Today almost half of the world’s population are connected to the Internet, fifty years since it was invented and thirty since the creation of the World Wide Web. Regardless of whether we see this as a success story or terribly slow progress, the questions are: Where do we go from here? What is the digital future we need?
Countless volunteers, activists, entrepreneurs, businesses and governments made the Internet and the digital world it enables. A wave of new technologies, sensors embedded in physical products, machine learning and next generation networks allow us to gather, engage, process and act on information in real-time at global scale. Technology has the potential to transform how we stay healthy, how we travel, how we produce and consume goods and how we tackle environmental and development challenges.
It is one of the great ironies of the immense potential of digital technology that we are no longer dealing with just a question of technology – 60% of global GDP is expected to be digitized by 2022 and there is increasingly little distinction between the digital economy and the ‘real’ economy, between digital society and ‘real’ society. As a result, we must address larger issues that are forcing their way onto the global agenda.
Inclusion and trust
First, there is growing realization that digital divides based on factors such as geography, economy, gender, disability and age are growing. The digital divides exist both between countries and within countries. Despite connecting half the planet, growth in new internet users is now slowing and the most vulnerable today may be the hardest to reach under current models. Exclusion or inclusion becomes self-reinforcing as we regularly see a rise in economic inequality and market concentration in connected economies.
Secondly, for those that do participate today, trust is in decline. In a recent survey, less than half of the people surveyed across ten major economies, felt that technology would make their lives better. Concerns about privacy, security, personal prospects, and belief that businesses and governments act in their best interests are increasingly widespread.
Unless we address these fundamental issues of inclusion and trust, we risk technology becoming a force for greater division and discord rather than a boon for human progress.
The pace, scale, distributed and intertwined nature of change is complex. At the same time individuals have a greater voice, more opportunity to act collectively and higher expectations of engagement in many of these deliberations and processes; all this is challenging traditional institutions.
Shared goals for our digital future
Over the past 18 months, we have had the opportunity to chair a process that brought together practitioners, experts and leaders across a wide range of digital issues to identify the digital future we need. We identified six priorities that need our attention and action:
- Leave no person behind: ensuring high-quality internet access for all
- Choice and empowering users through digital identities: ensuring that everyone can participate in the digital society through identity and access mechanisms that empower the user
- Make business work for people: helping companies navigate digital disruption and evolve to responsible business models and practices
- Keep everyone safe and secure: shaping norms and practices that enable a digital ecosystem that is secure and resilient
- Build new rules for a new game: developing new flexible, outcome based and participatory governance mechanisms to complement traditional policy and regulation
- Break through the data barrier: developing innovations that allow us to benefit from data while protecting the interests and privacy of all stakeholders
In the year ahead, dozens of global organizations and institutions, including the G20, the UN General Assembly, the Internet Governance Forum, the Wuzhen Internet Conference, Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace, the UN High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation and the World Economic Forum will convene communities around these topics. These efforts are mirrored and enriched through regional, national and local efforts.
We stand at a pivotal moment in the creation of our digital world. We urge leaders, practitioners and experts from all sectors and countries to contribute to and support these processes. We further encourage recognition of the tremendous potential gains to be secured through deeper collaboration and cooperation based on shared goals.
Shared goals, whether the ones above or others, give us the opportunity to avoid fragmented and siloed discussions; instead creating a series of stepping-stones where different stakeholders can make complementary contributions towards an inclusive, trustworthy and sustainable digital future.
Jim Smith is president and chief executive officer of Thomson Reuters and Lynn St. Amour is the president and chief executive officer of Internet Matters. Together they co-chair the World Economic Forum’s Digital Economy and Society Initiative.
Explore the complete report, Our Shared Digital Future, which acknowledges the need for shared goals and coordinated action to shape an inclusive, sustainable, digital future.