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ITU: To Connect Everyone We Need Innovation

ITU Road2Addis

“I never lose. I either win or learn.” That legendary Nelson Mandela line was quoted recently on a fascinating global Zoom program on innovation and digital transformation. A speaker invoked Mandela to reassure the hundreds watching from all over the world that failure is just part of the process of entrepreneurship. The event, called Innovate2Connect, was hosted by the ITU (highlights video above). The UN agency for telecommunications is determined to accelerate connecting the world’s 3.6 billion people who are still not online. That so many remain digitally excluded is a global crime, which is partly why Techonomy partnered with the ITU on this series of sessions, and why I am eagerly moderating them.

Next June the ITU hosts the quadrennial World Telecommunication Development Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, led by Doreen Bogdan-Martin, is hosting this “Road2Addis” series of virtual sessions leading up to WTDC. Previous sessions focused on partnerships, inclusion, financing, and leadership. Each one brings together a rich combination of young people, government and UN officials, and industry experts.

The Mandela quote came from Diene Keita, assistant UN secretary-general and deputy executive director of the UN Population Fund, which focuses on reproductive and maternal health. (Keita until recently served as Minister of Cooperation and African Integration for the Republic of Guinea.) Her passion for innovation signifies a major change at the UN that many Americans may not have noticed: a pivot towards digital transformation. Even agencies like Population Fund are working more digitally to enhance their effectiveness and reach.

Keita spoke about how what she calls “frontier technologies” can radically advance gender equality and healthcare. The Fund uses VR to help train midwives in the Philippines, uses digital tools to enable easier birth registrations in Burkina Faso, and works with partners on apps for survivors of gender-based violence in Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey. These are just some of the initiatives that have emerged from the Decade of Action to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for the world by 2030, spearheaded by UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres, himself an engineer, who emphasizes technology at the center of these efforts.

The ITU’s Bogdan-Martin opened the session with an emphatic call to invigorate innovation for connectivity. That’s the only way, she said, to “dramatically re-energize progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and ultimately change the lives of billions cut off from the power of the digital world.” But she conceded that “right now I think we’re somewhat failing to harness this energy and creativity.”

Janati Nakimera, a young entrepreneur who co-founded and leads a company called Solar Net Metering Uganda, spoke next, exemplifying the energy and creativity Bogdan-Martin invoked. She spoke of how more than 70% of Ugandans lack electricity, let alone connectivity. So, her company’s efforts are an essential step. But taking steps has been difficult, she explained. She detailed the challenges she has faced with her team and with raising money, and said she wished she had women mentors as she worked in the male-dominated energy industry. She also needed national policy to catch up to her business idea of installing solar power in villages and enabling excess energy to be sold back into the grid, raising incomes. But Nakimera has gotten crucial support as a member of the ITU’s Generation Connect community of young leaders and innovators. The group is represented on all the Road2Addis sessions.

Another challenge Nakimera noted was navigating the complex ecosystem of companies, government agencies and other players that make up her industry. So, it was gratifying to hear from Faustine Ndugulile, Minister of Communication and Information Technology in Tanzania, which neighbors Uganda. Ndugulile’s ministry is only seven months old, itself a testament to recent progress in this area. But the ministry is mapping his country’s ecosystem and working on policies, regulation, and a legal framework to support young entrepreneurs, since they are critical to national success. Tanzania has removed taxes on devices like smartphones and laptops in hopes of broadening their availability; it is investing heavily in laying fiber optic lines with a goal of reaching 80% of the country’s districts by 2025; and it has partnered with the World Bank on a project known as Digital Tanzania to build digital literacy, and create centers for entrepreneurs.

Boštjan Koritnik, who spoke next, is Minister of Public Administration for Slovenia, which this year holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. Slovenia has declared digitalization to be at the top of its presidency agenda. Among the projects: improving connectivity continent-wide, enhancing digital security, moving faster towards 5G, creating accessible digital public services, and creating a favorable environment for innovation.

The industry perspective came from Erik Ekudden, chief technology officer for telecommunications equipment giant Ericsson (and a good friend of Techonomy). Ekudden, who himself invented key elements of 5G wireless network technology, argued that as this infrastructure rolls out rapidly it can help speed up innovation. He explained that 5G is designed to be more open to enable easier experimentation for developing new wireless services. While about half a billion people worldwide already use 5G, Ericsson expects 3.5 billion to do so by 2026, when 60% of the world should have such coverage. But, he said, given the central goal of connecting everyone, “that seems not enough.”

If a deeper understanding of the centrality of digital tools is one of the consequences of the pandemic era, so is the urgency of broader and more equitable inclusion. Alexa Roscoe, a “disruptive technologies” expert at the International Finance Corporation, said “one of the best ways to drive innovation is to ensure that the needs and ideas of underserved groups are brought to the foreground.” She said the IFC is partnering with eCommerce groups in Africa and Southeast Asia, where women sellers are badly underrepresented on such platforms. IFC calculates that to close the gender gap would add $300 billion in additional sales to those regional markets.

Such global gatherings are essential because none of this is easy. Tanzanian Minister Ndugilile said bringing government up to speed takes work: “This concept of startup and digital entrepreneurship is a relatively new one for many people in the government services.” And Slovenian Minister Koritnik said Europe still labors under a bias against failure which it must overcome, because innovation “is always on the edge, not where the comfort zone is.”

“You may not get it the first time,” said entrepreneur Nakimera. “It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Keep trying.” Given the world’s challenges, it’s a message to keep repeating.

The next Road2Addis session, Youth2Connect, is August 12 (International Youth Day). It will include Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Envoy, and Ahmad Alhendawi, the secretary general of the World Organization of the Scout Movement. All are welcome, so please join us!

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