The Looming Development GapBy Joaquin Saldaña | Tue, 07/20/2021 - 09:47
Technology development represents several challenges and education is an important one. No doubt, Mexico has advanced in the educational field: Based on data from UNESCO, the literacy index is over 95 percent. But the current technological evolution means the challenge is bigger. Now, countries should also focus on digital skills.
According to 2020 INEGI figures, 70 percent of the population are internet users, which means they have digital skills. But if we take a closer look into the demographics, only 34.7 percent of the population over 55 years old are internet users. People over 55 are still in their productive life and without digital skills their competitiveness could be in jeopardy.
As we go down in population age, things get better but are still a concern. Only 66 percent of people over 45 are internet users, meaning 44 percent of the population at the peak of their productive life lacks digital skills. And at the band of people between 18 and 24 years, we reach 91 percent, so there is light at the end of the tunnel.
As information and communication technology (ICT) evolves, digital skills are becoming mandatory for all population groups. It is more and more common to find services, both in the public and private sectors, which require a certain level of digital skills from the end user. If we do not ensure that everybody obtains a minimum level of digital skills, we will find a huge development gap in society in the short term.
Elementary and midlevel education must incorporate digital skills to provide students with the ability to navigate in the digital world, and to have access to educational resources and become an active part of the digital society. As for the adult population, the challenge is even bigger, as it’s almost impossible to provide them with a formal education. Thus, enterprises and community centers must take on the challenge and reshape the skills of this population group; also, it is necessary to develop educational centers where the adult population can get immersed in digital world.
By acting on and succeeding in the above initiatives, we should have taken only the first step: creating a savvy society of technology users, which is relevant to improve their well-being, but not enough to propel an economical leap as a country. Becoming users is not enough: the digital economy that will reach US$23 trillion by 2025, according to an Oxford Economics ICT maturity index study, assumes that ICT is included in all productive processes of a country. Bringing ICT into productive processes requires a different set of skills; being a standard ICT user will not suffice.
The development of technical knowledge is paramount to achieving an improvement in the digital economy, and this development requires the promotion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at middle education institutions as well as at the graduate and post-graduate levels. We should pay special attention to developing four specific knowledge fields or technologies: telecommunications, cloud computing, big data and artificial intelligence. These specific technologies have proven to have the greater impact on economic development.
It is important to highlight that, worldwide, big data and artificial intelligence skills are scarce resources, so we must develop those locally to lower our dependency on resources from abroad. These technologies must become part of the curriculum for technical degrees; they are a must.
In developing these skills, we will become developers of ICT, not simple users. But, again, to advance in this field, we must make sure that the people who are heads of companies or businesses have enough knowledge on ICT to visualize how to incorporate it into their current productive processes, lowering the risk of losing competitiveness to newcomers who most likely are already digital natives. Business leaders must start thinking about how they can modify their current processes and improve their services before an external newcomer finds the way to do things better than them. This is another type of educational challenge that we are facing: how to get our community of businesspeople to think about ICT as a means to improve their businesses and try to evolve with them.
Let’s view the educational challenge on three different levels: i) users, to imbue the general population with reasonable skills to become users who can navigate in the digital world, ii) as technology developers, to make sure we have the technical skills to incorporate ICT into current productive processes, and iii) among the community of businesspeople, so they can visualize how they can incorporate and transform their current business with ICT.
Also, we need the point of view of the technology, where there are four specific technologies that have proved to have the greater impact on economic development: i) telecommunications, specifically broadband access, ii) cloud services, iii) big data, and iv) artificial intelligence. All of these need to be promoted. Most importantly, we need to find the best way to make them part of every technological initiative: CTOs and CIOs must incorporate them in any new project they may be planning for their companies.