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ICTs for a Sustainable World #ICT4SDG

Speech by ITU Secretary-General, Dr Hamadoun I. Touré

The Effects of the Internet on the Economy and Social Life

Keynote Speech 

30 March 2012, Istanbul, Turkey

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here with you this afternoon in Istanbul – the only city in the world which spans two continents.

This makes it a great venue for a discussion on the Internet – which of course spans every continent, and now affects everything that we do in the 21st century.

In our modern, hyperconnected world it is easy to forget that just twenty or thirty years ago most people on the planet did not have access to even basic telecommunications.

Today, we live in a world where we have six billion mobile cellular subscriptions, and where 2.4 billion people use the Internet.

This is very rapidly changing the shape of the world.

We are seeing mobile devices and the Internet bringing people – and things – together in ways that we could never even have dreamed of just a decade or two ago.

Information and communication technologies, ICTs, are helping humanity come together; making barriers of distance and time far less important than our shared social and economic goals.

ICTs are also rapidly removing the barriers which once separated those with power from those without power.

This is as true for corporations and even individuals as it is for governments.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We live in a new era of accountability – and we need to embrace this as a good thing.

There are those who would fear scrutiny; who would prefer to remain hidden away; who would be uncomfortable with ‘the masses’ being aware of what is going on.

Those people would be wrong – or at the very best, misguided.

Because it is perfectly possible to respect the necessary boundaries of privacy and security, while still maintaining the right levels of transparency and accountability.

In a world where there will be three billion smartphones by the year 2015, we are already seeing social media redefining the landscape we live in.

As people said during the wave of social protests last year, “we use FaceBook to mobilize; we use Twitter to report; and we use YouTube to broadcast.”

This is not a revolution in itself – but it is certainly a revolutionary form.

For the first time in human history, almost anyone can use the enabling power of technology. To put themselves on the map. To have a voice, in their own language. To make themselves visible. And to bypass the official narrative.

With quite remarkable speed – and for the first time – it has become impossible to be airbrushed out of history.

This dramatically affects the relationship between the governors and the governed; between the company and its customers; and even between husbands and wives; and parents and their children.

The democratization not just of knowledge, but of communication, is going to have a very profound – and I believe beneficial – affect on our society.

For those in positions of power, they will need to recognize – and embrace – their new accountability.

For those who may once have been – or felt – powerless, they need to recognize that they are the new agents of change. They also need to recognize that they have the responsibility to use that new-found influence carefully, and wisely.

Distinguished guests,

The Internet is also having a huge impact on the global economy, with businesses increasingly moving online, and billions of dollars worth of online transactions taking place every week.

We are witnessing the very rapid virtualization of many goods – from books and films to music and software. And while most physical goods are still being shipped into the real world, they are very often being ordered online.

Globally, manufacturing increasingly depends on the very short supply chain management processes that only the Internet can make possible.

We are also seeing unprecedented collaboration online when it comes to research and development.

We should not forget, however, that two thirds of the world’s people still do not have any access to the Internet, and that the number of people worldwide with broadband access is still relatively small – even with the very rapid growth of new technologies such as mobile broadband.

This means that we risk creating a world of Internet rich and Internet poor; a world where the new broadband divide is even more worrying than the digital divide we had before ubiquitous mobile phones.

This is why ITU and UNESCO set up the Broadband Commission for Digital Development in 2010 – to encourage governments to implement national broadband plans and to increase access to broadband applications and services.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Broadband has the power to radically transform society and to deliver sustainable social and economic progress – through an environment of constant innovation and a wealth of job creation opportunities.

This is why broadband networks must be considered, in the 21st century, as basic infrastructure, just like roads, railways, water and power networks.

In a more populous, ageing world, broadband will be vital in helping to deliver essential services such as health, education and good government.

It will help us address the biggest issues of our time – such as climate change and environmental sustainability – and it will revolutionize the way goods and services are created, delivered and used.

In the process, broadband will also help us accelerate progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals, now only just three years away.

We must therefore work hard to ensure that everyone – wherever they live, and whatever their circumstances – has access to the benefits of broadband Internet.

This is not just about delivering connectivity for connectivity’s sake – or even about giving people access to the undoubted benefits of social communications.

It is about leveraging the power of connected technologies to make the world a better place.

We are already seeing this with the extraordinary wealth of apps which are available for mobile devices – and whose number increases by tens of thousands every day.

This could never have happened without the Internet and convergence, which have brought two crucial new forces into play: the death of distance, and the democratization of information and knowledge.

This is the true beauty of the Internet: it finally makes the world’s riches accessible to everyone, at any time, wherever they are.

Distinguished guests,

There are those who argue that we do not need high-end technology to solve the world’s most pressing issues – such as hunger and poverty – and that these can be addressed by having enough people willing to help, and through the use of simple technology such as 2G mobile phones.

But without the broadband infrastructure humming away in the background, and without the power of large servers and big data storage capabilities, we can achieve very little.

SMS messages to remote and rural patients only work if there is a proper broadband network – and powerful computers – running in the background.

The same is true for enabling applications such as mobile banking, which is proving so very successful in bringing financial services to hundreds of millions of people previously excluded from the global financial system.

The innovative use of ICTs will also play a crucial role in ensuring the world’s seven billion people have affordable and equitable access to adequate food supplies.

This is true at every step of the process – from delivering the right information to farmers; to helping them improve yields and prices; to improving supply chain efficiencies; to ensuring that consumers understand nutritional needs, both for themselves and for their children.

Similar principles apply to smart water management and distribution – and here too, ICTs will play a vital role in the 21st century, as water resources become much more scarce, and much more valuable.

ICTs will also play a critical role in helping to create a more sustainable world in the 21st century.

Through smart grids, environmental sensors, intelligent transport systems, dematerialization and the digitalization of goods and services, and new ways of improving energy efficiency, we can help drive the transition to a low carbon economy, while better adapting to the effects of climate change.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We will face many challenges on the way to creating a fair and equitable society, where all the world’s people have access to the benefits of broadband – but we should never forget that without friction you cannot have light.

As many of you know, I am an optimist – and I firmly believe that we are on the path towards a brighter, better-lit future.

Together, we can achieve so much – and it is our most profound duty to do so!

Thank you.