Article originally published in Morse
In the recent years, we all observed how countries and institutions relied on digital tools to deal with the COVID shocks. For example, at Maastricht University, with the help of the digital learning management system and meeting software Canvas, Zoom and MS Teams we were able to continue our education provision and research activities. It is almost unimaginable that we would have been able to offer our courses during the pandemic without those digital tools and services. Yet, we should not forget that using the tools and services requires digital skills.
The term e-resilience captures societies’ reliance on ICT in periods of shock. E-resilience is defined as the ability of ICT infrastructure systems to withstand, recover from, and change in the face of an external disturbance. This reliance on ICT is globally present in developed countries and countries with less developed digital infrastructure or lower digitally skilled populations. As a result, governments and policymakers all over the globe realise that their governments need to invest in the ability to develop ICT policies, build and rely on digital tools and have relevant systems in place to handle quickly and responsive in case of shocks. How to do that best, though, is not so easy.
This week the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, takes place, hosting the Heads of State of 20 major established and emerging economies but engaging around 21.000 delegates from all countries of the world. During the event, and in the months ahead of the event, the most important global issues are discussed. The Indonesian hosts have divided the topics into two tracks, namely the Finance track and the Sherpa track. In the Sherpa track, policy-relevant topics that do not relate to finance are discussed – and these topics include Digital Skills and Digital Literacy. At the request of ITU Bangkok, a team of researchers from UNU-MERIT and the London School of Economics contributed to the Digital Skills agenda. Over the past 8 months, we worked on a policy note that is discussed at the G20 SUMMIT. In academia, the word impact is often equated with academic publications. Yet, by informing the policymakers that debate and decide on the digital skill agenda for the coming years directly, we believe that even more impact is potentially made this way.
The note we drafted shares that for governments to develop useful digital tools, there are several elements to keep in mind.
Firstly, the level of digital skills of employees within ministries needs to be high. In a world where the brightest talents are often attracted by the best-paying institutions in the private sector, it is especially important to continue training public policymakers in this fast-developing field. This group of policymakers and public servants is responsible for designing the appropriate policies, selecting good ICT partners and developing implementation strategies. Therefore, these civil servants need to understand the field well. Of course, they are not the people that create the ICT tools and push for ICT innovations, but they are the ones that need to be capable of filtering the useful applications and policies from the less impactful ones.
Secondly, the policies and tools developed that rely on ICT applications or functions to be used by society should be aligned with the skills and available devices in that society. It is not hard to imagine that in Silicon Valley (USA), it is easier to introduce and encourage the use of complicated apps than in a remote village in, for instance, Nigeria. People living in Silicon Valley are more likely trained in technology use and are more likely to have funds to buy the equipment. While it can be prestigious for a country to implement state of the art ICT technology to increase the e-resilience of a societal group, it may be more useful to develop basic tools that the society at stake can use as well. For example, some of the most successful interventions in the field of education during covid time were based on the concept of sharing information using relatively straightforward platforms that were accessible by mobile phone.
The third element relevant to increasing e-resilience in societies is the fact that ICT should be used for development (ICT4D). The digital divide exists not only in access (not being able to afford devices) but also in the ability to use (the generation gap and quality of education gap), and the quality of use gap (the ability to use ICT for your own benefit). We know that there is a global divide among countries and continents. There is a divide between urban and rural populations. There is a divide between the older and younger populations and between men and women. The digital divide only increased during COVID times and generally increased in the aftermath of the shocks. It is important that policymakers are aware of this divide and realise that by using ICT tools, they may not reach certain parts of their population. Suppose policies are meant to enhance the whole country’s development, including the less advantaged groups. In that case, policy makers should be mindful to impose a policy that intends to empower specifically those less advantaged groups. That of course, also means they need to be aware that those groups have the skills and tools to benefit from the policy that will be implemented.
We all know that what is agreed upon in SUMMITS is not always implemented in practice. But by placing the topic on the agenda, the first hurdle to change is taken. It is important to realise that digital transformations in society must go hand in hand with digital skill development.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Lukas Bieri from Pixabay