[SCMP Column] Digital reality check

December 01, 2018

Edward Gacusana is a man with a mission – and some distinctly sobering insights into the digital revolution that has got so many people so excited over the past couple of years.

Edward’s job, for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Philippines, is to bring computers to local schools, so that Philippine kids can become digitally literate, perhaps learn coding, and join the digital revolution party.

But before he can start getting excited about delivering computers and developing STEM skills in the country’s classrooms, he has to wrestle with a much more basic challenge: how to get electricity to the 3,694 schools in the Philippines that still have no access to power. His main task right now is getting solar panels installed in all of the powerless schools. Schools will get their computers only when the solar panels are up and running.

Edward was this week talking to a similarly down-to-earth crowd – a couple of hundred educators from across the Philippines gathered for an APEC workshop on “Harnessing Inclusive Opportunities in the Digital Age”. Almost all of them are under mounting pressure to equip our next generation with the skills needed to take advantage of the digital revolution – and most of them feel deeply daunted by the practical challenge.

One teacher queried how she could help build digital literacy when she had had no internet at home for the past three months – not because of power shortages, but because of the fragility of the internet infrastructure. Many were at the workshop – mainly middle aged women who had devoted decades to teaching kids in their remote Philippine communities – to learn how they could build their own competencies to teach coding and STEM skills. Assuming of course that their schools had power, computers, and a robust-enough internet infrastructure to enable meaningful online or cloud-based learning.

Their challenges reminded me of this year’s APEC Leaders’ meetings in Port Moresby. While most of the meeting venues provided us APEC visitors with robust and reasonably fast access to the internet, you did not have to stray many yards off the beaten track to enter the off-line reality of most lives in Papua New Guinea. What potential here for the Digital Revolution, no matter what the local enthusiasm?

So before that next animated discussion about the marvellous potential of the digital revolution, or Artificial Intelligence, or taking advantage of big data, let us pause first for a reality check. According to the International Energy Agency, around 1.06bn people still have no access to electricity. The World Bank says that 306m Indians have “an electricity access deficit”, followed by 82m in Nigeria, 15.6m in the Philippines and 14m in Indonesia.

On the back of this “electricity access deficit”, realistic internet access remains a distant dream. The World Economic Forum reported two years ago that over 4bn people lacked internet access, and that in only 29 countries worldwide was access to the internet affordable.

To be fair, there has been some progress since then. The Internet World Stats organisation says there are now 4.2bn internet users worldwide, reducing those without access to just over 3.4bn. Whether this access is any more affordable is unclear.
But it is only in Europe (85 per cent penetration rate) and North America (95 per cent penetration rate) that the Digital Revolution is a practical daily reality. In Asia, which has almost half of the world’s internet users (2.06bn), internet penetration amounts to just 49 per cent of the population, and in Africa, with a population of 1.3bn, internet penetration stands at barely 36 per cent.

Much of the talk in APEC is based on the need for “inclusive growth”, and however uneasily this sits with the “America First” priority of the current US administration, there are many APEC member economies who take that talk very seriously. As with the UNDP’s Edward Gacusana and the Philippine teachers, the commitment to bring the digital revolution into classrooms in even the most remote parts of the region is palpable.

But the practical reality today is that the Digital Revolution is a source of excitement – and intimidating social and job-market change – mainly to the lucky 1.2bn people living in Europe and North America. And if the Global Connectivity Index research by Huawei in China is to be believed, then these digital leaders are riding a wave that is pushing them steadily further ahead of the laggard economies concentrated in the developing world.

There might be some in the affluent west who feel comfortable with this enduring technology leadership, whatever their lip service to the vision of “inclusive growth”. But there is a very important reason for them to be concerned: most economies in the west, and most of the affluent economies of Asia, are home to crashing birth rates and declining home-grown workforces. The only labour surplus economies as we go forward into the 2020s are in Africa, India, and a dwindling few economies in east Asia, like the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

In the coming decades, whatever the angst of some about immigration, many of the west’s future skills needs must be met by workers educated in the developing world. If they lack the digital competencies necessary to drive our internet-based economies, then the rich west faces ferocious human resources challenges.

Some may repost that the new AI- and robot-driven technologies will reduce the need for human labour, and so eliminate this danger. But that is not what labour economists at the World Bank and elsewhere have learned. Their data shows clearly that while some jobs will without doubt disappear, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is in net terms creating more new jobs than it is destroying. The challenge is to make sure tomorrow’s workers have the skills needed to capture and use the new technologies.

Demographics say most of these people will be found in the developing world – so the strength of their education systems and their skills pools is likely to be critical. So too is robust electricity supplies, and internet access. So Edward Gacusana is not wrong to think about the solar panels first.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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