• The World Bank has released a new report: The Converging Technology Revolution and Human Capital: Potential and Implications for South Asia.
  • It examines how South Asia can capitalize on existing technologies, to accelerate human capital development and promote resilience to future crises.
  • This is particularly important since South Asian countries are struggling to financially recover from COVID-19.
  • The World Bank hopes that by accelerating their work in converging technologies, they can help make the benefits more accessible.

Imagine this: The year is 2030 and Umair’s family in Bangladesh has been evacuated due to flash floods in his village and surrounding areas. They are temporarily accommodated along with others in a digitally fabricated house built by a local innovation hub. The house is equipped with a photovoltaic ‘skin’ to harness solar energy as well as a rainwater collection and purification system. Meanwhile, his daughter seamlessly continues her education online using a school supplied device and personalized learning tools. Local authorities are tracking infectious disease outbreaks in the area using sewage biosensors and medications are being delivered through a smart, resilient supply chain. Thanks to detailed resource mapping provided by the local government via phone, Umair is able to access goods and services for his family. Because his family is registered on the adaptive social protection scheme, he is contacted by the government to ensure continuity of services and eligibility for enhanced social assistance payment.

Sound like far flung science fiction? Not quite. It’s a distinct reality enabled by converging technologies—a synergistic combination of four groups of technologies, including information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and cognitive technology along with increasing application of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The World Bank’s newly released report titled, The Converging Technology Revolution and Human Capital: Potential and Implications for South Asia looks at how the region can capitalize on such technologies already sweeping the world, to accelerate human capital development and promote resilience to future shocks. The report comes at an opportune time when South Asian countries are struggling to recover and rebuild human capital in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How converging technologies work to build human capital

The converging technology revolution is profound: It has the potential to build and protect human capital through improved service delivery; create jobs and innovation; and empower human capital through inclusion and trust. In doing so, it can accelerate the building of human capital and make nations more resilient in the face of new risks and shocks such as climate disasters, pandemics, and technology-induced disruptions in employment.

Specifically, The Converging Technology Revolution report identifies four channels of interaction between technology and human capital:

  • Technologies deployed in health, education, and social protection: these can improve service delivery.
  • Technology applications in sectors such as agriculture, energy, water, and sanitation: these can improve child nutrition and reduce transmission of disease, thereby improving human capital.
  • The availability of skilled labor affects the use of technology in the workplace: it alters the demand for skills and the requirements placed on the education and training system.
  • Highly specialized human capital such as scientists, engineers, and professionals help drive the innovation system: this in turn creates and adapts converging technologies for local use.

Rising up to the challenge

While converging technologies are creating vast new opportunities for accelerating human capital outcomes, they also bear the potential of generating new and considerable risks.

For one, the technology revolution in South Asia is mainly led by the private sector causing disparities and inequalities. A stark example is in education, where most children in public schools across South Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic have had limited or no access to education for months, resulting in high learning losses and dropouts, especially among girls. Meanwhile, those in private educational institutions have ensured learning continuity by shifting to online and mobile learning. If not handled with caution, these technologies could exacerbate existing inequalities, deepen exclusion and discrimination, and eliminate empowerment.

South Asia is also trailing in technology and data governance as well as in social trust, essential for protecting vulnerable populations. Data is increasingly at the heart of the converging technology revolution and is especially important in its application to human capital. Yet, data can be misused for exclusion and discrimination, while “data invisible” groups, such as women and marginalized communities, are not represented in AI algorithms, leading to potential bias in automated decision making or in the development of personalized solutions. For example, there’s limited “first-mile” access to digital infrastructure such as reliable, high-speed, and affordable connectivity and devices for schools and health centers in poor communities, as well as for the women in households across South Asia. Less than 40 percent of women own a mobile phone in India and Pakistan, compared with 80 percent of men in India and 70 percent in Pakistan.

charts showing mobile phone and desktop/laptop ownership, and internet awareness and usage in selected South Asian countries
Mobile phone and desktop/laptop ownership, and internet awareness and usage in selected South Asian countries.
Image: World Bank

Looking ahead: Ensuring inclusive technology for all

The World Bank has invested heavily in technology in human capital related projects in South Asia, with $ 6.4 billion of current loan commitments being for technology components. Addressing inequality, inclusion, and empowerment are core principles of the World Bank’s work in South Asia and we are committed to establishing a bedrock of equitable digital access to all while empowering human capital. This includes developing new service offerings for clients by undertaking technology assessments, advisory services, and technology enabled human capital projects; building adequate capacity for the public sector to equitably deploy technologies and formulate policies in these areas; and establishing the right framework for data and technology governance.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle inequity.

The Forum's work on Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Social Justice is driven by the New Economy and Society Platform, which is focused on building prosperous, inclusive and just economies and societies. In addition to its work on economic growth, revival and transformation, work, wages and job creation, and education, skills and learning, the Platform takes an integrated and holistic approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and aims to tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity.

If done right and well, accelerating our work in converging technologies will lead to increased trust and community participation, and ultimately help realize the optimistic scenario for Umair and his family across all citizens of South Asia.