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October 13, 2017

Bridging the innovation divide: how to accelerate digital transformation

By ITU News

Domestic tech innovation is now critical to sustainable socioeconomic growth in emerging economies.

Entrepreneurs can move quickly to create innovative solutions tailored to unmet local needs in ways that larger companies and governments often cannot do.

Entrepreneurs attract investment. They create new jobs.

Recognizing this, governments are trying to foster environments in which domestic tech innovation can flourish. But that is easier said than done.

Developing supportive policies and regulations can provide fertile ground for the efforts of entrepreneurs and innovators, while poorly developed policies can stifle innovation. Without fostering entrepreneurship, especially through digital innovation, countries cannot create solutions to their unique problems.

That’s why ITU’s quadrennial World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC-17) in Buenos Aires, Argentina featured a side event dedicated to “accelerating digital transformation through innovation.”

The side event brought together a diverse range of stakeholders Friday for a lively discussion on best practices and frameworks to foster innovation.

Digital innovation divide

One of the key areas of discussion centered around closing the innovation divide.

“Unfortunately the gap between developed and developing countries in innovation is very huge,” said Dr. Nibal Idlebi, Chief of the Innovation Section at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA).

“Digital transformation is to use technology to rethink business.” — Alberto Patron

“If we want to close the digital divide, we have to close the innovation divide,” said Mohamed Ba, Head of Innovation Division at ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT). “Developing countries are struggling more and more.”

So how can the gap be closed?

It’s not just about the technology

Several panelists stressed the point that building an innovation-driven economy is about way more than just the technology.

“Digital transformation is to use technology to rethink business,” said Mr Alberto Patron, an entrepreneur and board member of the Chamber of Business for Software and Information Services of Argentina (CESSI). “One of our main focus areas is to spread this idea. I’m confident that this idea is permeating.”

“Technology is not the root cause of change, it is an enabler of change,” said Mr Ba. “It’s very important that we don’t get too attached to technology. We need to really understand the needs of the people. We need to look at the ecosystem holistically.”

To help do that, Mr Ba explained that ITU has developed a “Bridging the Innovation Divide” toolkit that helps countries bring all relevant stakeholders together to build innovate ecosystems themselves.

The toolkit includes more than 30 different indicators to measure readiness for innovation and an “Innovation Ecosystem Canvas” that serves as a framework for how to focus on critical areas such as: developing key talent, marshalling resources, boosting access to international markets, creating a culture of entrepreneurship and developing a vision and strategy.

Rwanda and Moldova each had representatives who shared how the ITU digital innovation framework has helped them have clear and concrete recommendations and projects to strengthen their digital economies.

Creating a culture of risk-taking

Cultivating an innovative, entrepreneurial culture involves sharing key values such as risk-taking, an appreciation for failure, and a willingness to iterate and learn.

Panelists stressed this several times.

“You should not be afraid of failure,” said Dr. Ismael Shah, Chairman of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), as he discussed what’s needed to make entrepreneurship flourish in Pakistan.

“This culture of failure is not very common in most developing countries and we must push this,” said Idlebi.

Indeed, but it is critical to future growth.

“The role of the entrepreneur is essential,” said Mr. Ricardo Pérez, Director of the Policy Interconexión and Convergence of the ICT Secretariat at the Ministry of Modernization, Argentina.

He said that Big Data and IoT will be key to future growth and that the Argentine government is trying to create synergies between all the actors – including big and small companies, and government and academia – in support of boosting entrepreneurship in those key areas.

But bringing this all together requires leadership, agreed the panelists.

Importance of leadership

Leadership is very important to create a common vision for an innovation policy shared by all key stakeholders.

Government leadership is critical, said Yushi Torigoe, Deputy Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT), adding that monitoring clear indicators is also key.

“The government needs to prioritize ICT innovation,” said Dr Shah. “I must emphasize, this has to come from the top.”

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