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Improving People’s Lives with Digital Technology during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic saw 3.5 billion people without access to digital technology and services and more than one billion children unable to continue their education. Credit: Mercedes Sayagues/IPS

The COVID-19 pandemic saw 3.5 billion people without access to digital technology and services and more than one billion children unable to continue their education. Credit: Mercedes Sayagues/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 14 2020 (IPS) - Digital technology has been crucial in ensuring community and connection during the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. And its shown that collaboration between the private and public sector can ensure that digital technology continues to advance in a way that improves people’s lives under crises, experts said on Tuesday, Oct. 13. 

The COVID-19 pandemic saw 3.5 billion people without access to digital services and more than one billion children unable to continue their education, Dr. Julia Glidden, corporate vice president at Microsoft Worldwide Public Sector, said at the webinar.

“As digital services became lifelines, empowering responders, [the] crisis also highlighted the need for greater connectivity,” she said.

Speakers from Denmark, South Korea, China and Bangladesh were among those who shared their insights at the webinar “Accelerating Digital Transformation for Sustainable and Resilient Recovery from COVID-19”. It was organised by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), Division for Public Institutions and Digital Government (DPIDG), and the Ministry of the Interior and Safety (MOIS) of South Korea.

The webinar focused largely on the importance of bringing together public and private sector partnerships and highlighted the need for civic engagement.

Particularly outspoken on this issue was Kyong-yul Lee, Secretary-General of the World Smart Sustainable Cities Organisation (WeGO), an international association of cities, and local and national governments.

Echoing the thoughts of other speakers about the importance of collaboration of public and private institutions, Lee added the importance of including citizens in the equations.

“If civic participation is active, PPP (referring to public-private partnership) becomes PPPP —  public private people participation,” he said. “Citizens are not simple participants but active data collectors and problem solvers.”

In order to make sure these measures are effective, there is also the need for a change in mindset, Lee said.

“City officials should change their minds – they are not the owner of the city, and city administrators should be open minded and kept abreast of the times,” Lee added. “As it was the technology that changed the stone change, it’s technology that [will] usher in the smart age, so cities should awaken to it and invest in it for the future.” 

In some places, such as the digital technology landscape in Bangladesh, a change in mindset is already happening, according to Anir Chowdhury, policy advisor of the Aspire to Innovate (a2i) Programme under the ICT division in Bangladesh.

Chowdhury said amid the COVID-19 outbreak, officials in the government have adopted measures that are helping accelerate their work, with many “major decisions” taking place via Whatsapp.

This means they are able to hold high-level meetings on 12-16 hours notice.

“This has really given a radical change in mindset that leapfrogging is possible and we can eliminate a lot of steps in our bureaucracy,” Chowdhury said. “A lot of things that were thought to be impossible are now possible.”

Xufeng Zhu, Professor and Associate Dean at the School of Public Policy and Management in China’s Tsinghua University, discussed the digital technology measures the Chinese government used to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

The Chinese government was able to use the internet for processes such as online diagnoses and the release of information , among other services. The latter was helpful in aiding government authorities to curb the spread of misinformation spread.

Digital technology was also crucial for delivery services during the lockdown, and the delivery system fixing the blind spots in the cities, Zhu said.

Tech companies also have a big role to play, he added.

It was noted that while the alliance between governments and tech companies is important to note, the citizens have a crucial role to play in ensuring that these measures are effective.

“Citizens must play a more active role and participate in helping create smart cities,” said Lee of WeGO. “Citizens should change their mind too, they shouldn’t be passive bystanders, they are real owners of the city and they are asked to actively create the ideal smart city. A sense of ownership is critical and civil participation makes a big difference.”

Glidden offered a call to action.

“In the face of unprecedented global challenges, there’s also opportunities,” Glidden said. “I believe the need to catalyse collaborative partnerships and innovation of a global level has never been greater.”

She said a model that involves a vibrant mix of small and mid-size enterprises, and the public and private sector would be the ideal model to addresses “challenges of access and inclusion, which COVID-19 so dramatically showcased”.

She called for a model that “ultimately shows digital is a force for social good rather than disruption and division”.

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