The Digital Economy Post Covid-19: Global Outlook & Local Contexts A Conversation with three Continents



Digital Entrepreneurship


2021-05-05 20:13:06 1058 0

As the pandemic over the world, it amplified the role of digital technologies and pushed us sooner into scenarios we had anticipated for later in the future. These gave way to multidimensional concerns about the impact of digitization and new technologies especially AI on markets, production, consumption, education, labor, work practices, expected employment standards, skill development, government operation and regulation, among other areas. There is now an urgency to focus on the impact of digitization on economic and social well-being and to understand the threats, the challenges but also the opportunities that we face in this brave new world. More than ever, global and local perspectives are needed, to address these issues, and help shape what is now to become the new normal. Experiences from both the Global North and the Global South provide valuable insights on how to maximize the benefits and mitigate the ills of digital tools in these unprecedented times. With this in mind, we at the Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D) in partnership with Friedrich-Ebert- Stiftung (FES) Egypt held a webinar on October 13, 2020, titled “The Digital Economy Post Covid-19: Global Outlook & Local Contexts”. The webinar comes as part of the Center’s tenth annual workshop, a five-part webinar series under the overarching title of ‘Beyond COVID-19: Conversations on AI, Data, and the Future of Work in MENA’. I moderated the webinar, hosting three panelists from Latin America, Africa, and Europe: Armando Guio Espanol (Affiliate, Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society Harvard University), Monica Kerretts-Makau (Academic Director, Thunderbird School of Global Management in Nairobi, Kenya) and Fabian Stephany (Economist and free-lance Data Scientist, Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University). Our discussion centered around three issues discussed in three rounds of questions. I first asked about the panelists’ perspectives on whether and how the narrative of the digital economy has changed after the pandemic. I then asked about the impact of the pandemic on work, skills, and market needs. And finally, I asked about the ethical concerns given the pervasive use of digital technologies in times of the pandemic. More on this below. The Pandemic and the Narrative of the Digital Economy I started by pointing out how digital technologies have had the dual, and indeed paradoxical, potential to mitigate and aggravate inequalities, simultaneously, and asked whether and how the pandemic has impacted this narrative, globally and in the respective contexts of the panelists. Makau highlighted issues of internet infrastructure, access, and cost, emphasizing the connectivity challenge in Africa where internet penetration is 40 percent on average for the continent. She noted how the pandemic has reinforced economic divides between public and private education, as only those who could afford to go online did so, leaving behind public schools and other less fortunate groups. Notwithstanding such divisions, and fulfilling the narrative of the digital economy, the pandemic has on the other hand meant a boom in financial technology usage and adoption coupled with efforts to facilitate digital payments in Kenya. Espanol echoed Makau’s sentiment, highlighting how the pandemic has magnified the ills of poor and unequal connectivity in Latin America. He also noted how the global digital divide has widened with the disparity in connectivity between the different countries. Similar to Africa, Espanol noted the role of fintech solutions such as e-wallets or AI solutions in mitigating the digital divide in Latin America. He did, however, flag the importance of trust in the technology, explaining that ‘people feel replaced by technology here in South America’. Commenting on work platforms in times of the pandemic, Stephany highlighted how digitization augmented by the pandemic has led to the fragmentation of work and the digitalization of these fragments as key trends paving the way for the gig (or global online) labor economy with an impact on society. As online platforms continue to adapt, the question, Stephany asked, is “will this process progress with the same speed for all parts of society and also even within the same parts of society or the globe, and will it progress at the same pace across occupational lines?” The narrative of the digital economy continues, with strong potential to exacerbate divides, between and within countries and in the work “platform space”. Yet, and at the same time, opportunities arise in new usages of the technology for financial inclusion, pending stronger connectivity of course. The Pandemic and the (Immediate) Future of work I then asked how the discussion on the future of work, skill development, and needs has changed with the pandemic, and what contextual nuances could be distilled. Espanol noted that people in Colombia see AI and digitization as a threat, especially given