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Reflecting on Davos 2018: Technology Interventions in a Fractured World

Feature Article | February 5, 2018 by Deepak Krishnamurthy

Once a year, leaders from the public and private sector make the trek to a small village hidden within the Swiss Alps for the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The location choice dates back to Thomas Mann’s novel “The Magic Mountain,” which describes the journey of a young man who goes to Davos to stay at a retreat for three weeks and ends up spending seven years. Time Magazine’s review of the novel highlights how “in a high and chilly retreat, perspective of life changes.”

So, it is only fitting that 94 years after “The Magic Mountain,” we need a new perspective to deal with the unprecedented disruption that is transforming societies globally. The WEF aimed to build this perspective at this year’s meeting focused on “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.”

The week I spent at Davos  emphasized what many of us already know. The future requires new paradigms, breaking barriers across industries, countries, religions, and bridging gaps between public and private entities.  To do this, we need to harness the power of technology to tackle some of the world’s most intractable problems.

To deal with the unprecedented disruption transforming societies globally today, we need a new perspective

At the same time, the speed of technology disruption is growing exponentially. In the past, fundamentally disruptive technologies like the printing press, the mechanical loom, and the steam engine changed how people worked and eliminated millions of jobs, but also created new opportunities. It took decades — if not centuries — to impact society, allowing for people and economies to adapt to the change.

However, today, we do not have the luxury of time. Automation will impact whole classes of workers within years, not decades. The divide between the digital literate and the digital laggard is becoming larger and harder to overcome. This needs to be addressed today — not tomorrow, not next week — or else we risk creating “lost generations.”

Digital inclusion goes beyond digital literacy. It is increasingly a fundamental human right to get access to internet, mobile, and other basic digital services. Having a digital identity is becoming a prerequisite to getting access to financial services, healthcare, and citizen services. Today, this is often de-prioritized due to the financial burden and the complexity associated with building digital infrastructure.

In the past, small and medium businesses (SMBs) have been a big source of employment. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that about 70% of new jobs are created by SMBs. In a world dominated by digital giants, societies must proactively incentivize entrepreneurs to compete effectively and create new jobs.

If we don’t address these big challenges today, we risk an extremely fractured future.

We are in need of a massive intervention across three key pillars to safeguard our future.

1. Digital Education

  • Driving STEM education to the next level: Surviving in the digital economy requires skills that are not pervasive today. Currently, it is very difficult to find data science skills everywhere — in San Francisco, Berlin, Shanghai, Boston, and all places in between.  We need to triple down on STEM education at primary levels everywhere, in both developed and developing countries. Mathematics is the foundation for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. The next generation must be fluent in mathematics.
  • The future of education models: Our education systems were built to train a 20th century workforce and this needs to change. Traditional learning methods will become obsolete as devices and the internet become democratized. Information will be at everyone’s fingertips and new skills will need to be learned. At the higher levels of education, college degrees could be dis-aggregated into micro-certification courses, empowering people to get the rights skills without financial burdens. Education should not be done in isolation; the private sector needs to engage students early on with apprentice programs focused on vocational education.

2. Digital Infrastructure

  • Universally available digital technology: Accessible, affordable, widespread digital infrastructure needs to be table stakes. These are the roads and highways that lead to a digitally-enabled world. It is now a matter of social inclusion. Access to internet and mobile technologies is necessary for every single individual.
  • Digital identity: The concept of digital identity is going to be critical for democratization of access to technology and services. With technologies like blockchain, we can achieve digital identity at fractional costs compared to traditional physical methods. When executing on a digital identity future, we need to balance ubiquity with privacy and trust. Personal information could be maliciously targeted and used as a source for discrimination. With proper regulation, consent-driven privacy, and technologies like blockchain, we will be able to balance power and drive responsible identity practices.

3. Entrepreneurship and Job Creation

  • Systems to promote entrepreneurship: The single main growth driver for employment in both developing and developed economies is entrepreneurship. Successful entrepreneurs create local jobs and help local economies flourish. Next-generation entrepreneurship needs to be cultivated through a strong partnership between governments and the private sector, with joint incentives to promote social ventures. Today’s investments in spurring technology entrepreneurship are focused on providing co-working spaces. In the future, we need to look at models that provide easy access to capital and mentorship, with a focus on empowering a diverse set of entrepreneurs.

The world in which we live today is not a level playing field. So it is our collective responsibility to ensure inclusivity and do what we can to change the status quo. This requires interventions enabled through a connected, committed, and converged partnership between the private and public sectors.

If each and every one of us can think of how we can make a difference, together we can make a small dent in helping the world run better and improving people’s lives.

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