Building Forward Better: Global Panel Discusses Digital Transformation, Network Readiness and COVID-19

Portulans Institute, in cooperation with UNESCO and with support from our 2020 Knowledge Partner, STL Group, hosted a global panel addressing the year’s most critical digital questions: how has COVID-19 accelerated the need for digital transformation worldwide? Are countries network-ready to ensure digital transformation is beneficial to their economies and citizens? What are the main digital challenges in the coming months and years? On this occasion, Dr. Bruno Lanvin and Prof. Soumitra Dutta also released the results and rankings of the 2020 Network Readiness Index (read our summary here).

In the first segment, panelists address questions about building forward better, and promises and challenges of digital transformation in a post-COVID world.

In the second segment, Dr. Bruno Lanvin presents the NRI 2020 results, H.E. Anders Ygeman shares his insights about Sweden’s digital leadership, and panelists provide their concluding remarks on digital transformation.

The virtual panel, moderated by Portulans CEO and Co-Founder Carolina Rossini, featured global thought leaders from government, the private sector and the nonprofit community, including:

  • Dr. Anand Agarwal, CEO, STL Group
  • Prof. Soumitra Dutta, Professor of Management, SC Johnson College of Business, Cornell University and President, Portulans Institute
  • Prof. Demi Getschko, President-director, NIC.Br, Brazil
  • Dorothy Gordon, Chair, Information for All Programme (IFAP), UNESCO
  • Dr. Bruno Lanvin, Executive Director for Global Indices at INSEAD, and Director, Portulans Institute
  • Sasha Rubel, Program Specialist, Digital Innovation & Transformation, UNESCO
  • H.E Anders Ygeman, Minister for Energy and Digital Development, Sweden
To handle the pandemic’s fallout, meaningful connectivity is paramount

As Professor Demi Getschko commented, drawing on Brazil’s experience, connectivity is not the end of the story. With nearly three out of four Brazilians connected, Professor Getschko noted that many may think connectivity is the end of the story. This is not the case whatsoever: getting people connected is only the first half of the struggle. In order to ensure connectivity is meaningful, governments must champion the development of digital literacy and skills, and build digital infrastructure to “develop the instrumental use of ICTs” throughout society. To rebuild more inclusive, diverse and equitable post-COVID societies, Ms. Dorothy Gordon emphasized that we stronger national ecosystems of innovation, a better understanding of the “inclusion dynamic” and support for programmes that encourage digital capacity-building.

Digital transformation threatens to exacerbate inequality

Ms. Dorothy Gordon stressed that “with rapid digitization, we actually see inequality accentuated.” Drawing on UNESCO’s advocacy and research on inequality and connectivity gaps (such as: I’d Blush If I Could: Closing Gender Divides in Digital Skills Through Education), Ms. Sacha Rubel educated the speakers and attendees alike about the gender inequalities in the ICT sector in developed and developing economies alike. Rubel continued: “We need digital transformation based on human rights. Technology is not neutral, nor is it a mirror – it is a magnifier of existing inequalities.” Dr. Bruno Lanvin commented on the overwhelming importance of youth engagement in digital futures: “The future is about young people – and we need to involve them. If we can use digital tech to generate their appetite about the future, then we’re doing our job correctly.”

COVID-19 is accelerating digital transformation

All speakers agreed that COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation. Drawing on the example of Sweden’s experience with the COVID-19 crisis, H.E. Anders Ygeman noted that “in some sectors, we have taken digital steps that would have otherwise taken years.” Professor Soumitra Dutta shares his insights about the changes to global conversations about digital transformation during the past two decades: “today, conversations about digital transformation are far more complex, with a discourse rooted in both competitiveness and the wellbeing of people”.

The digital future requires a “portolans” to navigate both challenges and opportunities

Prof. Getschko played with words and commented we need good data to drive good policy, and mentioned we need a “portolans”.  The name of our institute, Portulans (or “portolans”), refers to ancient nautical maps, first crafted during the 13th century for navigation around the Mediterranean basin. The word comes from the Italian portulano, which refers to “a collection of sailing directions”. In these ancient maps, only a few harbors were visible – and much of the coastlines (and, indeed, the world) were hypothetical. At the precipice of unprecedented digital transformations, all speakers referred to the necessity for a roadmap for the digital future, informed by accurate data, common global methodologies and ethical impact assessments, supported by open access. Ms. Sasha Rubel called for the development of a digital readiness methodology where practice informs policy, as opposed to policy informing practice. Ms. Dorothy Gordon, also representing UNESCO’s digital agenda, agreed that research that looks to the future and gauges the prospective impact of digital technologies is a necessity.

International cooperation is more important than ever before

While each speaker contributed their own sectoral and regional perspective on the pandemic crisis and digital transformation, they all converged on one necessity: international cooperation and digital roadmaps for ethical, human-centric transformation is more important than perhaps ever before. As Prof. Getschko emphasized, “Cooperation in the Digital Age is paramount. Individuals, institutions and governments cannot manage digital transformation alone: global vulnerabilities are interconnected and interdependent.” Speaking from a private sector perspective, Dr. Anand Agarwal said he “sees the role of the private sector as an enabler of digital transformation.” And Ms. Sacha Rubel shared UNESCO’s agenda to encourage the “co-creation” of the post-COVID digital future, ensuring all stakeholders are empowered to create context-driven digital solutions to local needs.

Learning from Sweden: what is the recipe for digital success?

H.E. Ygeman commented that Sweden sees their top ranking in the Network Readiness Index 2020 as an indicator that Sweden is taking full advantage of digital solutions, which “help us overcome some of the challenges we face as a country, for example, a small population and geographical distance.” In order to be better prepared for the digital future, H.E. Ygeman explained, countries must “work hard to make sure that legislation supports innovation – and doesn’t stop it… We must act fast to update the laws to fit the world we now live in.” Most importantly, economies must develop digital solutions that “manage their [citizen’s] everyday matters.” The COVID-19 crisis represents a unique opportunity, and a moment of realization: “digitization is more about people than it is about technology.”


The Portulans Institute, in cooperation with UNESCO, encourages our network to attend our series of regional spotlight events, with insights from regional experts and the presentation of regional NRI data and highlights. Find further information and registration details here.