The challenges that the world faces in the 21st century are systemic and global in nature. There will be no easy answers to any of them, but one thing is clear: We need transformative solutions that are scalable. Incremental measures will only distract us from the scope of the challenges that we confront.
One of the best examples of scale is the mobile telecommunications industry. There are now 6.4 billion mobile phone subscriptions, with the number expected to increase to 9.3 billion by 2017 or 2018. Ericsson estimates that by 2018, 85 percent of the world’s population will have access to mobile-broadband coverage via 3G networks, and 50 percent will have 4G. In this context, the near ubiquity of mobile networks has created a new paradigm for sustainable development, putting technological advances at the forefront of policymaking.
Technology is enabling us to share, collaborate, and exchange knowledge in entirely new ways, creating a dynamic shift in mindset. A new society — what we call the networked society — is emerging. And in the networked society, we have an obligation to ensure that we exploit mobile and broadband technologies not just for collaboration and entertainment, but also for sustainable development.
Connectivity is a basic enabler of economic growth and improved quality of life, and there is a strong business case for investing in broadband to optimize the delivery of essential services in education, health care, safety and security, and to redefine urban landscapes through intelligent electricity grids and more efficient transportation.
In 2000, when the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were established, broadband was in its infancy, and most of these benefits had not even been imagined. Today, as world leaders consider the post-2015 development agenda, we cannot overlook the importance of including broadband as a key part of the infrastructure needed to achieve future goals.
The economic benefits of broadband are immense. A 10 percent increase in broadband penetration can add a full percentage point to sustainable GDP growth, and doubling broadband speed increases GDP by 0.3 percent on average. Moreover, mobile commerce — expected to reach US$800 billion worldwide by 2016 — has huge potential to improve social and financial inclusion.
Likewise, cloud computing is already starting to revolutionize the way content is delivered and accessed both by teachers and students. An example of this is the cloud-based solution for schools developed by Ericsson in the Connect To Learn program. By addressing the challenges of access and quality of education, Connect To Learn — a collaborative effort between Ericsson, Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Millennium Promise — identifies strategies to integrate teachers’ professional development with 21st century tools and practices in classrooms.
As for healthcare, half could be delivered remotely and more efficiently. Evidence of this can be seen in the Millennium Villages Project, where mobile communications have had a particularly significant impact on healthcare: improved response times to emergencies, reduced isolation, and better training and equipment for healthcare workers.
Building on this success, the One Million Community Health Workers campaign was recently launched to expand community health-worker programs in Sub-Saharan Africa by the end of 2015. With the use of the latest communications technology and diagnostic testing materials, the health workers will be able to link the rural poor to the broader system of doctors, nurses, hospitals and clinics.
These transformations are the result of both scale and innovation. However, they have been set in motion without concentrated government efforts. If these examples were deliberately and specifically considered by the 110 countries that have national broadband plans (and those that still do not), we would be much more likely to achieve the positive transformations that we all want.
This shift in awareness among policymakers will be crucial not just for socio-economic improvement, but also for creating a low-carbon economy, which will require moving from the energy-intensive physical infrastructure of the last century to the connected, information-based infrastructure of the 21st century. We need a new paradigm that enables us to decouple GDP growth from carbon emissions, thereby ensuring further poverty reduction without causing greater environmental damage.
The potential is there, but too often government talks to government and industry talks to industry. Public-private partnerships are essential to solving these shared challenges. Development agencies, non-governmental organizations and the private sector should work more effectively together to create scalable and maintainable solutions.
Two forums are making great strides. One is the Broadband Commission, which advocates for broadband as a key infrastructure of the 21st century. The other is the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which seeks to leverage the private sector’s wealth of resources — its innovative capacity, research and development, management skills, and know-how — to turn policy ideas into reality.
Already, industries that have traditionally operated independently — from energy to utilities to transportation — are moving quickly toward cross-sector collaboration, radically altering the business environment and creating opportunities for new low-carbon business models to thrive.
With concentrated public-private efforts, and proactive governments like those of Sweden, Australia and India, to name a few, the networked society will produce transformative solutions that lift billions of people out of poverty and help us to sustain our planet. We may not be able to imagine what the future holds, but we know that the networked society will shape its possibilities.
Hans Vestberg is CEO of Ericsson.
Copyright: Project Syndicate