and financing experts to consider the development of a financing platform and find other new models for investment in connectivity, in particular, in hard-to-reach and rural areas.

3. Promote new and potentially transformative models to accelerate connectivity, such as the GIGA initiative of ITU and the United Nations Children’s Fund.

4. Promote the development of enabling regulatory environments for smaller-scale internet providers, along with local and regional assessments of connectivity needs.

5. Accelerate discussions on connectivity as part of emergency preparedness, responses and aid, including working through the inter-agency Emergency Telecommunications Cluster.

The case for a digital cooperation roadmap

Digital is the fastest-spreading technology ever - it has spread at a speed that has left policy-makers and those responsible for the public good way behind. We don’t fully understand the impact, said Hochschild, and countries are trying to play catch up.

Here's why we need a roadmap to enhance digital cooperation, according to Hochschild:

"Nobody anticipated these technologies that had all the promise to bring us much closer, they would leave us more polarized. Or that when they allowed many to have a voice they hadn’t had before, it would also undermine our democracy.

"Global steerage is absolutely critical and we’re seeing the results of inadequate global steerage, we’re seeing tech fragmentation, the politicization of the tech world, the utilization of technology to lead surrogate wars in ways that is damaging for technology, damaging for the world and certainly undermines the possibility of achieving universal connectivity, without which we won’t get to the SDGs."

The role of start-ups and business

Start-ups and business have a key role in this.

"The nuclear era, electricity, railways, and every other major technological advance, happened under the auspices of government. But it’s not happening with digital technology.

"Tech is way ahead of government and by default, a lot of functions that traditionally were with government are now with technology companies. Deciding on my privacy rights is much more with tech companies that I use than with any government.

"We won’t manage to steer digital cooperation for good and digital technologies for good unless there’s full buy-in as much from governments as from tech companies."

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

Focus on affordable connectivity

For the big tech companies, they can do more to ensure the focus switches to affordable connectivity, said Hochschild.

"All big companies have to ask themselves what are we doing to achieve not just our profits and gains, but to achieve universal affordable access? Because in the absence of focus on that, they’re contributing, even though unwittingly, to the digital divide.

"And these billion, trillion-dollar companies can’t afford the luxury of naivety that they could afford when they were garage operations.

"So what economic opportunities are we creating, what are we doing for affordability, are our efforts to scale, I think those are key questions."

Reducing inequality

"For start-ups, I think one has to see how are we contributing to the SDGs? Is this yet another app to give me in Williamsburg, NY, better access to bubble tea, or is this really going to help employment, is it going to do something for the most disadvantaged, how’s it going to help inequality?

"Until now, there’s been a slight laissez-faire approach. It’s a 19th-century idea that you liberate digital technologies and there will be a trickle-down effect and it will just work on its own. By now, we’ve learned that’s not the case.

"Unguided, the damage will be at least equal to the benefits, so we need to make a much more conscious effort, on our side as policy-makers and on the business side as well."

Hochschild said gender inequality is an example of digital technology being not as progressive as it would seem.

"If you look at the overall percentage of female CEOs in the top Fortune 500 companies, it’s around 5%. In the tech sector, it’s even less.

"So here you have a sector that is pushing forward the 21st century, and yet deeply embedded with 19th-century values. There’s something wrong there.

"Let’s not imagine because we’re digitally enlightened, we’re enlightened in terms of what we’re doing for humanity and the values we represent. And often it’s unwitting. Nobody decided to exclude women from the tech sector or exclude minorities, but it happened by default, and that’s not a good function to be in. We need to switch the default function.

"When it comes to start-ups, there are some promising signs, but there’s still a long way to go.

"So my plea is, let’s be more conscious of what we’re doing for society, let’s be more conscious of whether we’re increasing polarisation or reducing it, increasing inequality or reducing it and I think if we all work better together, we can make serious progress."