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Delivered by Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

26 March 2024

Distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be with you all today. Hardly a day has passed by since the launch of ChatGPT in late 2022 without developments in generative artificial intelligence making it into the headlines.

While there are very few technologies that have swept through systems with such speed and impact, it is important to recognize that other digitally powered innovations, such as digital finance, GovTech services and the Internet of things, are transforming business operations, enhancing the protection of the environment and supporting climate action – all in the service of improving people’s lives.  

The emphasis of this Festival of Innovations provides us with an important opportunity to put a spotlight on groundbreaking innovations for the public good, notwithstanding the challenges that governments face in deploying these innovations at scale in support of sustainable development.

This theme also dovetails very much with the 80th session of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the organization which I head. The Commission will convene next month in Bangkok on the theme “leveraging digital innovations for sustainable development.” 

Driven by the digital by default paradigm that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Asia-Pacific region is rapidly becoming a hub for digitally driven innovation that can accelerate sustainable development.

Given that this is a gathering of public transformation champions, let me highlight concrete examples of how GovTech has led to improvements in the efficiency, effectiveness, accessibility, reach and transparency of public services. Some are already enabling governments to reach areas and groups traditionally excluded from the benefits of digitalized public services.

Digital innovations can help to overcome unequal access to healthcare services in the region by addressing the challenges of geographical distance and resource constraints.

During the pandemic, the Shasthyo Batayon telemedicine hotline in Bangladesh handled approximately 80,000 calls per day. The Digital Family Card in Kazakhstan enables the Government to identify and provide support to vulnerable families in areas such as education, social protection, finance, justice and health. “Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile” has given 500 million people in India access to direct benefit transfers by leveraging public digital infrastructure connectivity, digital identification tools and financial technologies to promote financial inclusion.

Digital solutions are also improving tax administration, thus lowering administrative costs and discouraging tax evasion. Most countries in the region have e-filing systems and again, the pandemic accelerated this shift. The adoption of electronic tax identification numbers in countries such as the Republic of Korea and Singapore has simplified taxpayer registration procedures and broadened the tax base.

I am keen to see how governments will tap generative artificial intelligence to help achieve quality education by offering personalized content, enhancing teacher productivity and improving learning experiences.

This will not happen automatically but must be supported by the right digital infrastructure, as well as an enabling policy and regulatory framework that incentivizes innovation balanced by the need to protect consumers and safeguard systemic stability in the face of potentially wide and deep disruptive impacts.

As we deliberate in the next two days, the overarching question is: How do we get the balance right at national and regional levels to make innovations work for good?

Ladies and gentlemen,

A report we released just last week in preparation for our Commission session puts forward several recommendations. Let me highlight three areas of action

One, build predictable and yet adaptable policy environments to develop digital innovations in support of sustainable development. Clearer and more harmonized regulations across countries are crucial for increased investments, as well as for reaping economies of scale and network effects.

Given the fast-changing pace of technologies, regulatory sandboxes could facilitate the development regulations that encourage experimentation, pilot programmes and phased rollouts while ringfencing potential negative impacts.

Second, considering that only four out of every 10 persons in Asia and the Pacific have basic digital skills, there is a need to rapidly roll out skills and capacity building development initiatives that can keep pace with technological development. This can only be done effectively through partnerships with academia and industry to create dynamic and fit-for-purpose curriculums.

I am encouraged by Indonesia's Kartu Prakerja programme, which in partnership with the ESCAP Asian and Pacific Training Centre for ICT Development, is working to boost job skills and entrepreneurship via online training accessible to jobseekers, SME owners, women, persons with disabilities and disadvantaged groups.

This expansion of digital skills enhances workforce adaptability, productivity and competitiveness, leading to a dynamic, fit-for-purpose labour market.

Finally, we need to ensure these digital advances include everyone. Upholding the rights of people in vulnerable situations in digital contexts requires a comprehensive understanding of the barriers encountered by diverse groups.

For many marginalized groups, affordability is often a more significant barrier than the lack of Internet availability; 37 per cent of the population in places with broadband access are not able to use the Internet for this reason. All types of digital divides must be bridged within and across countries and population groups.

Universal service funds, generally collected through levies on telecommunications operators, if well targeted, can support marginalized groups in gaining access to digital technologies. China, India and Malaysia have implemented commendable initiatives through different policy instruments, standards and incentives.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Asia-Pacific region is in a unique position to capture the benefits of digital innovations with its digitally literate youth, economies of scale and growing digital infrastructure. This is an opportunity which the region must seize.

Thank you.

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