ITU Telecom World 2016: Reinventing Digital Ecosystems

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ITU Telecom World 2016 is a unique international platform for governments, corporations and SMEs working in the ICT space – the event is set to reinvent digital ecosystems.

Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) speaks with Zia Askari from TelecomDrive.com about the way this event is set to create a huge impact on the way communication enables greater opportunities for different stakeholders.

What is ITU Telecom World 2016, and how is it different from other industry events?

Taking place in Bangkok, Thailand, from 14–17 November 2016, ITU Telecom World 2016 is the leading platform for governments, corporations and small and medium businesses (SMEs) in the information communication technology (ICT) sector. It is an annual event organized by ITU, the UN agency responsible for ICT issues.

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ITU allocates global radio spectrum and coordinates satellite orbits, develops the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies interoperate, and strives to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide. Telecom World exemplifies our mission.

The conference combines an international exhibition of digital innovations, a world-class Forum of debates on key industry topics, a networking hub for all countries, businesses and individuals in attendance, and an Awards programme recognizing creative ICT solutions with real social impact.
ITU Telecom World is unique for two key reasons: its vision, which offers a platform and international services to promote SMEs as a critical stakeholder in the digital ecosystem; and its audience.

The event brings together leading representatives of public and private sectors, heads of state and government, ministers, regulators, and CEOs, with SMEs, international organizations, media, industry consultants and academics, from emerging and developed markets alike.

This influential audience forms an unparalleled cross-sector global community working to accelerate innovation in the ICT ecosystem to improve all our lives – and to make the world better, sooner.

The theme for this year’s ITU Telecom World is “Collaborating in the Digital Ecosystem.” What does this mean?

We are in a golden age of connectivity, where the potential for economic and social development is enormous. The fast pace of technological development and growth of the digital economy is bringing change more quickly and on a wider scale than ever before in human history.

But to fulfil that potential, and to make sure that all the world’s citizens have access to the opportunities the new technologies offer, we need to work together throughout and across the digital ecosystem.

The range and number of different stakeholders in that ecosystem continues to grow. Governments are key players as policy-makers, regulators and major procurers. Large ICT companies are increasingly finding competition from innovative, nimble SMEs and from new Internet players with different business cultures and approaches.

The borderless world of the Internet is opening up new markets in developed and emerging worlds alike. It enables technology to make a difference in vertical sectors as diverse as education, health and agriculture, bringing on board experts, professionals and partners from many separate industries.

This is why we urgently need to examine how we can best work together across public and private organizations, between the ICT industry and vertical sectors, and within the ICT industry itself. If we do not collaborate, we will not be able to draw out the best from the incredible potential of the new digital economy – and we will all be poorer as a result.

Why is collaboration across vertical sectors so important, and what are the key challenges?

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Collaboration between the ICT industry and vertical sectors is the only way in which we can progress. A teacher’s professional expertise and experience needs to merge with the technological capability and capacity of an ICT company, for example, in e-educational products, solutions and programmes to be successful.

The lengthy process of establishing a road map, developing, testing, and implementing can be complicated by lack of knowledge, cultural differences or insecurity on either side, which is why it is so important to talk to each other.

The connected car, digital financial services or e-health – whatever the field, combining different industries, mind sets, regulatory and business approaches brings its challenges. Government is also a key player, establishing public sector policies, fit-for-purpose regulation, consumer safety and security as well as enabling fair competition. There is always the question of balancing the benefits of working together against the benefits of competition. Ways of doing business, commercial or vested interests are often entrenched.

This is why events such as ITU Telecom World are so important, bringing together a huge range of different players from across the digital ecosystem and around the world. Creating a new ecosystem of government, business and individuals is vital to success. Sharing perspectives, ideas and best practices and meeting and debating face-to-face are vital to understanding the common challenges and move forward together.

What is the role of SMEs in the digital economy and at ITU Telecom World 2016?

SMEs play a critical role in powering growth in the ICT sector, creating jobs, accelerating innovation and digital inclusion throughout the world. Supporting and fostering ICT SMEs is vital to stimulating economic and social growth in developed and emerging markets alike.

This is why ITU Telecom World began a reform at ITU Telecom World 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. It relaunched as a platform for SMEs to come together with governments and large corporations. By offering international services, global visibility, networking, knowledge-sharing and partnership and business opportunities, the event aims to provide SMEs with a unique launchpad to grow their businesses and scale up their ideas.
One of the key activities for SMEs at ITU Telecom World 2016 are the B2B and B2G Dialogues.

Bringing governments and SMEs around the table together enables an open and constructive exchange of information, identifying and reducing barriers to success, developing supportive frameworks and policies and working towards efficient, dynamic ICT innovation ecosystems at national or regional levels. These direct personal exchanges between government representatives responsible for policy decisions, and the SMEs who can clarify the challenges they are facing, is directly favourable to both parties in building national innovation and driving growth.

This need for individuals, businesses, organizations and governments alike to adapt and focus on multi-stakeholder partnerships and grassroots, community-based approaches also informs the B2B dialogue between SMEs and large, established market players. Building successful relationships and sharing knowledge, best practices, and awareness of potential hurdles and opportunities is critical.

It brings SMEs with end-user relationships, local market knowledge and innovative solutions together with big companies offering funding, project management skills and mentorship. It is an essential element in successful innovation and growth across the digital economy.

Through the Global SME Award, the ITU Telecom World Awards programme offers recognition specifically to SMEs working on innovative ICT-based solutions to social issues. The awards programme offers an opportunity for SMEs exhibiting in the showroom within national pavilions, thematic pavilions or with independent stands, or that are sponsoring networking or panel sessions, to really enjoy the international spotlight.

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Past winners from the inaugural ITU Telecom World Awards in 2015 benefited tremendously from the credibility of a UN award, their status as an ICT4D provider, the business contacts, knowledge-sharing with peers and global visibility that winning an award provides. I look forward to many more interesting and impressive success stories to emerge from this year’s Awards programme.

How does the digital economy contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Reliable and affordable connectivity is the single best bet for accelerating socio-economic development and meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs). The digital economy is the cross-cutting enabler of development, behind all aspects of the SDGs as the essential infrastructure of global growth. The SDG framework also explicitly refers to ICTs in several places, in particular in terms of building resilient networks to “promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovations.”

So it is imperative that we connect another 3.9 billion people in the world—53% of the planet—to the internet and the digital economy. This process will involve a cocktail of investments by governments and the private sector, including building networks and creating demand, promoting new technologies and forging new partnerships.

It means overcoming the triple barriers of: availability – having networks of whatever technology within reach of end users; affordability – providing products and services within the budgetary reach of the financially disadvantaged; and relevance – making sure that content and services are worthwhile within a local context, available in local languages and likely to be taken up.

Increasing connectivity involves many other issues too, from education and capacity-building to relevant regulation and financial incentives. All of which will also be discussed in various sessions at the ITU Telecom World 2016 Forum. No one can do this alone.

We need to involve governments with national ICT strategies and those without and explore progressive taxation policies and regulatory environments favorable to rolling out access. We need to involve the private sector in terms of operators, vendors, manufacturers, service providers, and application and solutions developers. We need to involve non-governmental organizations, international agencies, financial bodies, consultants, and development experts.

This why the ITU Telecom World platform is so very important. It really is one of the few technology events which brings together so many different players to discuss, negotiate, partner and move forward on the key issues shaping the ICT industry.