12 March, 2023
What is Smart Bangladesh really?
What was a dream on March 7, 1971—Independent Bangladesh—became a reality on December 16, 1971....
Is quantity more important than quality? Or vice versa?
Quality for the few without quantity visibly creates divides. No doubt about that. But what about quantity where quality is lacking?
In primary education, we achieved near universal enrolment. In primary healthcare, we established over 14,000 community clinics. Through social safety nets, we have been supporting over 25 million people every year, with massive additions to this number to care for the “new poor” during the lockdown months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
So, we achieved progress by quantity for 2021. And that was absolutely necessary to ensure overall economic growth measured by GDP per capita that produces our national pride as we celebrate the golden jubilee of the country. Progress for the few was clearly neither Bangabandhu’s philosophy nor Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s strategy.
Now, the target for 2041 must be to achieve quality for all. Nothing less. That is what we call Bangabandhu’s equality, or in digital terms, Sheikh Hasina’s and Sajeeb Wazed Joy’s e-Quality.
Digital, the great equalizer
Digital has been touted as the great equalizer.
In Digital Bangladesh, 2.78 billion government electronic services were delivered primarily to the rural marginalized, saving them 9.26 billion workdays and $11.22bn(Tk 1 lakh crore); 5.18 billion visits were eliminated because poor applicants did not have to pay a visit to government offices.
Without Digital Centres and other forms of digital access, these billions of services would come at a much higher direct cost, time, and perhaps would cost even higher because of the illegal rent-seeking opportunities that got sharply reduced by digital interfaces.
Digital delivery of social safety net payments ensured timely delivery of the much-needed cash to tens of millions. Covid-19 accelerated adoption in a lightning-fast manner.
In a previous piece, I talked about Patuakhali-based HSC graduate Salma who, in 2009, had to physically travel to multiple universities to apply by collecting the application forms, filling them, attaching her picture, and then once again, travelling to each of the universities to submit the completed form with the application fee as a bank draft.
On the other hand, because of digital application, her younger sister Nasima, in 2011, applied to multiple universities by sending one SMS per university without any physical travel, without a single form, and without a single bank draft.
The ability to digitally apply to public universities increased the number of young women applying to public universities and opened up their choices tremendously.
I talked about Asma, a 15-year-old girl of Syednagar village of Chandpur who called 333 as soon as she sensed that she was being married off by her poor parents, with the result that UNO Mamota Afrin showed up at Asma’s house and stopped the child marriage. Over 5,500 such child marriages were stopped by calls to 333.
I talked about Rima, who is one of thousands of Union Digital Centre female entrepreneurs, and Jesmin who is one of tens of thousands of digital freelancers, who became the symbol of women’s self-dependence through digital leadership at the grassroots level across the country.
Then there is the issue of Digital Talking Books which get distributed to 10,000 or so students with visual disability as part of the paper textbook distribution every year, ensuring that the students with disability receive equal opportunities as the able-bodied students.
These examples, along with many others, illustrate where digital has indeed equalized the playing field.
Digital, also the great divider
As everything shifts from physical to digital, it means that people who are not able to meaningfully get on the digital bandwagon will get the short end of the stick. This digital divide will exacerbate economic divides, social divides, education divides, gender divides, and all other forms of divides that exist today.
Society will have to make deliberate design choices to continuously reduce the digital divide. It has to be an everyday affair, institutionalized through targets embedded in the Annual Performance Agreements of every government agency, driven by the Cabinet Division.
Just as we saw the brilliant examples of digital lifting up human conditions through knowledge and education, trade and commerce, and various services, we have also witnessed the negative side of digital, ranging from the rise of extremism and violence to the erosion of the social fabric. The government will have to take policy measures to curb such destructive aspects of technology.
The demographic window of opportunity — maximum population in working age — for Bangladesh will start to close around 2041. Demographic dividend is not automatic. This means that the government and the private sector must work together aggressively to expand employment and self-employment options to ensure the demographic dividend is realized and maximized.
At the same time, because automation will kill many traditional jobs including in the manufacturing (upto 80%) and agricultural sectors, the skills needed in the marketplace will have to be continuously re-evaluated, and education and skills providers must be re-equipped to deliver on that need.
On one hand, automation will provide relief from repetitive tasks, but on the other, it will massively destroy jobs. The country may enter a sudden shock, with millions unemployed, because of labour substitution by machines.
One thing is certain: Soft skills such as creativity, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and management will be in higher demand than hard skills that are easier to automate by machines. The private sector will make decisions based on productivity increase and profit maximization. It is the government that will have to balance employment generation and automation that impacts job growth negatively.
On-demand economy will be mainstream in 2041. Since technology will allow huge efficiency gains in production and transportation, inventory will be minimized in the supply chain and orders will be fulfilled on demand.
