Collective response from governments, private sector and community needed to bridge digital divide: WEF panel

Panellists at the session stressed that the pandemic has laid bare the gaps in access to technology.
Panellists at the session stressed that the pandemic has laid bare the gaps in access to technology.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - While the pandemic hastened the adoption of digital technology around the world, the risk of a digital divide - whether within a developed society, or between countries - is a real global challenge that has to be addressed, said Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran.

To mount a credible effort to bridge it, a collective response from governments, the private sector and the people sector is needed.

"If we do not address this social dimension, then I think we will be the poorer for it, and we will not be able to fully realise the benefits of a digital future," said Mr Iswaran at the World Economic Forum's inaugural Global Technology Governance Summit (GTGS), which kicked off on Tuesday (April 6).

Other panellists at the session also weighed in on the importance of partnerships in tackling the digital divide, stressing that the pandemic has laid bare the gaps in access to technology.

Mr Bocar Ba, chief executive of the Samena Telecommunications Council in the United Arab Emirates, said that just about half of all households globally have an Internet connection, which meant a large segment of the world's population could not access services that were no longer available offline during the Covid-19 pandemic.

To ensure universal digital access, partners collaborating on the issue must come up with innovative approaches and set measurable targets, said Mr Ba.

It will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to help connect the remaining three billion people in the world to the Internet, and this means that private entities will have to come up with new approaches for funding, financing and investing in digital infrastructure.

All stakeholders who benefit from the broadband infrastructure must also contribute in a more sustainable way, he added.

Ms Vinita Sethi, senior vice-president and chief public affairs officer at India's Apollo Hospitals Enterprise, added that the pandemic showed there are opportunities for experts across different sectors, such as technology and healthcare, to work together on solutions that can benefit society.

Investments in technology helped Apollo navigate the pandemic better, for instance, through launching an app that helped people to determine whether it was likely they had contracted Covid-19.

To do this, investments also have to be made to groom talent with the digital skills that are required for such projects and initiatives, and this is an area where companies can collaborate with the government, she added.

More than 2,000 leaders from government, business and civil society will gather until Thursday for the virtual meeting, which is jointly hosted with Japan.

Participants will discuss key issues such as ethical artificial intelligence, blockchain and data privacy, together with other technologies powering the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The discussions will be a key feature of talks when the World Economic Forum (WEF) meets in Singapore in August.