Digital Asia-Pacific in the Twenty-First Century

Change is accelerating in the Asia-Pacific region, including in rural areas, as it becomes the global economy's growth driver. In 2010, the region's developing countries grew at an impressive rate of 8.8 per cent compared to 2.7 per cent for the world's developed economies. With growth in developed countries expected to continue to sputter at around 2.5 per cent for the greater part of this decade, a new development paradigm is in the making. The "made in Asia, consumed in the West" development model that served it so well in the past is giving way to economic growth that is more inclusive and sustainable, and thus increasingly sourced from within the region. Digital innovation has emerged as a key contributor to this paradigm shift, holding much promise that all peoples will be empowered to contribute more meaningfully to the emerging knowledge society.

Three aspects of this digital revolution give us much hope for the future: the promises of the mobile miracle, the broadband revolution and the social media.


In less than five years, the number of mobile telephone subscriptions in the region more than doubled, rising from around 1.08 billion to 2.53 billion. In East Asia, for example, 83 per cent of people living in rural areas have a mobile phone. This was accompanied by a rise in home-grown mobile phone manufacturers and operators that can now claim to rival the West's incumbents. Their business model is built on reaching out to the low spending, but huge, consumer base of the region. The result is that, for the first time, we have affordable and truly inclusive mobile telephony reaching all: poor and wealthy, rural and urban dwellers, women and men, youth and the aged.

With the introduction of high-speed broadband, the Internet has evolved from an information service to a critical infrastructure of connected computers and connected people, bringing transformative change to every aspect of our lives and economies. Here, as well, our region has shown innovative prowess. Local applications that increasingly make use of mobile devices, rather than personal computers, are making important developmental contributions as e-services evolve into m(obile)-health, m-banking, and m-education services. In particular, for the geographically isolated rural poor, there is evidence emerging on a daily basis that the yoke of preordained poverty is being lifted, irreversibly -- we truly are in the midst of a second IT revolution, the likes of which we have not seen since the early 1990s when we gingerly started sending out e-mails. This is echoed by the United Nations Broadband Commission for Digital Development which stated in its Declaration to the world leaders attending the 2010 Millennium Development Goals Summit1 that broadband will represent a momentous economic and social change that will be a game-changer in addressing the myriad challenges we face -- healthcare costs, education gaps, and climate change effects, to mention but a few.
Social networking has taken root as a new form of communication. It is changing the opportunities for expression, nature of content exchange, and the entire media landscape. Consumers are not only getting what, where, and when they want, they are also being empowered as producers of content as they contribute a continuous stream of text, data, and video. Social networking through the Internet has thus become pivotal to the communicative power of individuals and their plural values. This is having a wide effect on group dynamics, the formation of group ideologies, and societal and institutional structures.
Taking these developments in unison, the promise that ICTs will provide people with the means to transform information into enhanced understanding and knowledge is better today than ever before.
At the same time, we, together with all stakeholders, need to give full recognition to the fact that limitless access to information, ideas, knowledge, and applications poses immense challenges. As the promises grow, so do the perils, giving rise to an interplay that is never static. In this regard, there are three issues that stand out in our region.
The digital divide has widened rather than narrowed over the past decade. In our region, this is not only the case between traditional global North-South divides, but more obviously the widest divides are intra-regional; i.e., between Asia-Pacific's most IT advanced countries -- Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea and Singapore and its developing countries. Similarly, among developing countries, wide divides exist between East and South Asia. To be sure, this is a reflection to a large extent of the evolving regional paradigm shift in which some countries are surging ahead as global leaders in innovation, dynamism and growth. More worrisome, however, is that four out of five persons in developing countries remain offline (many of whom are in rural areas) and the divide has grown in the very technologies (mobile broadband Internet) that are the most powerful tools in the transformation to a knowledge economy.
The poorest are at risk of being left further behind. The region has more than 950 million people living on less than $1.25 a day, many of whom are engaged in subsistence farming. In fact, 2.4 billion people, or around 58 per cent of its population, lives in rural areas where third generation (3G) mobile networks have yet to reach in many countries. Furthermore, despite the promise of the mobile phone, there is peril in simply pushing devices to the rural areas and hoping for the best. To realize the promises, the poorest need to be given new capabilities to not just acquire information but also to transform information into choices, enhanced understanding of trade-offs, and new livelihoods.
Related to this, is the peril that policymaking may remain embedded in techno-deterministic perspectives and fail to recognize and deal with the complex interfaces that arise when technological innovation thrusts greater opportunities only on some groups of people. The information society today is organized around creative systems of decision making in which initiative is shifting to people who have detailed knowledge of what is needed or desired. Traditional hierarchies are no longer assured that specific outcomes will be implemented and achieved through centralized decision making. Instead, change evolves in the context of IT-enabled shared values that remain fluid as the creativity of individuals can always lead to further changes. As new lines are drawn and redrawn, it is those with increased ability, as well as resources, to benefit from changing knowledge systems that gain more. In this process, demarcation lines are being drawn that can accentuate exclusive rather than inclusive development, magnify socio-economic disparities by excluding the poor and vulnerable from productive sectors further, and deepening incongruence between the globally connected elites and the unconnected localized masses.
A further peril that looms is the possibility that policies may fail to incorporate, prepare for, and protect the growing number of vulnerable people in our society. Over the next forty years, the most important demographic trend for the economies of the Asia-Pacific region will be the ageing population. By 2025 the old-age dependency ratio will have increased from 10 in 2009 to 27 in 2025. Around 1.2 billion people will be older than sixty, with a new group of "very old" accounting for around 200 million people. Chronic disease, and some form of disability, including dementia, will affect a large segment of the population. With younger people working in urban areas, the largest cohorts of aged persons with disabilities are in the rural areas -- many of whom are women and poor -- which makes them particularly vulnerable to triple discrimination.
Even though there are many examples of how ICTs can improve quality of life for the ageing society -- such as smart home products that facilitate independent living, social networking to overcome isolation, and m-health services that facilitate home living -- to date, uptake among the ageing has been slow. This is due in part to a distinct lack of industry awareness of older people's needs and thus little evidence that manufacturers are designing IT products that cater to them. Similarly, improvements in policy and legislation have been relatively slow in getting off the ground.
Conversely, the industry is driven by a precocious uptake of new technologies by youth and young adults. Data available in developed countries suggest that around a third of children already use the Internet by the time they are six to seven years of age, and that their main leisure activities are communications through games, chats, instant messaging, and social networking sites. This has raised many new issues, including the exposure of children to new forms of vulnerability, that have no simple solutions in a borderless, always connected society.
It is clear that much work remains to be done on the policy side before we can truly say that ICT has led unequivocally to improved human development. Complacency, rooted in the view that change is best left to market-driven innovation without active policy directives, would almost certainly mean that Asia-Pacific's hugely resourceful but still poor masses will miss out on the promises of the twenty-first century. The key is to find models that blend individual creativity and collective aspirations, flexibility, and security.

