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Removal of barriers to digitalization key to Caribbean’s technological transformation

Removal of barriers to digitalization key to Caribbean’s technological transformation

AnalysisCaribbeanTop Stories

With limited access to the Internet and high broadband costs, the process of Digital Transformation is fraught with difficulties for the small island states that make up the Caribbean. Despite this, digitization has the potential to drive their economies forward,  overcome the challenges of remoteness and mitigate the threat of natural disasters through technological innovations.

The upscaling of digital technologies presents a host of opportunities for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Caribbean to diversify their economies, upscale manufacturing, gain greater access to global value chains, improve disaster preparedness and solve long standing issues that have caused a strain on their development.

Yet, there is no denying significant obstacles remain, including inadequate digital infrastructure, insufficient training opportunities for women and young people, a growing digital divide, and a lack of data and policy knowledge.

That’s according to an expert panel convened by the Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit’s Digital Series on the topic: ‘How Information and Communication Technologies can foster inclusive and sustainable industrial development in Small Island Developing States’.

Here we hear from some of those experts about the barriers to digitalization and the full extent of its potential.

Amjad Umar, Director and Professor of ISEM (Information Systems Engineering and Management) program at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, said that the Fourth Industrial Revolution and digitalization could yield several gains for SIDS, such as more affordable consumer goods through 3D printing, better monitoring of fisheries through Artificial Intelligence and satellite imaging, and drones for disaster preparedness.

He also stressed the need for customization and specialised training in harnessing digital manufacturing and services in SIDS.

“We know that in many cases, SIDS do not have 3G technologies – they are still at 2G range,” he said. “So, we specifically designed this plan that produces solutions that would work with very, very low technologies. And I totally agree that you need to have smart people.

“What we do is in those cases we generate tutorials that can be used to train the people. So digitalization consists of people, processes and technologies.”

Vanessa Gray, Head of the Division for Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Emergency Telecommunications, International Telecommunication Union (ITU), said that increasing access to information and communication technologies can mitigate many issues in SIDS and help to diversify their economies.

She added that innovations such as AI, Blockchain, drones and mobile money were enabling progress towards sustainable development in SIDS, but this is constrained by a lack of financial, human and technical resources.

To enable advanced digitalization, Gray proposed a strengthened regulatory environment, greater competition and spectrum to be added for wireless broadband and other digital services, and for improved data gathering capacities.

She also advocated for greater digitalization to mitigate natural disasters, a common threat to SIDS.

“We know that small islands are naturally prone to disasters caused by earthquakes and severe weather events and are being affected by climate change, resulting in increased tropical cyclones, hurricanes, flood and landslides, to name a few,” she said.

“Connectivity can help address these events by providing remote communities with access to early warning systems, real-time weather information, remote sensing and geographic information systems.”

Ralf Bredel, Chief, Asia-Pacific Regional Programme, UNIDO, said that SIDS share common challenges such as limited resource bases, long distances to primary markets and vulnerability to climate change. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) has been implementing various programmes to address such issues, such as technical co-operation on waste management, building resilience to environmental shocks and industrial policy advice.

“We have examples of successful interventions supporting, for example, e-commerce in different member states, but we would like to devise specific and scalable interventions in SIDS, including regional projects,” said Bredel.

“In fact, ICT has the potential to help SIDS in overcoming some of the challenges derived from the isolation and remoteness, it can support trade in economic diversification. This is even more true, under the current circumstances with Covid-19 and the current restrictions on people’s movements and the heavy blow to SIDS’ economies in their continued reliance on tourism.”

Michelle Marius, Founder and Publisher, ICT Pulse, said that informational gaps are a big problem for digitalization in the Caribbean, as well as insufficient policy attention on structural issues.

“You almost have a situation where we’re just dealing with the most urgent matter, which would be the tip of the iceberg, but the major challenges are the bigger issues that you may not necessarily see, are not being given any or are given limited attention,” she said.

“And as a result, what we then have is a hodgepodge of programmes and initiatives that do not necessarily push us forward in any substantial or meaningful way.”

She criticised a lack of joined-up thinking at times, such as programmes to provide school children with tablets without addressing home Internet costs. Marius also highlighted a continuing gender gap concerning digital employment.

“We do have so many girls and women in the workforce. Many of them, sometimes even in management positions in reputable organisations, but somehow we still have not been able to crack that barrier between women in tech and digital entrepreneurship by women” she noted.

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