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Houlin Zhao, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Secretary-General

Enormous Potential Of ICT For Good

ICTs play a crucial role in the creation of a range of IoT solutions, which are now helping to improve the efficiency of energy use, urban mobility, water distribution, urban infrastructure operations, security and wastewater management. The ITU is working on a number of initiatives to build smart, sustainable cities

The digital revolution has been spurring innovation and economic growth worldwide. Artificial intelligence (AI), smart cities, the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, cloud computing and other new technologies are driving the development of many sectors, including emergency services, healthcare, finance, transportation, e-commerce and environmental management.

What are the challenges and opportunities of digital transformation for the global economy?

– New technologies can threaten privacy and information security, displace jobs and exacerbate the digital divide. At the same time, the potential of ICTs for good is enormous. The greatest challenge of the digital revolution for the global economy is also its greatest opportunity: to ensure half of the world’s population does not remain offline.

To assist the Member States to manage the risks of emerging technologies, the ITU has been offering cybersecurity capacity-building assistance and establishing international standards for a universally available, open, secure and trustworthy internet. The ITU has also been working on bringing the internet to the 3.9 billion people who don’t yet have access to it.

What is the role of governments in promoting ICTs for development?

– Governments have an important role to play in promoting ICTs for development. Governments can build digital infrastructure, adopt enabling legal and regulatory environments for universal and affordable access to the internet, and invest in the development of digital skills critical to building a modern workforce.

Governments should also build multi-stakeholder partnerships to leverage ICTs to tackle development challenges. The infrastructure that must be built is huge and expensive, public-private partnerships are needed, especially if internet services are to be delivered to hard-to-reach areas. Achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will require governments to bring together commercial and public organisations that had little interaction previously.

The ITU’s broad membership base of government, industry members, non-governmental organisations and academia provides the Member States with a cooperative platform to allow them to maximise the transformative impact of ICTs. The ITU also serves its Member States by helping policymakers strengthen their digital development strategies and create incentives for innovation, investment and partnership.

How are ICTs enabling the SDGs? What is the ITU’s role in developing the information society and achieving the SDGs?

– ICTs are no longer just about connecting people. ICTs are now about providing a wide range of services to improve people’s lives at a speed and scale never before possible.

For that reason, ICTs can play a critical role in accelerating the achievement of all 17 SDGs.

To cite just a few examples, the ITU has been bringing stakeholders together to harness the potential of new technologies to lift people out of poverty, improve food security, save lives, mitigate the effects of climate change and make cities smarter and the world greener.

HOULIN ZHAODigital financial services (DFS) offer great potential to reduce poverty by meeting the financial needs of poor and unbanked consumers. With multilateral partners like the World Bank and the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI), the ITU has launched the financial inclusion global initiative to advance research in digital finance and accelerate digital financial inclusion in developing countries.

In agriculture, farmers can use smartphone applications to access price information from national and international markets or to get information about the status of their crops and irrigation systems. In 2016, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the ITU jointly launched an e-agriculture solutions forum aimed at sharing knowledge on successful e-agriculture solutions and establishing a Community-of-Practice (CoP) among e-agriculture solution providers.

ICTs also play a crucial role in the creation of smart, sustainable cities. A range of IoT solutions are now helping to improve the efficiency of energy use, urban mobility, water distribution, the operation of urban infrastructure, security, and wastewater management. The ITU is working on numerous initiatives to build smart, sustainable cities.

The ITU’s broad membership base of government, industry members, nongovernmental organisations and academia provides Member States with a cooperative platform to allow them to maximise the transformative impact of ICTs

The ITU Plenipotentiary Conference, as the main governing body of the ITU, will be held next year in Dubai. What are your expectations of its outcomes?

– The ITU Plenipotentiary Conference is ITU’s highest-level meeting. At PP-18 in Dubai, delegates from the ITU’s 193 Member States will set out a roadmap for 2020-2023 at a time when ICTs are transforming our lives and societies.

They will agree on the Union’s overall strategic and financial plans – and Member States will elect the ITU leadership team.

In addition, PP-18 will take stock of progress made towards achieving the Connect 2020 Agenda, in line with the SDGs, whose central promise is to leave no one behind.

How do you see the ITU’s role at the beginning of the 21st century? What is your message to the Member States, including Serbia, in harvesting the results of collaboration within the ITU?

– The ITU has been leading efforts to develop new technologies, such as 5G that will underpin applications such as automated driving, remote medical diagnosis and surgery, collaborative robotics and advanced virtual reality.

In the 21st century, the ITU will continue to allocate global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develop the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect and are interoperable across borders, and strive to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide.

By collaborating with the ITU, Member States are given knowledge, standards, and a collaborative platform to provide modern communication technologies to their people in an efficient, safe, easy and affordable manner.

I commend Serbia for its leadership in strengthening its information systems to enhance governance and welcome Serbia’s involvement in ITU initiatives.