the strong blow dealt by the pandemic to labor in his country as “25 million people lost their jobs because of Covid-19”. He emphasized the immediate need for training future generations to expand their opportunities in the future. Stephany highlighted the automation of tasks, rather than mass automation and job loss, as the top challenge in this context. He explained that ‘task composition’ will be restructured by digitization and Covid-19, prompting a new demand for skilled labor. “We need to engrain this agile re-skilling, re-building our skills education in order to suit a fast-changing digital reality,” he added. Stephany then reiterated that there is a demand for new skills and incentivized upskilling initiatives to face this fast-paced digital reality. He advocated new cross-skilling initiatives whereby people can choose their preferred skills. As a data scientist, Stephany suggested ‘leveraging data’ to find new skills that can meet labor capabilities and needs in a changing digital economy. Amidst the many challenges, some opportunities have emerged in Africa. Macau noted how a number of SMEs are changing their business models and what she finds to be an obvious change in how the creative industry is running. She commended the virtual plays in her hometown Kenya, the installation of E-citizen systems, and the rise in online shopping and e-commerce in the rest of the continent. Since the pandemic, said Makau, financial-tech, e-commerce markets have boomed in Kenya, with the banking sector progressing to facilitate more digital payments and suspend charging costs on money transfers. Pervasive Technologies, Ethical Concerns I last asked about ethical concerns given the amplified pervasiveness of digital technologies across all aspects of our lives such as health, education, work, engaging with government, and otherwise. Both Makau and Espanol echoed similar outlooks to ethical concerns pertaining to trust in technologies and data from. Governance, ownership, and management of data is a key area of concern in their respective contexts. Governments in both Africa and Latin America need to work towards more transparent data governance and use. They need to encourage the open sharing of data while ensuring that the privacy of their citizens is well guarded. Espanol explained, “Governments needs to inspire trust in the collection and use of data from the people”. Makau raised a similar issue, asking, ‘in Africa, the question is how do you encourage public trust in African governments and their data systems and new technologies?”. She added that especially in light of the pandemic, data is increasingly important to African countries and that better data governance is a “pressing concern for the ecosystem in which data exists”. Espanol emphasized the dire need for an ethical framework to guide the use of data and AI technologies with their increased spread, especially in light of the pandemic. It is crucial to ‘build trust to support the digital economy’ and to mitigate inequalities. He has led the development of the ethical framework of AI in Colombia, where, he noted, ‘the human element’ has been emphasized in terms of guiding values for ‘the digital economy we want to build’, highlighting the importance of privacy in that particular local context. Espanol aadded that the continued pervasiveness of digital technologies, accelerated by the pandemic, calls for new metrics to assess novel challenges, divides and inequalities. He stressed the need for a multidisciplinary approach, as opposed to the traditional approach to policy that includes only technology and data perspectives. Macau also highlighted that as Africa moves more and more online, there has to be a new set of regulations for data privacy and cyber-crime. She believes that governments should build trust with citizens, and that post-Covid data is becoming important among African countries, raising concern on the ecosystem in which data exists. Final Words and Takeaways Despite the challenges, we ended up on optimistic notes. Espanol expressed faith in how technology can help us continue with our lives, work, and education. One reason he is optimistic is the surfacing of ethical AI and equitable digitization as priority topics for discussion and action. Stephany added that silos are no longer sustainable and that it is important to build successful partnerships between government, business, and NGOs. Macau noted the voice of Africa amidst all, summing it all up, “Covid has highlighted work by the continent, for the continent, and about the continent”. In the end, the pandemic has pushed us into a new normal where the digital economy continues to pose multiple challenges, but also new opportunities. While digital and developmental divides stand to be exacerbated, there is also hope in utilizing digital tools to level the playing field on the local, regional and global fronts. Global conversations are seminal in bringing together different perspectives and working towards the common goal of maximizing the benefits and mitigating the ills of digital technologies for the common good. This webinar was a step in this direction.