Asia Pacific Panel Highlights Digital Transformation Track Records and NRI Regional Data

Portulans Institute, in cooperation with UNESCO and with support from our 2020 Knowledge Partner, STL Group, hosted a regional panel on Wednesday, addressing digital transformation’s track record in Asia and the Pacific. For years, many Asian economies like South Korea and Singapore have been world-renowned champions of digital transformation. In which ways has COVID-19 impacted their ongoing digital progress? On this occasion, Dr. Bruno Lanvin presented the region’s results and rankings in the 2020 Network Readiness Index (read our summary here).

The virtual panel was moderated by Portulans CEO and Co-Founder Carolina Rossini, and featured a line-up of regional experts and global thought leaders, including:

  • John Garrity, Economist and Policy Advisor, NRI Technical Advisor
  • Misako Ito, Regional Advisor and Chief, Communication and Information, UNESCO
  • Dr. Bruno Lanvin, Executive Director for Global Indices at INSEAD and Director, Portulans Institute
  • Dr. Jim Poisant, Secretary-General, The World Information Technology and Services Alliance
  • Frances West, CEO, FrancesWestCo, and Former Chief Accessibility Officer, IBM
Singapore, South Korea maintain network readiness; Malaysia, China and Vietnam display upper- and low-middle income leadership

Dr. Bruno Lanvin presented the NRI regional results and rankings, highlighting Singapore’s impressive digital performance as the world’s third-most network-ready economy and the highest-ranked economy for Impact. South Korea boasts similarly impressive digital readiness, with a second-place global ranking in People. Within the upper-middle income country group, Malaysia and China display strong leadership; within lower-middle income countries, Vietnam’s track record is notable. This year’s NRI data suggests that the region’s core strengths are in Governance and Impact, with room for improvement in Technology performance and People. (Read more about the NRI pillars and what they mean for digital readiness here.) John Garrity, as an NRI technical advisor, shared his predictions for NRI 2021 and beyond: indicator performance will likely be impacted by economies’ digital changes catalyzed by COVID-19 recovery and relief efforts.

Digital transformation should put people first

Our speakers’ perspectives were rooted in a variety of sectors and backgrounds, from the nonprofit community to the private sector. Yet all speakers converged on the overwhelming importance of putting people first in digital transformation policymaking, particularly in the age of COVID-19. As explained by John Garrity, countries in Asia and the Pacific with “robust digital infrastructure” and high smartphone penetration were the ones best suited to handle the pandemic’s fallout, for lives and livelihoods alike. As a result, “it is clear that a robust digital ecosystem is an imperative when it comes to poverty alleviation.” Garrity cited the Indonesian government’s refocusing of digital solutions for pandemic relief and recovery initiatives, and the growing prominence of digital payment systems in the Philippines.

Inclusion and diversity are at the core of effective digital transformation

Frances West shared with the panel her perspectives about “authentic inclusion”, informed by years of organizational experience trailblazing inclusion, diversity and accessibility initiatives in the private sector: “The last thing we want to do is thinking about inclusion sequentially. As we move forward, we need a holistic and proactive approach [to inclusion and diversity in digital transformation], thinking about inclusion not as a human resources issue but rather as a human-first digital promise… It is more important than ever before that inclusion is built into digital frameworks.” Misako Ito commented on the regional digital divide, and highlighted that more often than not, while young people constitute the majority of digital users, “there is a clearly accelerating digital divide affecting older people.” Other panelists agreed that the digital exclusion of the region’s growing elderly demographic is a particularly acute dilemma during a public health crisis, when access to information is sometimes a matter of life-or-death.

The COVID-19 crisis has had a Janus-faced impact on digital progress

On the one hand, COVID-19 has accelerated a variety of positive digital changes, such as improving accessibility to education and healthcare by leveraging digital tools and platforms. On the other hand, the crisis has also exposed the malign ways in which governments may leverage digital progress for oppression, surveillance and intimidation. As emphasized by Misako Ito, “COVID-19 has accelerated changes that are already underway in the digital world, like learning and working online. But it has also created new challenges and increased existing inequalities,” as digital tools are increasingly used to curb the freedom of expression through surveillance and online harassment. (On that note, Freedom House released their Freedom on the Net 2020 report, which dives deeper into the pandemic’s “digital shadow”).

We need better digital leadership for a post-COVID world

Dr. Jim Poisant’s remarks underlined the importance of digital champions and effective digital strategies, informed by indexes like the “gold standard” of digital readiness, the NRI. “Digital transformation is more than just leadership. It’s about championship – individuals and groups who will champion digital change and digital progress within countries.” Poisant continued: “A successful digital transformation needs a champion behind a comprehensive, long-term, untouchable digital plan that can be adjusted according to digital changes. That’s how countries can move up the NRI rankings.” Dr. Bruno Lanvin’s closing remarks highlighted the significance of youth participation in the “digital future”: “We have to restore faith in the future. The digital future is a source of hope and energy – let’s work with the younger generation to make this a reality.”


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.