“ITU’s history is long, but its spirit is young,” says Houlin Zhao of China, who was re-elected as ITU’s Secretary-General for the next four years.
In an interview held during the ITU 2018 Plenipotentiary Conference in Dubai, Mr Zhao reflected on his first four-year term as Secretary-General and described his vision for the Union.
“As the United Nations specialized agency for ICT, we worked with our partners and pushed for ICT development over the last decade, and we achieved a lot,” said Mr. Zhao. “But despite of all this marvelous achievement and progress,” he continued, “we still have very serious challenges: half the population is not connected online yet.”
He summarized his vision for the future by referring to the ‘4 Is’: infrastructure, investment, innovation, and inclusiveness.
The first I stands for infrastructure. “We still have to extend our infrastructure to those areas not enjoying these ICT services yet, but we also have to upgrade to the current infrastructure, with new technologies such as 5G,” he said.
The second I is investment. “Investment is quite important. If you don’t have the investment, you cannot really make things happen. We have to mobilize public-private investment and, in particular, private investment. Of course, to attract private investment, we have to create a good environment for investment.”
This is important, he suggested, because the public wants services with affordable prices, and industry may need to upgrade their systems. Furthermore, while ICT industries contribute to national GDP and make profits, they also face risks, with “many big names in the last decade that disappeared from the market,” he said.
The third I is innovation. “We cannot just the follow the same way as we did the business in the past,” he said. “We have to have innovative ways to do business, you know, to further extend our benefit of ICT to those people”.
Zhao explained that innovation doesn’t necessarily come just from the big companies. “Entrepreneurs are a rich source of innovation. Particularly in today’s environment, young people, they know technologies; they know the market; they know the challenges; they want to contribute. So they can have a lot of marvelous, innovative ideas to help us extend the newer technology of ICT with local solutions to connect the local community.”
He said that this means that ITU and its members have to work hard to mobilize innovations from big companies, and from small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as well as from other social associations, while looking for new ways to do business.
“We need to have industry with us, including the big ones, the small ones, and medium-sized ones – all the industry partners.” –Houlin Zhao
The last I is inclusiveness. “We should not leave anybody behind, so we are working with … groups like handicapped people, aged people, children, and those who live in remote areas, who have difficulty to be connected,” said Mr. Zhao.
According to the Secretary-General, the secret to ITU’s continued relevance over the course of its 153-year history is the spirit of innovation with which it works. “ITU always works with the spirit of innovation,” he said. “We work with industry for new technologies, from the very beginning until now and that is one of the secrets to why we are still relevant.”
“On the other hand, I see also a problem that we have to improve our efficiency, because we have limited resources — human resources, financial resources — and the expectation from the public is ever-increasing,” he continued. “So, we have to use the limited resources to do more rather than do less, and … we have to find new ways to work, therefore efficiency is very important.”
Zhao also mentioned the importance of attracting and retaining industry players.
“To have industry consider ITU as their home is absolutely key for our success, because it’s industry who develop standards, so it’s the industry who develop businesses,” he said. “We need to have industry with us, including the big ones, the small ones, and medium-sized ones – all the industry partners.”
The telecom industry, the satellite industry, the television industry, and over-the-top services (OTTs) all are quite important for the future of the information society, he said. But getting these industries to consider ITU as their natural home is still a challenge.
“We have to create a good environment to convince them … but what is good in my opinion is that I see more industry members joining us, for example Google, Facebook, Alibaba — one after the other, they joined ITU recently.”
Zhao added that ITU is working to encourage universities and SMEs to join the Union.
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