Regional Panel Turns the Spotlight on North America at a Digital Innovation Crossroads

October 26, 2020

While the United States and Canada are globally celebrated as innovation trailblazers, COVID-19 has undoubtedly impacted their competitiveness and revealed both the strengths and shortcomings of their progress in digital transformation. To discuss this and more, this Monday, Portulans Institute, in cooperation with UNESCO, hosted the second regional panel event in our “Building Forward Better” series, focusing on digital transformation and network readiness in North America. Professor Soumitra Dutta presented the region’s results and rankings in the 2020 Network Readiness Index (read our summary here) to provide the latest data-based insights about the region’s performance.

The virtual panel was moderated by Portulans CEO Carolina Rossini, and featured a line-up of global thought leaders and regional experts from the nonprofit, private and public sectors, including:

  • Prof. Soumitra Dutta: President and Co-Founder, Portulans; Professor of Management, SC. Johnson School of Business, Cornell University; Co-Editor, NRI
  • Larry Irving: President and CEO, Irving Group; former Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Communications and Administrator of the National Telecoms and Information Administration.
  • Dr. Lara Mangravite: President, Sage Bionetworks.
  • Marie Paule Roudil; Director, UNESCO Liaison Office in New York; Representative to the UN, UNESCO.
  • Manish Sinha; Chief Marketing Officer, STL Group.
  • Tom Wheeler: Senior Research Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School; former Chairman of the Federal Communication Commission (2013-2017).
Connectivity gaps threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions, especially with COVID-19

Larry Irving delivered a wake-up call to the panel. “For far too many people – in the neighbourhood I grew up in, in the US as a country – don’t have access to tele-health. And the folks that don’t have access to this tech are also the ones on the front line of the pandemic.” More often than not, it is Black, Latinx and minority communities that suffer the consequences of these connectivity gaps. Irving cited a study showing that since February, the pandemic has claimed the lives of 1 in 1000 African Americans, compared to around 1 in 2,100 white Americans. Joining us from the UNESCO office in New York, Marie Paule Roudil commented on the gravity of connectivity gaps in developed and developing economies alike, noting that unless we identify bias in existing data and technologies, we cannot leverage digital tools to help us combat the growing digital divide and its often lethal consequences. Drawing on the NRI data, Professor Dutta noted that digital transformation may create new types of digital divide, even between neighboring blocks in the same city, as is the case in New York.

Today, the biomedical research sector faces new obstacles, but also new opportunities

Dr. Lara Mangravite shared an optimistic message from the biomedical research sector: “Increasingly, we’re seeing research and information sharing across countries.” In fact, “the sector did not have a digital transformation. The technology already existed. Instead, the crisis has created a transformation of incentives.” According to Dr. Mangravite, this transformation is nothing short of revolutionary: tele-health tools empower the provision of healthcare to move out of the office and back into the home, enabling a more holistic understanding of the individual and treatment, not to mention disease prevention. Learn more about Sage Bionetworks’ National COVID Cohort Collaborative Data Enclave, launched in September this year.

Yet weak political leadership undermines digital excellence

Drawing on his experience as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama administration (2013-2017), Tom Wheeler shared his perspective about US leadership at this critical digital precipice. “Internationally, the US has failed to be a leader. Period. And part of the reason we’ve failed is that we’re not stepping up.” The current administration, Wheeler commented, has “engaged in showbiz rather than substance” and failed to implement meaningful policy initiatives to close the digital divide. “We can’t lead if we can’t figure out what we stand for. And we need people with digital DNA who are representing the public interest and making rules that create guardrails for digital companies.” Irving continued: “the US can, and should, lead the global conservation” about building forward better with digital tools.

Now more than ever, private sector actors need to take responsibility

As a representative from the private sector, STL Group’s Manish Sinha commented that “with great power comes great responsibility and private sector actors have a responsibility to open up the ecosystem of the Internet, and ensure the bottom fifty percent also has access”, particularly in terms of improving affordability and access to help individuals and communities better handle the stresses of COVID-19. “Connectivity gaps prohibit individuals from having an impact on their own lives, and the world around them.” Wheeler underlined the importance of innovating current ICT regulatory policy: “We are stuck in a policy that was appropriately established twenty years ago, and has failed to evolve” to address new digital realities and challenges: and we cannot evolve if big tech continues to make the rules based on a business model that exploits personal data for profit (Antitrust Lawsuit Will Not Stop Big Tech’s Abuses). Irving agreed: “We’ve allowed the interests of big tech to drive our policy: but we need to put people first.” Without trust and security, Professor Dutta commented in regards to the NRI data, “developments in tech will harm the core fabric of our societies.”

Platforms need better regulation: “industrial revolution”-age regulation is no longer appropriate

Continuing the discussion on the role of the private sector, panelists discussed the need for regulatory modernization. Tom Wheeler mentioned his latest paper with Philip Verveer and Gene Kimmelman, published by Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center think tank. The authors recommend the creation of a new independent federal regulatory agency – the Digital Platform Agency (DPA) – to oversee big tech’s expanding presence in American business and life (New Digital Realities, New Oversight Solutions: read the report here). They cite “the enormous power of data control in the hands of a limited few tech platforms” and focus on the limited competitive landscape that is evolving. Their report envisions DPA as a “federal agency agile enough to handle the oversight of data abuses and gaps in competition policy, while being capable of establishing corporate duties that promote fair market practices.”

Stakeholders need to co-create their joint digital futures

Marie Lou Roudil emphasized that “democracy is not just about voting for your leaders – it is a principle premised upon ordinary people understanding issues and proposing solutions using the tools available to them. We need a democratic debate about what our digital future looks like.” To do so, Roudil outlined UNESCO’s approach to building digital literacy and institutional capacity for inclusive, people-first digital innovations. Irving stressed that “there is nothing wrong with the Internet that cannot be solved with exactly what is right about the Internet.” Professor Dutta agreed that the US has a “special responsibility” to provide global leadership of digital transformation, and provide models to emulate for digital progress. “Engagement from the US in global digital progress is critical. I hope that the next administration will make global engagement their priority.”

North America is one of the world’s most network-ready regions, but positive impact remains limited to some, not all

Following the panelists’ conversation about the challenges and opportunities the US faces, Professor Dutta presented the NRI results on the USA and Canada. As displayed by this year’s Network Readiness Index, the US remains in the top-ten most network-ready economies, ranking 8th globally. Professor Soumitra Dutta drew attention to US leadership in Future Technologies, ranking highly in all of the sub-pillar’s five indicators. Close behind, Canada ranks 13th globally, with global leadership in the Inclusion sub-pillar. However, Canada and the US both lag behind in Regulation (28th and 30th, respectively).

The US could especially do more to improve its SDG Contributions (31st) and Quality of Life (40th, its lowest performance in any sub-pillar). Professor Dutta emphasized that the US could be the NRI’s global leader if not for its sub-par performance in Impact.

Thank you to our 2020 Knowledge Partner, STL Group, for their support.

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