Full-time employment will go down as the “gig economy” will rise through crowdsourcing. Sharing economy will reduce asset ownership tendencies. The on-demand economy thus will create significant disruptions to the way the economy functions today. The government will have to make careful decisions about how to manage and facilitate employment, supply chain, and asset ownership issues in the on-demand economy.
The need for judicious balance
Since all social and personal information will live on digital platforms, governments, in collaboration with the private sector and NGOs, will need to establish and maintain the necessary checks and balances to ensure privacy, security and reliability.
Governments must strike a balance between the two models — “allow everything unless explicitly forbidden” and “forbid everything unless explicitly allowed.” They must allow innovation to flourish but minimize risks to the state. They must engage in unprecedented collaboration with non-state actors, with citizens, and with cross-border players to govern effectively. The act of governance will continue to increase in complexity, and the technological, emotional, and political intelligence required to govern will go up commensurately.
Facebook already tells us whom to “friend.” Netflix tells us which movies to watch. And, these are only the tips of the icebergs of where machines are guiding us in 2021. The government will have to ensure that technology facilitates and not drives.
Human beings will have to be judicious enough to lead and drive the leapfrogging phenomenon of the economy and society, and to use technology in that endeavour. Technology already has the power to be very consuming of our time and attention. As technology advances rapidly towards ubiquity and super-intelligence, humans must ensure that the society remains caring, that there is time and space to reflect, introspect, and interact as human beings.
In addition, 2041 will present unprecedented ethical and spiritual dilemmas for societies and governments with human identity going fully digital, life extending through advanced healthcare, gene editing to create innovative capabilities in animals and humans, animal and human cloning, and memory manipulation techniques. Governments may have to arbitrate and regulate for the benefit of larger segments of society.
In the January 2018 Davos World Economic Forum, Google CEO Sundar Pichai remarked that Artificial Intelligence is more profound than fire and electricity. This basically means it will shape the future of human beings more dramatically. This also means that these forces need to be well regulated because, as we all know, “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but at the same time, we have to be careful about not stifling innovation.
Thus, a judicious balance between control and enablement needs to be struck and maintained through continuous fine-tuning.
The need for sustained ambition, determined coordination, and unforgiving citizen-focus
2041 will come soon enough, and certainly in the lifetime of most people who are alive today. If we do not shape 2041, it will shape us.
Children who are entering the education system today will be entering the workforce in 2041. University graduates who are entering the workforce today will be leading companies in 2041. University graduates who are entering the civil service today will be policy-makers in 2041. Thus, 2041 is a very important year indeed for which we need to plan, starting now.
What is possible or not possible in 2041 is a result of human ambition, preparation, perseverance, and coordination. It is equally true in the life of an individual as in the life of a nation.
An impossibility that was made possible in eight years was set in motion when John F Kennedy made his historic speech in the US Congress in May 1961, urging the American nation to band together to set foot on the moon. Another impossibility was achieved in the form of independent Bangladesh in nine months when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman instructed seven crore of his countrymen in March 1971 to “build a fortress in each and every home and face the enemy with whatever you have.”
Yesterday’s impossibility that became today’s reality was triggered by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s call to collective action to the nation in December 2008 to build a middle-income country and a knowledge economy called Digital Bangladesh by 2021.
In all these three instances of turning an impossibility into a reality was the realization that the nation possessed the resources and talents necessary to make that leap. After that realization, it was a matter of aligning the right leadership in many levels within the government, private sector, civil society, academia, media, and citizenry — to paint a long-term vision, set short and medium-term targets, and manage resources and time to achieve the targets.
In the case of building Digital Bangladesh 2021, the coordination from the political nerve centre — the Prime Minister’s Office; the bureaucratic nerve centre — the Cabinet Division; and the technological nerve centre — the ICT Division, was vital. It allowed a whole-of-government coordination and whole-of-society consensus building. It empowered all citizens to act with national pride. It enabled setting very ambitious targets and toppling roadblocks for fast execution.
It facilitated innovative public-private partnerships because PMO developed credibility for business-friendly and performance-driven implementation, Cabinet Division provided room for experimentation and innovation within civil service, and ICT Division crafted agile, interoperable, lego-like digital building blocks, empowering various public and private innovators to construct new innovations rapidly by combining existing building blocks.
In the case of building Innovative Bangladesh 2041, the same ambition and coordination are a must.
However, to achieve e-Quality, what is also a must is an unforgiving and relentless focus on the needs of the citizens and residents on the fringes.
The quality applied to the quantity. The same quality of life of the planners and the designers — applied to all.
Anir Chowdhury is a US techpreneur turned Bangladeshi govpreneur serving as the Policy Advisor of a2i in ICT Division and Cabinet Division supported by UNDP.
12 March, 2023
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