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How to help small businesses survive the digital revolution 

A woman gets her phone's QR code of the digital payment services scanned at a food shop, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Shanghai, China October 10, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song - RC2MFJ9WRM74

Small businesses – the lifeblood of our economies – are facing new, unexpected challenges from maintaining strong cyber-protections to managing suppliers and customer requests online. Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

Michael Miebach
CEO, Mastercard
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The Digital Transformation of Business

This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • Digital presents us with a tool to break through to a future that works better for everyone.
  • Public and private organisations need to cooperate to bring hundreds of millions of people into the new digital economy.
  • Small businesses need partners to help them address out-of-the-blue digital challenges. They cannot become cut out of global supply chains.

Growing up in Germany, the Berlin Wall was a stark truth in my life. Until one day in 1989 when it wasn’t. The wall came down because people joined together to break it down. No one knew what was going to come next, but they figured it out, step by step, together.

The world is now at a similar point of change. Only this time, the wall is different. It’s the social distancing and the mandatory working from home that not only separates us, but also separates our present from our potential. This has been amplified by the walls of worry and digital exclusivity that will impact how society evolves out of our immediate crises – a future not yet written.

Looking at the year ahead and beyond, I see two choices: we can react to the changes of each day; or, we can use this moment to reimagine our futures entirely. And we can try to do it alone or we can join efforts and strengths with like-minded partners.

To me, technology can create opportunities, but only if it is guided by the ethics and values, decency even, to innovate for inclusion.

Michael Miebach

The pandemic has presented us with a chance to break through to a new, better tomorrow. But that doesn't mean throwing out everything that came before and starting from scratch. We have the tools, technology and capabilities to think more expansively about what’s possible – and then make it possible.

Digital presents us with a tool to break through to a future that works better for everyone.

The transition to digital had already been underway for a while as we entered 2020. Then the pandemic supercharged it. Now, being digital isn’t just a matter of convenience – it’s about your health, your job, and your ability to thrive.

Our first stop along this road needs to be to expand the digital world for everyday people

I think of my 70-odd-year-old mother who ordered groceries online for the first time last March because it made her feel safer. She’s been ordering her groceries online ever since and is grateful for the service every single time.

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While millions of us were able to enjoy the benefits of remote work and remote school, online orders, telehealth and video chats, millions more weren’t. With the massive shift to digital likely to stick, we run the risk of widening the digital divide, but we can’t let that happen.

It’s time that all of us – public and private organisations alike – step up to bring hundreds of millions of people into the new digital economy, empowering them with access, tools and know-how.

Next, we need to listen to small businesses

For many micro, small and medium-sized businesses, the jump to digital became a now-or-never proposition. It was an emergency move, designed to keep them afloat.

Small restaurants had to change business overnight; they were no longer dealing in the art of making reservations, but instead had to excel in holding onto customers by enabling online ordering, online payments and curbside pickup.

But that's just the start. My neighborhood restaurant, like so many other small businesses, is now facing new and unexpected difficulties: like maintaining strong cyber-protections, managing suppliers and dealing with online customer requests.

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Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economies and our communities. What they need right now are partners who will listen to the new challenges they are struggling with. They need partners who will sit alongside them, roll up their sleeves and work on solutions that will take them through this next crucial phase of digital business savvy.

Small businesses need partners who will help raise their collective voices in global conversations so the rules and regulations we create and refine don’t inadvertently make it impossible for small businesses to operate as part of global supply chains.

It’s time we – as those partners – ask the right questions, including the difficult ones. We need to listen, understand and advocate.

If we do this right, we will create a digital economy that works for all

Even before the pandemic, there were justifiable concerns about whether technology was going to end up impacting people’s lives for better or for worse. To me, technology can create opportunities, but only if it is guided by the ethics and values, decency even, to innovate for inclusion.

Our goal has to be removing walls – not creating new ones.

This is where businesses and governments have a vital role to play. Digitisation done the right way solves problems and fosters inclusion. We have seen this when stimulus funds or social benefits are delivered electronically; people getting what they are promised – securely and in full – allowing them to better support their families.

We have to help those in need today, and ensure the world emerges from this pandemic a stronger, more resilient place. Together, we can harness technology to give people more control, better experiences and new opportunities.

When we do that, we build a future where we’re working out challenges before they become acute crises. We also build a future where everyone has the access and tools necessary to take advantage of the opportunities ahead of them.

That’s a future in which we all have a potential to thrive.

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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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