Enabling more of the world’s population to access and participate in the digital economy – and all the socio-economic benefits it entails – is critical to ITU’s mission. Finding the best approach to do so is an ongoing process of discovery, trial-and-error and collaboration. It calls for understanding and adapting to the changing realities of information and communication technology (ICT) and its ecosystem – an ecosystem which has undergone radical transformation over the past decade.
Major international carriers and long-established national organizations with their homogeneous working culture and traditions are no longer the only players in town. The ICT industry today consists of a complex and diverse amalgamation of ideas, technologies and stakeholders, of new partnerships, new markets, and new cross-sector engagement with fields as diverse as health, education, transportation or agriculture.
Increasingly, it is also an industry driven by local entrepreneurship at the grassroots level, creating local solutions for local challenges, addressing local needs within specific local contexts. Ideas of impact are no longer just born in a few global centres, but spring from a wide variety of places.
At the forefront of industry disruption and economic growth in developed and developing markets, entrepreneurs and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) play a vital role in this new ecosystem.
Whether established micro-businesses or fresh start-ups, already operating at optimal capacity to fill a specific niche, or with a high growth potential to scale, replicate and move from local to national or international, SMEs are a major economic force, representing more than 95% of enterprises and ensure up to 70% of jobs globally, and providing two-thirds of all formal jobs in developing countries and as much as 80% in low income countries.
The fundamental shift in technologies, user behaviour and business models in the ICT sector, in particular the significant growth of mobile and open source culture, along with repositioning the locus of innovation from the centre to the edge of the network, have fed into and enabled the rise of SMEs developing and delivering ICT products and services. At least in theory, anyone anywhere in the world with effective connectivity and the necessary skills can innovate with potentially global significance.
Supporting local development, digital entrepreneurs, start-ups and SMEs throughout the world is therefore critical not only to address local challenges, but to power growth in the ICT industry, help bring online more of the 60% of the global population that remain unconnected, and share the benefits of the digital economy, enabling social and economic development. Local context is paramount, but local solutions may often be fit for purpose elsewhere in the world – globally scalable and replicable – if they can first be discovered.
Recognising the importance of fostering ICT entrepreneurship and local innovation in driving job creation and the digital economy, many national governments have created and facilitated initiatives such as innovation hubs, accelerators, incubators and tech parks. But a huge gap in skills, funding, tools and knowledge remains – a gap between good ideas and good investors, between local solutions and established players eager to uncover unexplored potential.
ITU is ideally positioned to contribute to closing this gap, promoting digital entrepreneurship in collaboration with other major international stakeholders. As the UN specialized agency for ICTs, it combines the necessary authority, expertise and convening power to bring together ministers, regulators, industry leaders, academia, innovation hubs and accelerators, as well as start-ups and SMEs themselves from emerging and developed markets around the world to share knowledge, break down silos, encourage new partnerships, and make valuable connections.
By bringing in SMEs digital entrepreneurs, and supporting the governments of Member States in promoting initiatives such as hubs, accelerators and incubators, ITU is responding to the realities of the new ICT ecosystem and the expressed needs of its Members. Recognising the importance of this sector in creating innovative, sustainable economic and social impact, ITU is actively working to support it.
ITU’s flagship event, ITU Telecom World, has drawn high-level representatives from private and public sectors from all over the globe for more than 40 years to showcase innovation, network and exchange knowledge. ITU Telecom World 2015 will continue to be both a meeting place and a market place, a platform for debating core industry issues, exhibiting innovative solutions and making valuable connections. But the event will also bring SMEs, start-ups and supporting initiatives to the table, to the meeting rooms, panel discussions, networking occasions and exhibition floor, as important stakeholders in the new ICT ecosystem.
Exploring experiences, solutions and approaches from new players around the world will open up new routes to the funding, knowledge, expertise, technical, business and marketing skills which are sorely needed. It also promises exposure to the most promising innovative ICT ideas – sometimes in surprising places – opening up a two-way dialogue with and between emerging markets.
Meeting face to face, discussing key industry issues, discovering hands-on the solutions, projects and applications with the potential to make a huge difference, enriching the industry through networking and knowledge exchange: these have always been the core activities of ITU Telecom World, and indeed of ITU itself. Encouraging the active participation of ICT-related SMEs and their support networks, actively striving to accelerate innovation in the ICT sector and thereby stimulate industry growth and socio-economic development – this is the logical and necessary next step towards achieving global access to, and participation in, the digital economy.
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