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#WTISD: Celebrating digital innovation for sustainable development

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) marked its 159th birthday on 17 May with a fast-paced online event celebrating the power of technologies to build a better future for humanity.

This latest World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (#WTISD) highlighted the promise of digital innovation to advance sustainable development for all.

“ITU has been instrumental in shaping technologies that have transformed the world in ways unimaginable when we started 159 years ago,” said ITU Secretary-General Doreen Bogdan-Martin, connecting from Washington, DC.

“The glue between these technologies is innovation.” But she warned about the dangers of the persistent global digital divide, underscoring that innovation and inclusion must go hand in hand.

“Innovation is nothing without inclusion,” Bogdan-Martin said. “At a time of incredible technological innovation, 2.6 billion people are still offline around the world”.

Fuelling ambitions and building skills

Despite the high stakes of digital development, the online celebration kept up an optimistic focus on the future.

Rayyanah Barnawi, the first Saudi female astronaut, commended ITU for “fuelling ambitions and inspiring students to reach the stars,” particularly through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

“Young minds fuel digital transformation,” concurred Daniella Esi Darlington, a member of the new ITU Youth Advisory Board and co-founder of Copianto AI, a conversational artificial intelligence (AI) platform. “Let’s empower them to shape a more connected future,” she added.

Establishing the infrastructure for connectivity is inseparable from building people’s digital skills and readying whole communities for the future.

“Connected schools can benefit not only students, but also the wider community by acting as a hub for digital connectivity, spurring economic development and social inclusion,” explained Shilpa Arora, Mapping and Product Lead for Giga – the ITU-UNICEF initiative aiming to connect every school in the world to the Internet.

Building resilience

ITU Deputy Secretary-General Tomas Lamanauskas – joining in from the rooftop of the ITU tower in Geneva, Switzerland – stressed the need to mobilize large-scale investments in digital infrastructure and resilience. The industry must tackle environmental and climate issues promptly and transparently, he added.

“Building a better world demands vision and ambition – with tech protecting rather than damaging the environment,” Lamanauskas said. “Digital solutions will be key to tackle climate change and safeguard the planet’s and humanity’s future.”

“For us digital innovation in the last 20-plus years has been instrumental in changing multiple faces of industries,” said Namibia’s Minister of Information, Communication and Technology, Emma Theofelus. “Where the planet stands now, we should use every tool at our disposal to ensure the planet survives and that we are able to sustain the development we have put together these past few years.”

“Efficient spectrum management is key to extending the benefits of digital innovation,” said Mario Maniewicz, Director of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau. “The ITU Radio Regulations provide a foundation for advancing radiocommunication services and technologies to connect everyone and unlock sustainable prosperity for all.”

ITU began with the first International Telegraph Convention in 1865, setting in motion its long history developing international technical standards, and became the key coordinator for international wireless communications starting in 1906. 

“International standards help us share and sustain innovation worldwide,” said Seizo Onoe, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau. “ITU standards work is powered by collaboration and consensus. Breakthroughs in fields like AI and quantum information tech make this more important than ever.”

Cosmas Luckyson Zavazava, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, added: “Innovation and entrepreneurship are the backbone of economies, and they offer a unique opportunity to accelerate progress towards the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

Japanese digital vendors and carriers use ITU standards to track carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions over the entire lifecycle of network services and products. “Based on this, companies calculate the CO2-reduction effect of their own services,” said Toru Ansawa, Director for International Policy Coordination, Global Strategy Bureau, at Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

Innovation to empower people and communities

Regulators and companies from across the industry reiterated the value of digital innovation to empower people and communities.

“Let’s make innovation, and the meaningful use of digital technologies, a part of our culture,” urged Amparo Arango Echeverri, Director of International Relations at Indotel, the regulating agency for telecommunications in the Dominican Republic.

“Let’s celebrate innovation that bridges the digital divide,” said Abel Avellan, Chairman & CEO at the US-based satellite designer and manufacturer AST SpaceMobile. “Billions invested across the industry and strong partnerships, like those enabling AST SpaceMobile, are key to empowering everyone with information for a brighter, more sustainable future.”

Ongoing digital innovation will be crucial to overcome pressing socio-economic and environmental challenges.

“Digitalization and enhanced connectivity are key to environmental, social and economic welfare,” added Nishant Batra, Chief Strategy and Technology Officer at Nokia. “They can enable inclusive access to education, healthcare and opportunity – and help industries decarbonize and improve efficiency and safety.”

Connecting the past and the future

Some of today’s mobile telecom giants started in the telegraph business, dating back almost as far as ITU.

“Innovation continues, both driving and driven by evolving societal needs, as we transition to a more pervasive digital society,” said Per Beming, Chief Standardization Officer at Ericsson. “Eventually, we will transition to the next generation of mobile technology, 6G, enabling even better [user] experience and more sustainable solutions.”

Zhanat Jabassova, Head of the Center for International Cooperation Implementation of Projects, part of Kazakhstan’s Kostanay Engineering and Economics University, agreed: “Digital innovation not only solves immediate challenges but also lays the foundation for a digitally empowered future, shaping communities and industries for generations to come.”

Watch the live YouTube broadcast of WTISD from the ITU TV studio in Geneva, Switzerland.

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