Social protection is high on the regional agenda. As I pointed out in the theme topic of the sixty-seventh session of the Commission,2 social protection is not a cost, it is an investment and smart economics. Instead of approaching social protection through reactive event- or symptom-specific interventions, Asia-Pacific countries are now progressively moving towards comprehensive universal coverage solutions as crucial underpinnings of their vision of inclusive development.
Much more remains to be done on using social protection to address underlying causes of persistent poverty and inequality and, in this regard, social protection can be used to leverage the transformative empowerment of ICT tools. Towards this end, a New Social Compact in telecommunications between government and commercial interests is needed to harness broadband connectivity and provide new pathways to inclusive and sustainable development. By working together, government and industry can reorient Asia-Pacific's future society, and for early movers, the economic opportunities could be huge. Investments for an information superhighway in the region, making use of inter-country cooperation in harnessing sea, land, and air connections to speed up information transfers are also needed. At the national level, the case of the Republic of Korea, one of the countries in our region that has made astounding IT advances, provides some important policy lessons in how to build a knowledge society for all. Its 3G mobile network constructed in 2003 covers 99 per cent of its population and 80 per cent of its territory. Interestingly, the Government mandated Korea Telecom (KT), the country's largest telecom carrier, as part of the legislated universal service obligations of major carriers, to construct networks in areas with fifty or more households. Although KT initially invested in the fibre-optic network itself, by 2006, it became clear that further advances in closing the digital divide would not be possible without public funding. A private/public matching fund system was set up where the central government, local government, and private carriers contributed to funding in the ratio of 1:1:2, respectively. By 2008, all rural areas had access to high-speed Internet at 2 Mbps, and rural areas could enjoy the same flat rate charges as urban users, thanks to an explicit government policy on equal geographic treatment. Furthermore, since it takes 50 Mbps or higher speeds to exchange content-rich materials linked to services, such as Internet TV, e-health, and e-education, from 2010, the Government started to deploy an upgraded fibre-optic infrastructure that will provide all subscribers in rural areas with ultra high-speed access. Presently, 56.1 per cent of households in rural areas (as compared to a national average of 81.6 per cent) have access to 50 Mbps broadband.
The New Social Compact should also address ethical issues and, in this regard, one initiative that could be studied further and expanded on is the Safer Social Networking Principles for the EU, in which twenty social networking sites active in Europe have voluntarily signed on. When we put in place our regional policy frameworks, we are dealing with challenges that are global, and by working together with partnerships that extend beyond our region, we can be stronger.
At the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), our work on the information society is driven by the idea that ICTs are tools that can both empower citizens to become the main actors of change, as well as engage Governments as the peoples' partner, in providing supportive policy directives. We examine the issues from broad socio-economic perspectives, analyzing policy options and the trade-offs. We mobilize key stakeholders, including policy decision makers that can muster the political commitment needed.

We also elicit wider responses within the UN system, using the Regional Coordination Mechanism of UN Agencies based in Bangkok, which I chair. To cite one example, on the occasion of the sixty-seventh session of the Commission held in May 2011, ESCAP, together with the International Telecommunication Union and the Ministry of ICT of the Government of Thailand held special events over three days on the theme "Better life in rural communities with ICTs," with contributions from the entire UN system in Bangkok.
In conclusion, today's information society can be better adapted so that tomorrow's knowledge society not only nurtures innovation, but also includes the productive contributions of the poor and vulnerable groups. We need to turn to the responsibilities we have, if the promises are to be realized. This is no longer a matter of ensuring that attention is paid to a new area of growing importance to development, but of making sure that enough attention is paid to an area which is already contributing significantly to inclusive and sustainable development.
1 A 2010 Leadership Imperative: The Future Built on Broadband. A report by the Broadband Commission
2 ESCAP, The Promise of Protection: Social Protection and Development in Asia and the Pacific, 2011