ICTs and Sustainable Development: Connecting the Next Billion
Information and communication technologies – ICTs – are now at the centre of just about everything we do, whether personally or professionally. High-speed networks serve as the core of today’s increasingly globalized business environment, while mobile communications have spread across the world faster than any technology in human history, so that now just about every person on the planet is within reach of a mobile phone.
The internet remains the next big challenge in terms of digital inclusion. The latest ITU figures show that the total number of internet users will be close to 2.3 billion at the end of 2014 – and this is a truly remarkable achievement considering the Net is only 20 years old. But while most people in the developed world now have some kind of online access, two thirds of people in the developing world remain offline, cut-off from this indispensable resource; a resource that is arguably the most important tool we have ever seen in terms of improving global development, especially in the areas of education, healthcare and poverty reduction.
At ITU we are committed to bridging the digital divide, and we are convinced that bringing the next billion – indeed billions – online will bring multiplied benefits and will help to accelerate sustainable development across the globe. As world leaders meet to concretize the upcoming post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, we believe that ICTs will play a central part both in achieving these goals, and in measuring progress.
ICTs provide increased access to educational resources and healthcare services, and help deliver inclusion into the global economy. As Ban Ki-moon has stated, “broadband connectivity is a transformative tool to achieve the three pillars of sustainable development: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental balance. It is a key element of the debate on the post-2015 development agenda.”
Key to bringing the next billions online will undoubtedly be mobile broadband, which has seen quite extraordinary growth – indeed, it is remarkable to note that it took only nine years to reach the first billion mobile broadband subscriptions, and only two years to reach the next billion. To keep up this momentum, we must invest in further broadband network rollout and bring broadband to the top of the development agenda.
Much more than just connectivity
Digital inclusion is not just about connectivity; it’s about what we can do with that connectivity. The goal must therefore be not just to make sure that all people have access, but to ensure that they can really benefit from fast, affordable broadband services.
Especially important are the potential improvements in education and healthcare. ICTs have already transformed how we look at education and learning – and they mark the biggest shift in the sector since the founding of the first ancient higher-learning institutions. Through the capacity of the internet, we have witnessed the death of distance, and the democratization of information and knowledge. As we continue into the 21st century, the benefits of online education have the power to transform not just countries, but entire continents.
Concerning health, the combination of education and technology will allow us to make tremendous advances in the provision of healthcare services worldwide. ICTs are already leading the way in terms of providing access to health advice, training for healthcare workers, patient monitoring, disease surveillance and management, as well as access to emergency services.
ICTs will enable us to save millions of lives a year, with the combination of healthcare apps and mobile broadband having the potential to reach those who have been historically outside the reach of traditional healthcare provision. A good example is the joint partnership between ITU and WHO on the Be He@lthy, Be Mobile app, which seeks to use mobile technology to improve the prevention and treatment of Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs), which account for well over half of deaths globally every year – including 14 million people dying between the ages of 30 and 70. Be He@lthy, Be Mobile is just one of many initiatives leveraging the power of technology to improve lives and deliver health benefits to millions.
ICTs for sustainable development
Along with improvements in education and healthcare, ICTs will be an increasingly important to ensuring sustainable development. They will be a key component in monitoring and measuring progress made on the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals, and it is essential that they are prioritized in setting the post-2015 development agenda. As ICTs enable significant economic and social benefits, we must also ensure that technology is as accessible as basic infrastructure such as transportation and energy. At the same time, we will need to continue investing in training and skills development to ensure that the next billions derive the maximum benefits from these truly transformative technologies.