Throughout history, the emergence of innovative technologies has often sparked revolutions that reshape societies, altering how we work and transforming the skills we hold in high value. Technology has already become an integral part of our lives, but there is a noticeable shift in people’s emotional responses this time. This curiosity leads us to ask how countries can successfully navigate the uncharted waters of technological transformation to ensure economic competitiveness and citizens’ well-being.
Inspired by Estonia’s approach, let’s consider what we should think about and how to act nationally.
Data’s silent revolution
Foresight Centre in Estonia has put together a report of scenarios about the future of data society. The widespread integration of digital technology across all aspects of life has led to the datafication of the economy and society, where human actions, business activities, machine operations, and even natural occurrences generate a lasting data trail. Hence, concerns arise from large tech companies’ ownership of valuable data, environmental impacts of data storage, geopolitical tensions affecting data standards, and the influence of data-literate individuals on societal dynamics. They put together four future scenarios for the data society where regulations of data literacy and public-private partnership lead to different outcomes.
Source: Foresight Centre 2022
What about skills and access to technology?
The owner of data is just one concern, but the question of how to avoid the growing digital divide gets even more wicked. It includes digital skills and technology access across socioeconomic, gender and age groups.
One thing to accept is to be ready to learn throughout life. A lifelong career in one specific field is becoming rarer, and many companies must embrace AI to stay competitive. Although future work and requirements will change, humans will always be needed in the workforce.
For states to enhance their competitiveness and prepare their economy and citizens for the uncertain future, many proactive measures can be undertaken.
What has Estonia done?
Tackling the challenge of the digital skills gap demands a substantial allocation of resources. Estonia emerged as a trailblazer by pioneering mass training initiatives for its citizens as early as the late 1990s. As emphasized in our prior expert interview on digital inclusion, while the risk posed by the skills gap might not be pronounced in Estonian society, the issue of accessibility remains a game of lottery.
Addressing the access disparity emerges as a notable concern. Estonia’s ambitious Digital Agenda for 2030 tries to address this challenge. Despite establishing a 7000 km broadband backhaul network across the country, backed by state support, there is still ground to cover regarding extending fixed broadband subscriptions to rural areas and fostering the adoption of ultra-fast broadband.
Hence, the Agenda prioritises building high-capacity access networks in rural areas, where telecoms are less inclined to invest due to competitive conditions. Beyond merely bridging the digital divide, this strategic move holds the potential to address peripheral issues that many states face. The realm of opportunities online is vast, and enabling remote work possibilities in rural areas encompasses both urban conveniences and proximity to nature. Hence, people may gravitate toward more affordable housing options.
In the ever-shifting landscape of technology and society, uncertainty remains a constant companion. Still, one thing is sure: the threat of the digital divide requires collaboration between educational institutions, government, businesses, nonprofits, and individuals. Navigating this journey requires a shared commitment and partnership. Through collaboration, foresight, and an unwavering dedication to inclusivity, we can pave the way for a future where technology empowers us all, ensuring that the potential of tomorrow remains accessible to each one of us. What may now appear as an expense for countries will be a very profitable investment. With smart people and smart technology working together, societies will benefit immensely.
To ensure the resilience of societies in an ever-evolving future, several crucial initiatives can be actively undertaken:
- Foster a culture of lifelong learning – recognising the inevitability of rapid technological change and its profound impact on the economy, fostering a culture of continuous reskilling becomes imperative. Acknowledging that staying competitive demands adaptability, easy access to education must be ensured and encouraged throughout peoples’ lifetimes.
- Establish data standards and regulations – our data is valuable in bulk. Ensure that people know their rights and get legal protection against corporate creed. Countries will flourish if there is a balance between private and public interests.
- Prioritise inclusive design and accessibility- by embracing simplicity as the guiding principle, the accessibility of public services should not require an IT education or living in a more prominent centre. Employing user-centric design streamlines the transition to digital solutions for a broader population. Moreover, building digital infrastructure thoughtfully allows those who cannot fully engage with digital solutions to benefit from the broader digitalisation spectrum.
- Embrace collaboration – working in silos, we will never have all the knowledge to prepare ourselves for the future best. The public sector, private sector, academia, NGOs, etc.- all have their strengths and their role to play. Only through collaborative efforts can we build an environment that caters to the diverse interests of the broader public.
- Technology as an enabler – technology is here to stay. Let’s stop viewing it as evil. Technology can be used in many ways, but there is also a way to foster innovation and enhance human-centeredness. Technology can bring so many benefits – giving people time for things that matter, helping us stay healthier longer, and boosting the economy, among so many possibilities. By embracing technology and harnessing its potential, we have the power to shape the future we all desire.
The future is not to be feared but to be embraced with informed and collaborative action. By investing wisely today, we can shape a tomorrow that encapsulates our aspirations, bolsters societal well-being and harnesses the full potential of technological advancement. In terms of societal resilience, prosperity, and equitable growth, the returns on these investments will eclipse the initial costs.