16 November 2020
In my last column published here I began with the words “The Digital Divide remains despite years of debate about solutions to bridge it.” I was reflecting on the opening statement of the pre-event description for a dialogue in the GVF Webinar Series, organised in association with the Satellite Evolution Group (https://www.satellite-evolution.com).
In this contribution I would like to draw attention to a discussion facilitated by another of GVF’s webinars to consider the problem of a variation, or rather an extension, of that divide… A divide with consequences and implications far beyond those encompassed within the usual framework of discussion about inadequate access to the technologies and services of modern digital communications… This is what I describe as the digitisation divide.
What is the digitisation divide? The GVF webinar Global Transitions: Digital Economy, Digital Infrastructure, Connected Communities, Digital Planet set out to explore this with the help of representatives of two GVF members, Isotropic Networks and Telstra, joined by the Coordinator of the Digital Transformation Task Force of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with moderation by the Chief Technology Officer of the Satellite Applications Catapult in the UK.
Whilst the early train of thought leading to this theme originated out of the social distancing and travel restriction imperatives of pandemic lockdown, over time the initial thoughts, influenced by ideas from the UNEP, evolved into the concept of “Digital Planet”.
The importance of the digital communications technologies behind our now having been forced to realise the full potential of virtual business meetings/events has been boldly underscored. Lockdown necessitated digital ways of working to allow people still to do their jobs. Extending digitisation will help recovery from the economic recession engendered by pandemic. Notions about, and gearing-up for, Digital Economy and Digital Infrastructure, are not new but a global socio-economic crisis has elevated debate about the necessity, and advantages, of far greater change than previously conceived. Though a necessary consequence of the (hopefully) limited phenomenon that is the SARS-Cov2 virus, we have undergone a profound change in the human experience, one which gives small illustration of the importance of a much more deeply rooted and strategic phenomenon: our ability to gather, analyse and disseminate that which can be digitised.
We have the potential to increasingly and more accurately understand the complexities of the world around us – natural disaster causes and consequences, manifestations and effects of climate change, monitoring environmental degradation throughout the biosphere, human action and inaction with consequences including conflict and refugee population migrations.
Communities and economies will be more deeply and widely enabled by the growing digital infrastructure. There is a much greater significance now attaching to the integration of 5G and satellite technologies into a single network of networks. Industries, businesses, people and governments worldwide, facing unprecedented challenge, will accelerate in their adoption of digitisation to both adjust to the new normal and to improve preparedness to minimise the impact of the next crisis – an impact that may again be equally as serious for, and equally intertwining of, people’s economic well-being and their health.
Digitisation is not itself the end point. Whilst data gathered from a massively expanded – 5G + satellite enabled – communications infrastructure will be the vital raw material of a digitised economy and society, what matters is the mechanism and processes by which it is turned into what is today commonly called “Actionable Intelligence”, often represented in the form of dashboards.
Data in the Zettabyte Age will flow in vast volumes from the tap of the Internet of Things (IoT), including devices from our own personal wireless communications (i.e., smartphones with social media, plus increasing biometrics-based data generation) to our Wi-Fi-enabled domestic appliances. All this data will only be of use when it is determined exactly what it is for. Data may be just measurement, quanta, of things, but when data is analysed it becomes information, and information is the building block of the knowledge that facilitates effective decisions and enables positive and productive action.
Data maintains financial liquidity in markets, improves creativity in maintaining and evolving supply chains, makes production of “things” more efficient using latest manufacturing technology advances, takes ideas and develops them, and builds more robust cyber security to sit alongside machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).
5G Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC), and Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC), may be expanded into not just a global digital ecosystem, but a global digital ecosystem. Data will be gathered from all conceivable sources by all available technologies and processed by all available tools: satellites, drones & sensors; artificial & virtual reality; smartphone apps; open source software; blockchain & distributed databases; social media feeds; IoT; AI & machine learning; cloud & edge computing; and, other!
The “product” of this global digital ecosystem will enable more than just the formulation of Actionable Intelligence, but foster a culture of Sustainable Decision-Making that, in the context of trying to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and of trying to stem climate change, will be the indispensable currency of the future Digital Planet.
The webinar panellists were asked what they thought still needs to be done to guarantee a level of digitised connectivity – in developed and developing economies alike – to enable gathering of data for the World Economic Forum Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics which are designed to show how companies are doing on climate change action, biodiversity, etc., and track contributions towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. If you want to hear their perspectives, this video recording is not to be missed.
If you want to grow your understanding of what the future of the digital Earth may be, how satellites contribute now and might be contributing 10 years from now, and understand the steps needed now to create a pathway to this future visit https://gvf.org/webinars.