Digital innovations and technologies are sweeping the world, transforming today’s societies in novel ways and offering opportunities to upgrade public services, enterprises and citizens’ lives. Digital societies are, in essence, designed to integrate digital solutions into everyday life, thereby improving people’s quality of life and freeing up time so they can pursue important activities.
Their potential to bring forth better outcomes for societies has been lauded as a critical factor in responding to today’s many complex challenges. These include improving evidence-based decision-making via data analytics, conducting meteorological predictions, providing instant video or chat communications solutions, enhancing record-keeping via digital databanks, boosting productivity via automation, providing equitable access to educational resources online, and improving the health industry via biotechnology and health data management. Indeed, the uses of technological solutions are limited only by our imaginations.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments demonstrated their resilience and ingenuity in managing the crisis by being responsive digital governments. Countries that were slow to adopt digital innovations were faced with trying challenges that imploded in multiple ways. To illustrate, many government agencies with antiquated systems and a reliance on old-fashioned paperwork were forced to delay or disrupt many public services during the pandemic. This included delaying or mishandling applications for financial assistance or support, putting people in precarious circumstances during forced closures and lockdowns. Additionally, many schools faced weeks of delays in migrating to online classes due to the lack of digital infrastructure and low digital literacy skills among students, parents and staff. The lack of digital databanks hindered many critical mitigation strategies, as medical data on COVID-19 patients were not centralized or available digitally to ensure a full picture of the situation at hand.
The consequences of the pandemic have been devastating, sparking discussions on how to build resilient economies and societies that can withstand future crises that trigger political, social and economic upheavals. In this context, sharing ideas and best practices is essential and many policymakers have certainly benefited from other countries’ progressive experiences in leveraging digital technologies.
Many change-makers, including Estonia and South Korea, are at the forefront of this technological revolution, having enthusiastically embraced digital life. The Korean government is lauded as a leading digital government, striving to anticipate citizens’ needs and design innovative digital solutions to improve their quality of life. For example, it created digital wallets for citizens and residents to store official certificates to use as verification whenever needed. Another example is the rampant use of digital identification to avail public services instead of typical plastic cards. Government websites are also powered by artificial intelligence-based chat-bots for citizens to make enquiries and receive information on any government service.
Estonia is another leading example of an advanced digital society and it has won accolades for pioneering many successful initiatives. Indeed, its astute and pre-emptive investment in digital innovation and infrastructure has proven useful during the pandemic. To illustrate, school and university students migrated to digital classrooms overnight when closures and lockdowns were imposed at the onset of the pandemic.
Even before COVID-19 struck the globe, 99 percent of public services in Estonia were already being offered electronically, such as applying for social benefits, registering businesses or properties, registering the birth of a child, electronic voting, online learning in schools, digital identification, declaring and paying taxes online, and prescribing and dispensing medications through an e-prescription system.
Estonia also became the first country in the world to offer a special e-residency service, which enables entrepreneurs to start an EU-based company, thereby taking advantage of special benefits while situated and working entirely online. This service has attracted a number of successful unicorn companies, such as Skype, Taxify and TransferWise, which are all valued at more than $1 billion. In 2015, Estonia established the world’s first data embassy to ensure the protection and continuity of its digital services in the case of potential cyberattacks. These critical databases are based in a high-security data center in Luxembourg.
It is becoming evident that the key to nations’ future success will depend on their adoption of digital innovations and technologies. For example, the Japanese government recently established a Digital Agency to spearhead technological transformations in 31 priority areas, including education, healthcare, agriculture, infrastructure, disaster risk management, and mobility. There are many initiatives in the pipeline, such as building a one-stop digital service portal for individuals to complete their passport applications, residency permits or immigration procedures entirely online. The agency also aims to collaborate with individual government offices to design a special telework promotion plan for civil servants. Other services that will be overhauled include creating 12-digit personal numbers for individuals to use as identification to access bank accounts and other public and private services, standardizing different systems used by municipalities within five years, digitalizing COVID-19 vaccine certificates, and designing cutting-edge digital solutions to become smart cities.
Such successes hold lessons for countries everywhere and offer inspiration for reimagining digital societies for a more resilient future.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.
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