Jamaica needs to accelerate digital transformation


Jamaica needs to accelerate digital transformation

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

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The world has entered the Fourth Industrial Revolution exemplified by the fusion of the digital, biological, and physical worlds, as well as the accelerated utilisation of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, robotics, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, and advanced wireless technologies, among other things. If appropriately harnessed, these digital technologies hold immeasurable potential to leapfrog the socio-economic development of countries across the world. In particular, these technologies can fundamentally transform the interactions and value-added exchanges among the key stakeholders of development — governments, businesses and citizens.

This process is commonly referred to as “digital transformation”, which has been the natural response to the rapid changes that have been produced by the advancement of digital technologies and their ubiquitous penetration of all segments of society. For both governments and businesses, digital transformation can improve critical contemporary measures of performance such as cost, competitiveness, innovation adaptability, access, quality and speed. For citizens, it offers convenience, flexibility, and can unlock new sources of entrepreneurial and employment opportunities. All these potential benefits of digital transformation have become self-evident over the past several months, as the disruptive impact of COVID-19 has forced virtually all segments of society to derive a new form of functionality from harnessing digital technologies. Indeed, we have perhaps witnessed the greatest acceleration of digital transformation in history over the past four months.

All across the world, the adoption of stay-at-home orders and other strict social distancing measures to manage the pandemic have undermined traditional systems and processes, resulting in most major government, commercial and interpersonal activities being undertaken digitally or remotely. In the process, the attitude of policymakers, organisations, and even members of the public towards digital technology has shifted from scepticism, uncertainty, and ambivalence to a firm acknowledgment that digital technology now constitutes an important catalyst of social and economic development.

As it has also been observed that countries that are already at an advanced stage of digital transformation have been more resilient during this period, the emerging consensus is that countries that fail to catch up will be left behind.

Globally, the process of digital transformation has indeed enabled acceleration of developments and has impacted entire systems of production, management, and governance. Resultantly, small island developing states (SIDS) such as Jamaica, facing well-documented capacity challenges, have been encouraged to accelerate their pace of digital transformation to unlock economic competitiveness, to optimise the use of scarce resources, enhance service delivery, stimulate new business and entrepreneurial opportunities, as well as improve results and satisfaction at all levels of societal interactions, including Government to Government (G2G), Government to Business (G2B), Government to Citizen (G2C), Business to Business (B2B), and Business to Citizen (B2C).

The Samoa Pathway, which emerged out of the Third United Nations International Conference on SIDs held in 2014, concluded that science, technology and innovation are essential enablers and drivers for sustainable development, and recommended the use of modern and environmentally sound technologies, data and statistics in development planning. The United Nations also considers e-government as a key factor in advancing the implementation of the sustainable development goals, particularly as it relates to the goal of improving accessibility to public services for all (United Nations, 2016). Similarly, the Jamaican Government has recognised digital transformation as a catalyst of Vision 2030 — the national road map for sustainable development.

Vision 2030 regards the information and communications technology (ICT) sector as playing a central role in the transformation of Jamaica over the next two decades as the nation travels the path towards transitioning to a developed country. Over the last several years the country has witnessed increased use of computers and the Internet; dramatic expansion in the number and range of telecommunications and broadcast media providers; and growth of applications of ICTs in businesses, schools and households. This increased availability and use of digital technologies present an opportunity for policymakers to work with other stakeholders to swiftly adopt holistic and harmonised long-term strategies for ICT development, and lead in adapting governance and leadership behaviours to ensure that ICTs deliver maximum benefits. Indeed, both the private sector and governments need to increase investments in innovative digital solutions to drive social impact.

Maximising the transformational impact of ICTs requires that the Jamaican State improves in the following four dimensions of digital competitiveness: Internet access, online services, telecommunication infrastructure, and human capacity. The country has generally improved in all four areas. Internet penetration is at 60 per cent, up from 27.7 per cent in 2010; the country now offers a wide range of e-services; and also the nation enjoys deep penetration of mobile devices, with 112 per cent mobile subscriptions or 3.24 million devices with a population of 2.9 million. There is, as well, a relatively advanced ICT infrastructure, with 4G LTE telecoms networks. On the other hand, however, some qualitative issues remain. The social benefits of digital technologies are not being fully harnessed because of poor connectivity, high cost of access, cultural factors, and lack of necessary skill. Underutilisation of ICT and the ad hoc implementation of technologies have contributed to high transaction costs, slow transaction times, and poor overall efficiency in service delivery. Lack of integration between the multiple ICT-driven projects implemented in different sections of government has hampered the ability to realise the full benefits of the improvements. Most recently, the 2018 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report indicated that Jamaica's economic growth is being severely constrained by low levels of ICT adoptions, low levels of exports, and low innovation capability. The digital divide, based on largely socio-economic and geographical factors, also continues to be a major challenge to ensuring even access and distribution of the potential benefits of digital technologies in Jamaica. The usual concerns related to cyber-threats, privacy issues, digital literacy, and the polarising effect of digital technologies on labour markets also persist.

The goal of digital transformation in Jamaica must be now to ensure that the country is able to enhance its capacity and readiness to maximise the potential benefits of digital technologies while minimising the risks and threats. Given the recent recognition by the president of the Inter-American Development Bank Luis Moreno that Jamaica is likely to become the first digital society in the Caribbean, accelerated digital transformation will ensure that the country is able to take a giant leap forward in improving the lives of its people through digital innovation. Digital transformation must be increasingly aligned with the broader social, economic, political, and environmental objectives linked to the promotion of sustainable national development envisioned in Vision 2030.

The country's strategy for digital transformation must reflect a commitment to treating Internet access as a human right by promoting reliable connectivity across the whole country, not just in the cities. Stakeholders of society (government, businesses and citizens) must be able to interact with the State and each other using digital solutions that result in greater productivity, efficiency, transparency, responsiveness, ease, and prosperity. Within this ecosystem there should be elements such as secure digital ID, e-payments, electronic security, access to health care, and Internet voting.

Lloyd Waller is a professor of digital transformation at The University of the West Indies, Mona. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or lloyd.waller@gmail.com.

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