Wednesday October 20, 2021

Towards a digital future?

December 21, 2019

The ‘Digital Pakistan Vision’ launched by Prime Minister Imran Khan recently has the potential to considerably help improve our socio-economic outlook. True. But there is many a slip between the cup and the lip.

A project that promises “a digitally progressive and inclusive Pakistan” should not end up confined to high-sounding statements and dust-gathering official files; something that explains the proverbial culture of our officialdom.

There is agreement among policymakers around the world that digital technology is the future. Understandably, digitalisation has brought about a revolution in how economies and societies work today and how planning is done and implemented. While it is making a huge impact in the rest of the world, we have a lukewarm response to digitalisation. Until very recently, we seemed to be completely unaware of what digitalisation means and why it was so important to adopt. We have seen people still hesitating to use their mobile devices to pay utility bills and transfer funds.

A World Economic Forum report, ‘Understanding the Impact of Digitalisation on Society’, makes a profound analysis: “Digital transformation is generating a fierce debate among policymakers, economists and industry leaders about its societal impact. As digitalisation disrupts society ever more profoundly, concern is growing about how it is affecting issues, such as jobs, wages, inequality, health, resource efficiency and security.”

In our part of the world, the last few decades seem to have made some difference. For instance, it was simply unimaginable for us in our childhood, or even a little later, to have a mobile phone, play games on it, download favourite cartoons, or search a poem. Today, my three-and-a-half year old can do all these things with ease whenever she gets hold of my phone. Gadgets like mobile phones or laptops do not surprise them the way they did us. These gadgets invite them to explore and tread unchartered territories. Of course, we are embracing digital technology bit by bit but do we intend to make full use of it?

So, let’s take a broader picture. Where do we stand when it comes to entering the much talked about fourth industrial revolution, a term used by policymakers and industry to point to technological advancements like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, 3D printing and the internet of things? In our own way, we have leapfrogged from a society largely rooted in an agrarian culture to a society that has welcomed and adopted some technological advancements during the last couple of decades or so.

But at the same time, it seems we are about to miss the train and are generations away from actually entering the phase where we have access to latest technologies as and when they are made available in the world elsewhere.

Still, it is interesting to see if and how these technologies are changing the way we live, work and interact with each other. And if they are, are these changes sustainable in any way? How do we relate to the rest of the world when it comes to digitalisation? Where do we stand in terms of what we have achieved or missed in becoming a digital society? And, most importantly, why is it so important to become a digital society for our economic and social development? Is it an option or a process?

While there are not many avenues taking up these questions, these and many such critical issues were raised and discussed at length at the Sustainable Development Institute’s 22nd Sustainable Development Conference (SDC) 2019 titled ‘Sustainable Development in a Digital Society’. It was heart-warming to see experts from about 18 countries share their knowledge and experiences in 35 sessions scattered over three days.

The fundamental question and resolve of the panellists and participants was how to not just adopt digital technology but how to bridge the digital divide between and within regional countries for the best possible dividends. How women entrepreneurs can make the most of digital technology in a competitive environment was also an interesting discussion.

So we now know that the main digital transformations can be in the sphere of human capacity, consumption, energy, food, water and smart cities, among others. But that is not possible until policymakers, researchers, and the civil society add to their resolve and actions to understand and explain effects of digital change on a society. In this day and age, digital disruption, on the other hand, can add to a number of economic, societal, and cultural challenges.

Smooth functioning of the digital economy, for instance, can be a huge step towards achieving sustainable development. Since many big businesses in Pakistan have monopoly and can influence policy decisions and markets, digitalisation can work to change the status quo. Digitalisation of economy can also help improve revenue generation and documentation of the economy.

It would be wonderful if we can create a digital ecosystem. If we don’t, young talent, such as Tania Aidrus who is stated to have opted for this challenge over a lucrative post at Google, will not accept a challenge for this country in the future.

The writer is an assistant editor at The News on Sunday.

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