Digitalization is crucial to economic growth and recovery, especially in the time of the pandemic. Around the world, it has helped governments, schools, and businesses shift to the new normal.
For a developing country like the Philippines, digital technology ensures better governance, improves the quality and reach of e-learning, and creates and/or retains jobs and industries. It could also aid pandemic response by facilitating safety protocols, vaccine rollouts, and accessible health and non-health services to curb COVID-19 cases.
However, a lot of factors go into building an effective digital economy, as discussed by industry experts in “Digitalizing the Philippines,” a White Paper launch and discussion forum recently held by public affairs and strategy firm W&R and the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (NUS-LKY School of Public Policy).
“As mobility restriction and social distancing measure[s] have been limiting our face-to-face interaction, the availability of digital technology emerges as a key determinant for resilience and for continuous growth,” said NUS Vice Dean and Associate Professor Francesco Mancini as he presented LKY School’s latest study entitled “Overview of the Development of the Digital Economy in the Philippines.”
To promote the digital economy, he recommended investing in both infrastructure and people. This entails government policies and projects that can complement commercial initiatives to secure access to technology and training for all Filipinos.
“Digital transformation requires change from multiple fronts. It is an adaptive challenge and not just a technical one,” he said.
The ‘digital divide’
In her keynote, Sen. Grace Poe-Llamanzares said, “Fast, reliable, and affordable connectivity makes a huge difference...in e-commerce, online learning, entertainment, telemedicine, and of course, the simple but vital act of staying in touch with our loved ones.”
“Digital transformation is ongoing as we speak. In fact, the Philippines is number one in the world for internet usage...in terms of social media,” said Ricky Banaag, COO of IT company DFNN, Inc.
These are all challenged by what Poe-Llamanzares called the ‘digital divide.’ “While there are people with access to the internet, there are people who are grossly underserved or unserved,” she said.
NUS-LKY School’s findings showed how high costs, tight regulations, and logistical problems have held back local digitalization and adoption among Filipinos.
The multisector push for tech
Despite gaps and slow adoption, digitalization in the Philippines still reflects what experts call the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
To address these issues, policies like the Better Internet Act and Bayanihan to Recover as One Act that push for faster and wider-reaching service must be enacted. The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT)’s Common Tower Policy which allows for multiple telcos to share one tower may be equally beneficial as well.
“Immediate digitalization of not just our government but of all our systems in society is a need right now. Today, digital connectivity, online applications, and solutions are our lifeline as a nation," said Assistant Secretary Atty. Randy Echaus.
Private enterprises have also been taking initiatives to bridge current digital gaps. Aside from working on advancements like AI, IOT, and cloud computing, tech innovation company Huawei is looking to collaborate with more small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to drive new technologies and digital literacy.
“Businesses are where the greatest opportunities are. The Philippines is really currently driven by SMEs, and they're also the major employer,” said Huawei Vice President and Economic Adviser of Government Affairs Andrew Williamson.
Through its Spark Program, Huawei aims to build a sustainable startup ecosystem for the Asia Pacific region over the next three years. It is currently helping incubate and upscale SMEs in countries like the Philippines.
Honing digital talent
When it comes to cultivating digital talent, University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P) professor and economist Dr. Bernardo Villegas emphasized that students should always come first.
“Millions of pupils in public school are not really learning very much because they don't have the resources to participate in e-learning, so it is a clear indication that the digital divide may worsen unless we [take] proactive measures,” he said.
“We have to re-skill and upskill people," said Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Assistant Secretary Atty. Allan Gepty. He referred to this necessary job and education training as “capacity building or human capital development.”
Ultimately, the ideal is a network where all stakeholders from the private and public sectors can proactively work together to identify and address any current or incoming gaps. The working goal should be a robust digital ecosystem that seamlessly integrates industries to ensure resilience and inclusive growth for the entire country.