This post is part of our Dialogue on Digital Transformation series, in advance of the upcoming 2020 Network Readiness Index.
Dr. Rene Arnold is a Public Affairs Expert with Huawei. Prior to joining Huawei, he worked at several distinguished think tanks with a research focus on digital transformation. Among other projects, Rene worked intensively on the economic and societal impact of digital transformation in various emerging economies.
In which ways has the pandemic kick-started digital transformation in your sector and beyond?
Business continuance during the pandemic depends largely on digital solutions. At Huawei, we were able to adapt to the new situation quickly. We switched to working from home and cut down on travel. Like other tech companies, digital transformation is our DNA. So, we already had the relevant tools and solutions as well as a highly-skilled workforce in place when the pandemic hit.
From a broader perspective, COVID-19 has put a spotlight on digital transformation, the technology we provide, and the services of our customers. Reliable and high capacity networks providing the necessary connectivity for digital solutions have become the most critical part of the digital transformation to keep businesses going through the crisis. We have been working tirelessly with our customers to ensure network performance.
The digital solutions on top of everyone’s mind are videoconferencing and stable cloud computing for day-to-day interactions. Both enable millions of people to work from home instead of coming to their offices. We should equally pay attention to the larger picture of how digital transformation helps us to fight and eventually overcome COVID-19. Regarding these goals, the most important digital developments are happening in the health sector and digital government services these days.
Digital tools in the health services help diagnose the virus and play a critical role in defeating COVID-19. For instance, supported by artificial intelligence (AI), the time required to diagnose pneumonia symptoms using computer tomography (CT) scanning could be reduced from 14 minutes to just 2 minutes. The automated generation of a report with a 3D model of the lung for the doctor’s confirmation lifted some of the pressure from medical personnel during the pandemic. AI also helped in distinguishing COVID-19 from other lung diseases. This [digital transformation revolution in health] enabled doctors to identify patients to be isolated quickly even if they did not show any specific COVID-19 symptoms.
Eventually, digital tools will also be essential in developing drugs to treat the virus. Gene sequencing and drug screening are two areas where digital transformation enhances our capability substantially. AI-enabled high-speed mass-screening of millions of molecules supports the selection of potential drugs predicting the protein binding site targets accurately. Here, digital transformation saved critical time by reducing the time required for drug screening from months to hours. AI and cloud-based computing have furthermore greatly accelerated virus gene assembly and mutation analysis.
For governments, the focus of attention during the pandemic is on how to detain the virus’ spread. The tools that digital transformation offers have helped in the quick recognition of those infected. AI image recognition and 5G enabled the deployment of mass temperature scans, which offer an effective broad testing strategy as fever is typically one of the earliest symptoms of COVID-19. With the help of 5G, these solutions are fast to deploy as no further cabling is required. Setting up such systems at airports and train stations has helped significantly reduce the spread of the virus.
Looking forward, digital transformation will play a significant role in the recovery from the economic recession. This is reflected not only in most government strategies, but also in the fact that the sectors closely associated with digital solutions show the most outstanding economic spillover effects (i.e. economic performance). Digital transformation will likely lead the way in the pursuit of new economic growth.
Economic growth is naturally a key concern of global policymakers. Yet, in a post-COVID world, it will be particularly important to achieve inclusive growth. So, how can digital transformation be leveraged to rebuild more inclusive, diverse, and equitable economies?
That is absolutely true. And indeed, digital transformation can play a critical role in making the eventual economic rebound more inclusive, diverse, and equitable than before.
Interestingly, the tools that saw the greatest surge in their use during the pandemic, such as video-conferencing, distant learning solutions, or cloud computing, are not new. We just did not use them as much before the crisis. If we have learned one thing during the pandemic, it is that these solutions can be applied in many more situations than we had previously realized. One would hope this learning will have a profound effect on our lives in a post-COVID world and the eventual economic rebound.
Another take away from using digital tools during the pandemic may be that it is not necessarily the most sophisticated or comprehensive solution that offers the most value. Especially in emerging economies, it has been proven time and again that lowering the entry barrier to using digital applications in the first place is likely more effective than introducing a highly sophisticated solution that ultimately very few use or have even access to.
Inclusive digital growth is consequently built on the accessibility of applications. To be accessible, such applications have to overcome barriers of both infrastructure and skills. Our tech4all initiative embraces this triad of technology, applications, and skills in providing solutions in four major areas comprising education, environment, health, and development.
As digital transformation and digital networks know no borders, they can also be instrumental in shaping new employment opportunities. By using digital solutions, people with the right skills can find jobs globally without having to relocate. With a new openness of employers to accept such remote arrangements, this can lead to a much more open employment market in a post-COVID-19 world.
What leadership and culture are needed to ensure digital transformation does not exacerbate the global digital divide?
Leaders around the globe will have to embrace digital transformation much more than before the pandemic. However, no one size fits all approach to success in digital transformation, as our recent research on digital policy highlights. So, leaders should be acutely aware of the status quo of digital transformation and corresponding digital policies of their country to make the right decisions.
The first objective for policymakers and country leaders should be to focus their attention on strengthening their digital economy’s current position. With the increasing maturity of the current digital economy in a specific country, policymakers need to prioritize different measures. For instance, in an ICT novice country, education should emphasize digital inclusion and awareness. In contrast, a country with advanced digital economies needs to develop much more specific ICT skills among its population.
As a second objective, policymakers can seek to augment the digital economy in their country, bringing it to an entirely new level. This process is, however, challenging and takes a lot of time. Successful examples were accordingly scarce in our research. For instance, Ukraine and the Slovak Republic in Eastern Europe and Mexico have successfully transitioned their digital economies mainly by increasing their ICT services or ICT goods exports. This was only possible with a sufficiently skilled workforce and a good awareness of digital technology in general.
Tech readiness and innovation are powerful tools to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Can you share any examples or best practices for leveraging tech to achieve the SDGs?
Publications by various international organizations have provided ample evidence that digital transformation and ICT can indeed be leveraged to achieve the SDGs. However, as we all know, not everyone can benefit from these technologies yet. Half of the population on earth is still unconnected to the internet. We must overcome this deep digital divide between the connected and the unconnected as quickly as possible.
We must also realize that connectivity is only part of the problem. Affordability of data and skills to use digital solutions represent equally high thresholds for many to become part of and benefit from digital transformation.
Our tech4all initiative seeks to alleviate these barriers to participating in digital transformation. For instance, the DigiTruck is a mobile classroom traveling to remote communities in Kenya that provides essential digital training to children and adults alike. So far, 1,145 students and 100 teachers in 6 counties in Kenya received digital training with the help of the DigiTruck.
Among the sustainable development goals, SDG 13 “Climate Action” is central to preserving our environment. Rainforests help to stabilize the climate. As they are being depleted, our planet’s natural climate control system will inevitably fail. One of the greatest dangers for rainforests is illegal logging. Given the vast areas and few rangers, it is difficult to effectively monitor and prevent such criminal activity. We teamed up with the Rainforest Connection *RFCx” in 2019 to combat illegal logging with digital tools. Concretely, old cell phones equipped with a solar power unit are used for recording audio from which our AI analysis can pick up the sound of chainsaws with 96% accuracy. This has greatly improved the work efficiency of forest rangers. The solution has been implemented in 10 countries and regions to cover more than 2,500 square kilometers of rainforest. In 2020, we plan to scale up the project to 15 countries and cover 6,000 square kilometers.
These are just two examples of how digital transformation is a force for good and helps to achieve the SDGs set by the United Nations. We should all use the opportunities that digital transformation offers to shape a bright and inclusive future globally.