Riding the wave of Asia’s technological disruption

Technological advancements and innovations are having a profound impact on the way people live, interact and do business. They bring opportunities — not only for enhanced productivity, but also new products and services. Mobile apps have vastly improved people’s daily lives and are transforming entire economies. Innovations such as fintech, Internet of Things (IoT), big data, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and cloud computing are benefitting e-commerce, finance, education, and health care.

The application of digital and online technologies can be massive and has the potential to help emerging economies leapfrog development. Developing countries in Asia stand to benefit immensely from this new era.

To turn this potential into reality, Developing Asia has some work to do, because many countries are simply not ready. For example, less than half of the population in the region has access to the internet. Information and communication technologies (ICT) infrastructure is required to jumpstart the digital revolution.

The international development community has a crucial role in partnering with countries to build foundations. Governments alone do not have the resources, and the private sector often faces barriers to investment.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is addressing these challenges by assisting its developing member countries build ICT infrastructure, prioritizing areas that are not commercially viable. It believes that ICT can play a key role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and for the last 8 years, ADB has approved about 450 projects with ICT components across sectors. For example, ADB has helped establish submarine cable systems to improve the mobile telecoms networks of Palau, Solomon Islands, and Tonga. Moving forward, ADB will deliver integrated approaches in the areas of “smart cities”, “e-government”, and

In Pakistan, ADB is supporting the extension of smart public transport systems in the Peshawar Sustainable Bus Rapid Transit Corridor Project. This includes diesel-hybrid “plug in” electric buses, Intelligent Transport Systems such as smart card-based fare collection and a real-time passenger information system, a bicycle sharing system, and the use of satellite imagery for engineering design.

This system will improve the quality of transportation service, air quality, and attract private sector investments.

Digital technologies also have an important role to play in the health sector. In Mongolia, ADB’s health sector projects are connecting health centers through ICT in five provinces and two districts of the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Before the project, patients had to travel to the provincial capital to seek medical treatment and all patient records were typed by health workers. Now local people no longer face these expensive trips and health workers just send patients’ medical histories to the province’s central database via the internet.

In Suva, Fiji, land records are still paper-based. In a small country like Fiji, where land is a valuable resource and 92 percent of land is ancestral domain, there is a need for an efficient, transparent information system to update and monitor land records, and create new ones.

Considering the unique features of the country, ADB is piloting a digital land registry using “blockchain” technology. Gaining traction in industries and governments, a blockchain acts as “an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way.

Many countries have started national initiatives to digitize their economies. Some examples are “Digital Thailand”, “Digital India”, “Taza Koom” in the Kyrgyz Republic, and “Digital Azerbaijan”. While these aspire to bring digital transformation, most developing countries recognize the need to address gaps in knowledge, experience, and capacity for their success.

Technological changes and advances can drive economic growth and improve standards of living. A recent ADB study found that these have transformed the 2 billion worker Asian labor market, creating 30 million jobs annually in industry and services over the last 25 years, driving up increases in productivity and wages, and reducing poverty.

If we use new technologies better, the benefits of the digital revolution could be massive. However, it remains to be seen, how these new technologies will play out across sectors of the economy. Some may consider these technologies to be “disruptive”, leading to “technological unemployment”. For example, there is considerable anxiety about how automation, robotics, ever-expanding computing power, and artificial intelligence will affect the availability of jobs, especially for moderately skilled workers carrying out tasks that can be automated or done by computers.

Governments will need to address the risk of workers being left behind by ensuring that they are protected from the downside of new technologies and able to take advantage of new opportunities.

Societies, institutions and policymakers will need to think carefully about issues such as skills development, re-training, and means to support workers displaced by disruptive technologies. Developing Asia needs to be well prepared to address apprehension and increase its gain from the technological revolution.

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