Breaking down digital divide barriers

Breaking down digital divide barriers

Southeast Asia's digital economy is emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic stronger than before, and on course to surpass previous estimates of US$1 trillion in gross merchandise value by 2030.

Covid-19 was a big catalyst for the shift in behaviour, as consumers mitigated restrictions on movement by going online for their needs. Businesses that were able to pivot quickly to selling online were able to cushion themselves against the full economic impact of the pandemic.

Maximising the immense potential of the digital economy will be vital to the region's overall post-pandemic economic recovery efforts. However, this requires that businesses and consumers are ready to take advantage of the internet economy's tremendous promise.

Businesses need to be connected to new infrastructure, such as 5G networks, and consumers must be able to access goods and services online. While countries such as Singapore have largely closed the access divide and are working to bridge the digital skills divide, many countries in Southeast Asia are still lagging in this regard. In fact, an estimated 30% of the adult population in the region -- 150 million adults -- are digitally excluded.

The Digital Inclusion Index, created by the consultancy Roland Berger, ranked Southeast Asia fifth out of seven global regions based on the scores of 82 countries measured for four digital inclusion factors: accessibility, affordability, ability and attitude.

A recent research project, commissioned by the Asia Internet Coalition and carried out by Economist Impact, surveyed 200 senior executives in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam for their views on the opportunities and challenges of the digital economy.

The majority of respondents (89%) saw digital inclusion as critical for rapid economic recovery. They say more attention needs to be given to improving digital inclusion (67%), and more investment and resources are needed from governments to bridge digital divides (65%).

However, the digital development journeys across the region are as diverse as the region itself.

Respondents said digital inclusion should not just look at providing access, it should also address unequal digital literacy and a lack of trust in technology and raise awareness of the benefits for users to go digital.

With these views in mind, the report outlines key recommendations to bridge the digital divide in Southeast Asia:

Increase awareness about the benefits of digital inclusion: With greater digital inclusion, countries will benefit from socio-economic opportunities that can accelerate economic recovery. Businesses can become more competitive both locally and globally and there will be more jobs and upskilling programmes available for individuals. Understanding the pros of digital inclusion will drive efforts toward making the internet more accessible and inclusive for all.

Promote public-private collaboration: Bridging the digital divide cannot be done by any one sector alone. Different stakeholders must work in synergy to achieve valuable outcomes.

Nobody left behind: Digital inclusion must capture all populations, including disabled people and those in rural communities.

Back appropriate regulatory policies: Regulation can aid in expanding infrastructure and building online trust. Contrary to perceptions, the private sector welcomes regulations if they can lead to greater digital inclusion, such as in areas including data protection and cyber-security.

Increase digital literacy and support upskilling: Gaining access to digital platforms is the first step, but it is imperative that people understand how they can utilise the technology in a productive manner. Stakeholders must place equal importance on digital skills training and education to make the most out of the internet economy.

The time to tackle digital divide barriers is now. Governments need to seize the moment and accelerate digital inclusion to build an ecosystem that will power the overall recovery of the region's economies.

Jeff Paine is managing director of Asia Internet Coalition, comprising leading internet and technology companies.

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