Is the digital divide acceptable? Norway says no way

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Is the digital divide acceptable? Norway says no way

Norway may not be part of the EU, but it is certainly part of Europe, tied together with the continent on values, trade, and cooperation on European & global affairs. It faces many of the same challenges as the EU when it comes to navigating out of the pandemic and ensuring a more sustainable future.

Nikolai Astrup, Norway’s minister for local government and modernization, is responsible for driving Norway’s digital future. As a member of the UN High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, he is also steering his country’s approach to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In the latest #TechFit4Europe podcast, he talks to Casper Klynge about the importance of seeing beyond borders when it comes to shaping a better future with technology.

Here are the key takeaways from their conversation.

1. The pandemic has reinforced the value of the SDGs

The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and highlighted the importance of coming together to make progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.

All countries – be they rich or poor – have been hit by the crisis. What’s happening in developing nations has an impact on the future of developed ones – we can’t separate the two, Astrup says: “The pandemic really underlines that we’re in the same boat.”

“We’re in it together, and the Sustainable Development Goals is the action plan that we have to make sure that we get rid of poverty and systemic inequalities between countries.”

2. It will take all of us to meet the challenges of the SDGs

The SDGs are driving a permanent shift in how businesses and governments operate. Norway is working on a new plan to implement the goals, but one government alone can’t solve the issues behind them. Rather, this will require the cooperation of civil society organizations, businesses, municipalities and more around the world.

The challenge calls for innovation fueled by new partnerships, new technology, and increased digitalization. And pioneering start-ups will need better support to ensure that they can compete with larger businesses and qualify for the public procurement process.

“It’s going to be absolutely crucial that we start challenging our existing business models both in the public and the private sector, and we’re going to start thinking more outside the box,” says Astrup. “To that end, I think that the public purchasing power is going to be very important.”

3. We need to make more progress on digital public goods

Putting more focus on digital public goods and making technology available to more companies and countries will benefit everyone. There is a huge opportunity for nations who might not have the resources to develop new technology but may still benefit from its adoption.

One example of this is Norway’s meteorological data, which is freely available around the world and can predict heavy rainfall or droughts. Farmers in Africa, for instance, can therefore access the same high-quality data and make critical decisions about when to harvest their crops.

The UN also has an important role to play in realizing more digital cooperation.

“Technology is, of course, neither good nor bad. But the use of it can be good or bad, and we need the UN as a force for good in promoting fantastic opportunities that follow digitalization,” Astrup says.

“The UN will make sure that this is something that benefits not only the richest part of the world’s population, but also is a tool to bridge the gap, so to speak, and close the divide.”

4. A single digital market is key to innovation

The pandemic has underlined the importance of digital access for all. But not all countries – even within Europe – have the same ability to build the infrastructure needed.

For example, Norway has had much success in adopting a cloud-first strategy, with a number of data centers around the country, helped by proximity to hydroelectric power. But other countries face physical constraints that would limit a similar approach.

Rather than looking at the problem on a country-by-country basis, a Europe-wide view is required. We want data security, but that doesn’t mean we should shut everyone out – it is possible to have rules and regulations to safeguard privacy while also having data flows across borders.

“Interaction across borders really spurs innovation,” Astrup underlines.

“We need a common approach inside Europe, and there should be one Digital Single Market, just as there is a European Single Market for goods, services and capital. Why not in the digital space as well?”

5. We all have a stake in the security of technology

Increasing the security of the technology we use is a challenge for us all. From safeguarding democratic processes to maintaining a free press, technology contributes to society in an increasing number of ways. And we all have a role to play in safeguarding it.

“Technology will – and does already – contribute in many different ways to our security in Europe,” Astrup explains. “We’ve seen of course also how technology can be used to meddle in democratic elections, and that’s a huge challenge that needs to be dealt with. There’s no easy answer.”

Although Norway is not a member of the EU it is helping shape the conversation around how we maintain technology security in Europe. But others need to be part of that conversation too – notably the U.S. and NATO.

“We need to make sure that we control and make use of technology to further humanity’s ends, but we also must make sure to limit as much as possible the potential dangers for technology,” Astrup continues.

“Things are going to go wrong sometimes with technology, as they do in the physical world. And we need to make sure that we learn from that and that we take our precautions, make sure that we minimize risks.”

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