• COVID-19 has wreaked global economic damage and further exposed the digital divide.
  • With its established digital ecosystem, Asia is well positioned to lead the way towards economic growth.
  • Technology holds the key to recovery through job creation and enabling innovative start-ups and SMEs.

The pandemic has brought hundreds of thousands of businesses to the brink. Even more challenging, the economic impact of COVID-19 over the past 18 months has disproportionally affected those who could bear it the least. Digital technologies have helped some avoid the worst, and even allowed many to thrive.

However, plenty of challenges remain. We urgently need to recover jobs and create new ones that are future-proof. That’s why we need to close the digital skills gap. In parallel, we must discover and support ideas that will kickstart the economy – and the best places to find those are start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Asia has been living with the impact of COVID-19 the longest, and parts of the region have been first to climb out of the slump. If we combine our region’s deep digital ecosystems and longstanding culture of innovation with the entrepreneurialism of our start-ups and SMEs, we will be able to lead the world in the post-pandemic economic recovery.

To achieve this, the public and private sector – especially “big tech” companies – must collaborate as they focus on three drivers of economic growth:

1. Easy access to digital infrastructure for start-ups and SMEs.

2. Upskilling people to thrive in the digital economy, expanding the talent pool.

3. Strong start-up culture that sets up entrepreneurs for success and turns their companies into job creation engines.

Collaboration is key to a robust start-up economy

Asia is home to many aspiring innovators who are working to improve lives and livelihoods across the region. SMEs account for more than 97% of all business and employ more than half of the workforce across Asia-Pacific economies. Start-ups and SMEs are critical engines of growth, and it’s in everyone’s interest that we support them.

No single entity can thrive in isolation. That’s why private enterprises, employers, governments, and non-profits must collaborate and work across sectors to foster partnerships and solutions that will have lasting impact. Investment from both the public and private sectors, led by big tech, creates opportunities for start-ups and small enterprises and those they employ. This includes developing tech to not only help our information workers but make our frontline workers more effective with improved communication and productivity tools, ensuring inclusion and improved digital experiences for these critical groups.

When we work together, we reap the benefits of what’s known as “tech intensity” – pairing the adoption of trusted, best-in-class technologies with increased skills and capabilities of those who use them. If we get it right, then our collaboration will result in products and services that support rapid recovery, inclusive growth, jobs and a reimagined future.

Start-ups are powered by digital skills

The digital era is creating a new generation of technologies; it is often start-ups that either invent them or make unique use of the possibilities they create. Start-ups and SMEs, however, usually neither have the scale nor the funding that’s needed to train people with the right digital skills. If we want to put start-ups and SMEs at the centre of our economic reset, then we have to train the talent they need to grow. By building digital skills, we boost both individual prosperity and Asia’s economic recovery.

digital, COVID-19, EDISON Alliance

What is the Forum doing to close the digital gap?

COVID-19 has exposed digital inequities globally and exacerbated the digital divide. Nearly half of the world is still not online.

With more basic services moving online and the pandemic highlighting affordability challenges in wealthier nations, these deep digital gaps are exacerbating inequality and preventing the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

At The Davos Agenda, the World Economic Forum launched the EDISON Alliance, the first cross-sector alliance to accelerate digital inclusion and connect critical sectors of the economy.

The EDISON Alliance will prioritize digital inclusion as the platform of platforms for partners with a common purpose for achieving the SDGs. Its vision is to ensure that every person can affordably participate in the digital economy.

Over the past year, Microsoft and LinkedIn’s global skills initiative has helped more than 30 million people in 249 countries and territories gain access to digital skills, including nearly six million in Asia. As part of the initiative’s next phase, Microsoft is committed to helping 250,000 companies to make skills based hires in 2021. There will be an estimated 149 million new technology-oriented jobs globally over the next five years, so closing the skills gap for job seekers to grasp these opportunities is absolutely vital.

In our new digital normal, everybody will need to master a range of digital skills so that they can navigate the basics of life, succeed in their career, and reach their full potential. These skills require lifelong learning to keep pace with technological innovation. As tech leaders, we have a responsibility to help people acquire these digital skills, for their own benefit and to future-proof Asia’s competitiveness.

Supporting entrepreneurship leads to more innovation

Start-ups play a vital role in the economy as innovators, disruptors, and first-movers. This region is fortunate enough to be full of them; as of April 2019, Asia was home to more than one-third (119) of the world’s 331 “unicorns” (defined as startups valued at more than $1 billion). Just in the last decade, we’ve seen several tech unicorns rapidly grow into established players across Asia—from ride share app Grab based in Singapore, to online market place Bukalapak in Indonesia.

Tech leaders can support the great ideas of students and start-ups by offering them springboards in the form of development programs and platforms for exposure. Big tech is a valuable source of funding, mentorship, and visibility for start-ups and entrepreneurs. I see it as our task to create opportunities and build the skills needed in the digital economy.

An inclusive digital future is within reach

Asia already has many of the ingredients needed for success in the 21st century economy: a sophisticated digital infrastructure, diverse skillsets, and a strong culture of innovation. Creating a more inclusive future will require building on these strengths, as well as cooperation among private sector leaders, governments, and nonprofits.

This is where big tech has an important role to play. By investing in start-ups, entrepreneurs and SMEs, creating opportunities for critical skills training, and applying trusted technology to drive innovation, we can create a thriving skills-based labour market where everyone has a chance to succeed.

An inclusive, post-pandemic digital future is within our reach. Asia can lead the way.