The paradigm of the ‘digital divide’ has shifted from a lack of access to a lack of skills. According to a new report, the key challenge now for Asia-Pacific policymakers isn’t connecting the unconnected but making the newly connected ‘digital by default’ so they can thrive in an inclusive digital economy.
Up to now, internet access has been the focal point by which many policy-makers have approached the problem of the digital divide’. In Asia Pacific, where this divide is starkest, it is often thought that if everyone had access to the internet, they would be able to reap the benefits of the digital economy.
However, a report by UNESCAP on digital transformation in Asia Pacific says this belief masks a more fundamental truth: the divide is not just about access to technology, but also about skills and knowledge. Even if everyone had a computer and an internet connection, many would still not be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the digital world.
‘Digital by default’ mindset is essential
“An estimated 96% of the population in Asia and the Pacific is now covered by mobile broadband. Countries therefore need to look beyond connectivity infrastructure,” the report says. “In the new digital by-default paradigm, the choice is no longer about whether to opting into digital transformation, but rather about how to improve its adoption and performance.”
Going beyond internet access and into a ‘digital by default’ mindset is therefore essential to ensure that everyone can participate in the digital economy.
In a ‘digital by default’ paradigm, people are not just consumers but also creators of products and services. For example, in the metaverse, a user can create a digital avatar to represent themselves and interact with others in a virtual world. They can then use this avatar to purchase goods and services, or even create their own businesses.
While developed countries have been able to make this shift with relative ease, the transition for many developing countries will be much more difficult. And now it is no longer a choice, the report stresses, but a necessity.
Three pathways to inclusive digital transformation
The UNESCAP report highlights several pathways by which developing countries can achieve sustainable and inclusive digital transformation:
- Pathway 1: Infrastructure networks and connectivity
This is the most obvious and essential pathway. Without reliable and affordable infrastructure, it will be very difficult for countries to take advantage of digital technologies.
- Pathway 2: Digital technologies and applications
This pathway is about more than just internet access. It also includes ensuring that people have equitable access to digital devices and applications, as well as the skills necessary to use them.
- Pathway 3: Data about data
As data becomes an increasingly valuable resource, it is important for countries to have the ability to collect, manage and use data effectively and responsibly.
Finally, UNESCAP says, it is imperative for countries in the region to build regional and global partnerships to support digital transformation that is people-centric and inclusive.