Collaboration at the regional level is a critical force for scaling up effective technologies and increasing innovation capacity in the fight against COVID-19, according to high-level officials and key stakeholders at the third session of the Committee on Information and Communications Technology (ICT), Science, Technology and Innovation.
Convened by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the two-day Committee meeting highlighted how digital inclusion and resilient digital networks across the entire region have become the foundation for government measures to effectively stem the worst impacts of the pandemic.
“Digital has taken on a compelling new meaning in the region – people, planet and prosperity are all increasingly dependent on access to digitally-driven technological innovations and seamless connectivity,” said United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP Ms. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana.
She added, “As we are planning to chart our future in the post-COVID-19 world, we need to address the digital and technology divide with urgency. We cannot let this divide drive new forms of socio-economic inequalities.”
More than half of the region’s 4.1 billion people remain offline and in least developed, landlocked developing and Pacific island countries, less than 5 per cent of the population has access to high-speed and affordable Internet. Women and girls, regardless of location, level of income or age, have lower access than men.
“We need to accelerate the digital transformation that has happened before the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to make sure that quality telecommunications infrastructure is made available,” said H.E. Mr. Bambang Brodjonegoro, Minister for Research and Technology and Chairman of the National Agency for Research and Innovation, Indonesia.
To leave no one behind, the Committee discussed a set of guidelines for inclusive technology and innovation policies for sustainable development, and committed to developing policies that promote inclusive technology and innovation to ensure that innovations are accessible, relevant and affordable for all.
“It is our choice to look at global challenges such as the Coronavirus pandemic as an international science and technology competition or as an opportunity for a generous collaboration to build a better world,” said H.E. Mr. Sorena Sattari, Vice President for Science and Technology, Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Committee also underscored the importance of harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector to focus on developing innovations to address social and environmental challenges as well as provide economic opportunities. Social innovators and entrepreneurs have stepped up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. From providing educational technology and e-health services for the most vulnerable to developing community tracing initiatives, the work of social innovators and entrepreneurs is more critical than ever.
In this regard, the Committee recognized the critical role that innovative business models – such as social enterprise, inclusive business and impact investing – play in accelerating progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, and recommended that the United Nations support member States to grow this new and emerging sector.
A regional launch of the 2020 United Nations E-Government Survey published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) was held on the sidelines of the Committee. The Survey finds that among the world’s least developed countries, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Cambodia have become leaders in digital government development, advancing from the middle to the high E-Government Development Index group in 2020. At the launch, ESCAP further highlighted the challenges and opportunities of digital government in the Asia-Pacific region and emphasized the use of ICT during all phases of disaster risk management.
"This e-government development ranking allows us to see the readiness and capabilities of the country in the use of ICT to provide citizens with public services," said H.E. Mr. Ablaykhan Ospanov, Vice Minister of Digital Development, Innovations and Aerospace Industry, Kazakhstan. He further called on countries to actively cooperate on the development of a new Action Plan for implementation of the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway 2022-2026, which will help ensure that digital government services reach all.
In conjunction with the Committee, a high-level dialogue session also gathered eminent personalities such as Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of the United Nations Mr. Fabrizio Hochschild, Maldives Minister of Communication, Science and Technology H.E. Mr. Mohamed Maleeh Jamal, Astronaut and Senior Advisor to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency Dr. Mukai Chiaki, Google Asia-Pacific Vice President for Government Policy Ambassador (ret.) Ted Osius and Alibaba Senior Director Mr. Sami Farhad to share their insights on how the region can accelerate digital connectivity and leverage innovation as part of its post-pandemic recovery efforts. The session kicked off a six-part Regional Conversation Series on Building Back Better in commemoration of the United Nations’ 75th anniversary this year.