A new “new normal” after COVID-19: Building inclusive digital futures in Asia and the Pacific
According to the UNCTAD survey report COVID-19 and E-commerce, countries across the world have seen dramatic increases in online spending across categories of goods since earlier this year. This also impacts data traffic volume. And according to Telegeography, Ghana and Croatia reported 50 per cent increases in data traffic, compared with 2019 figures.
But the transitions from offline to online services and platforms were not smooth for everyone.Globally, many remain excluded from digital connectivity and platforms and are unable to transition to the new normal. When COVID struck, it accentuated the existing digital divide and second and third waves continue to constrain how we cope with the pandemic recovery process.
Envisaging the new “new normal”
At the time of writing, an increasing number of countries in Asia and the Pacific are reaching the full-fledged recovery phase. But what does this new “new normal” look like? Should we go back to the pre-COVID era?
We are still on the way to finding answers by taking into account the lessons learned and good practices gained during the COVID lockdowns.
So what should be retained from the pre-COVID era? And what needs to be re-programmed or re-thought post-COVID?
First, we need to go digital in more aspects than we envisioned before the pandemic hit. We need to deepen and accelerate digital transformation, so that more business, agriculture, health and education services are digitized. This way, more insights and intelligence can be gleaned from emerging technologies, such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, big data and blockchain.
Second, we need to expand our digital footprint faster and make sure that no one is left behind in this new “new normal”. Digital services should benefit all, including refugees, internally displaced persons, people with disabilities, women and girls, older people and residents in remote and rural areas of developing countries. Expanded connectivity and access will be an essential enabler to access digital services, empower people and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.
Third, we learned that digitization and de-materialization may have positive impacts on the environment and address challenges we faced during the pre-COVID time.
Mega-cities suffered from uncontrolled traffic congestion, associated air pollution, ocean plastic, and climate-related natural disasters, just to name a few.
Perhaps the new “new normal” should take advantage of technology and connectivity to advance more sustainable urban development pathways.
Building digital cooperation in the Asia-Pacific
Where do we in the Asia and Pacific region stand in all of this?
Certainly, doing more of the same is not an answer. Neither is working in silos. We need to join forces among international and regional organizations, financial institutions, academia, think tank and private sector and strive towards a common goal, with respective strengths, expertise and resources. The Secretary-General of the United Nations issued the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation to develop a safer and more equitable digital world through partnership.
To both implement the Roadmap and lay the foundation for the new “new normal”, ITU organized the webinar “Advances in closing the ICT connectivity gap in Asia-Pacific” with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), UNDP, GSMA, the Web Foundation and Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) in September 2020.
The speakers collectively discussed the gaps, opportunities and technologies on the horizon which can provide solutions to expand digital connectivity to the unconnected in the region.
This will be the first of more digital cooperation partnerships to come in Asia and the Pacific. By joining forces, we can collectively accelerate digital transformation towards a brighter and more sustainable future.
On behalf of the ITU Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, I invite member countries, more partners and organizations to join in the journey and explore the new “new normal” together with us.
ITU Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific is organizing the Regional Development Forum from 2 to 5 November 2020 virtually. Participants will share challenges, solutions and collaboration opportunities to shape the digital blueprint for Asia and the Pacific’s new “new normal”. Learn more and register here.
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