Digital connectivity: The most powerful enabler of economic growth

Dr. Paul Hopkinson, associate head of school for Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, looks at the importance of digital inclusion in the MENA region
Remote Connectivity, Telecoms, Finance, Wireless


Globally, there are 750 million people who do not live within the footprint of mobile connectivity according to the SMA State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report 2019. With this technological drawback, these individuals are unable to benefit from the potential technology has to offer. Today, digital connectivity is the most important catalyst for economic and social development, in addition to modern high-speed broadband facilitating the very core
foundation needed for speedy delivery within the digital economy. Due to digital divides in certain societies, more is recognised to be needed in order to connect the unconnected.

Making rural connectivity commercially viable

The areas and populations not covered by digital technology tend to be rural, remote and less economically developed. To connect these communities, the challenges that are faced are less involved with technical development and more to do with economical advancements. Innovation is needed by technology industries to explore the best ways to make investments for
infrastructure commercially viable. In these less economically developed areas, building and maintaining technological infrastructure can come at a large cost. As we enter the era of industry 4.0, digitalisation underpins all sectors of a thriving economy, with a large percentage of the world excluded from this digital revolution. Governments and multinationals have a duty towards contributing to the aim of digital inclusion. In turn, allowing these populations to remain excluded from digitalisation will have a real impact on economic growth for future generations.

Connecting the next generation

According to a 2019 ITU report, an estimated 4.1 billion people used the Internet in 2019, reflecting a 5.3 per cent increase compared with 2018.

This is a positive indication of successful initiatives from the tech sector. The success of these initiatives is dependent on government leadership, large technology providers, infrastructure development and financial expertise.  One initiative that is currently being analysed under the
company ‘Gavi for Gigabytes’ (GIGA) which was launched by UNICEF and the ITU to connect every school to the internet, and ensure every young person has the access to information and choice. This initiative is achieved through working in partnership with governments in order to create financial guidance, GIGA would then offer solutions based on the digital requirements needed in schools and ultimately empower young students with connectivity and the knowledge needed to continue driving the digital revolution. Educational preparation is seen to be a fundamental part of connecting the disconnected, because it allows access to information and knowledge as well as participation in the growth of gross domestic product (GDP). In addition, Industry 4.0 is shaping the education sector as a result of rapid technological advancement. Universities are making significant contributions with their work in technological innovation and artificial intelligence by offering technology specific courses and driving research projects. At Heriot-Watt University our Msc in Managing Innovation provides high calibre innovation management graduates with digitalisation knowledge to help harness the future of business growth within the sector.

Connectivity boosts more than just GDP

Connectivity improves national economies making them more productive to solve problems related to health, hygiene, education, pollution and disaster prevention amongst others. In the latest 2019 report by the ITU, only 19 per cent of individuals were online in 2019 in less economically developed countries, particularly mapping out rural areas as scarcely connected to the digital world.

Efforts to increase connectivity in these rural areas have proven to be costly and
logistically complex, however innovation is needed to deliver affordable infrastructure.  According to the GSMA, a trade body that represents the interests of mobile network operator’s worldwide, renewable energy solutions, particularly solar power, are an increasingly common feature for rural
developments. Solar power is largely used as a secondary source; however it is cost
effective with less risk of diesel generators, therefore creating an effective and efficient role in enabling connectivity. In addition, cost-efficient fuel generators could revolutionise the power of digital connectivity if delivered within suitable supply chains. However, efforts to create more digital inclusivity are not only limited to
innovative technology.

Government initiative, financial business models and education schemes are needed to phenomenally create a shift in connecting a significant scale of the world’s population. Connecting these areas is increasingly an economic rather than a technical challenge. With economic developments, government initiative is needed to budget and plan new strategies for digital infrastructure.

Modernising the regulatory approach

The latest ITU report shares that certain government entities in developing nations have struggled with low levels of confidence to implement digital initiatives, for instance emerging technologies such as AI and 5G are considered with caution, as it is widely agreed that consumers are in fear of protection and privacy. Therefore, the ever-changing digital markets need to be accompanied by regulatory modernisation. Government entities must embrace these changes and create clear initiatives to strengthen technologies, support infrastructure development and set business models in collaboration with stakeholders and technology providers in order to leverage digital facilities. Solutions to ensure everyone is connected would need to consider these several factors in order to ultimately reduce inequality and poverty. In addition, connecting rural areas in less economically developed countries can play a central role in improving economies and driving a growth in gross domestic product.

With the advancements of Industry 4.0, digital connection underpins every sector and is the driving force in boosting economies and creating knowledge for future generations. Government entities, NGO’S, technology providers and infrastructure developers all have a duty in order to contribute to the reduction in the digital divide.

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