The world has now lived through half a year in which our normal economic and social existence has been upended by the strange new rules of a global pandemic. It is too soon to say that the crisis is over. While work on vaccines and therapies is advancing, the toll of sickness remains great. Employment and business activities are beginning to recover in many places, but are still far below normal levels almost everywhere. Yet, even as we all continue to battle the virus, governments and the private sector also need to look forward and think about how to build toward a recovery. The road to that recovery will not be easy or short, but it offers opportunities for improvement over how things were before the pandemic that we must seize.
Knowing that this is a pivotal moment, we have been asking ourselves how we can help to rebuild a better world after the pandemic. We have a lot of ideas that we’ve been discussing with customers, non-profits, and governments in many countries. But we also wanted to take a step back and hear perspectives from respected independent voices. Accordingly, we organized conversations with a range of public and private sector experts about what is needed to ensure a successful recovery. We also asked some of our own specialists to weigh in. You can see the full dialogues online in a five-part video series hosted by the Economist Intelligence Unit accompanied by an illustrated InfoBrief produced by analyst firm IDC. What follows is a summary of key ideas we heard during these dialogues.
The first indispensable requirement for lasting recovery, reiterated by nearly all we spoke to, is to make sure absolutely everyone has an affordable high-speed internet connection. In IDC’s phrase, “Broadband is a gateway to reopening.” Stanford economist Nick Bloom goes a step further, emphasizing the consequences for young learners if we fail to give them adequate broadband:
“The most immediate and low hanging fruit for governments now would be a massive expenditure on internet connectivity to make sure the entire population gains. We’re going to disadvantage not only the current generation but future generations if they can’t learn properly. Missing out on education now because you don’t have broadband is a lifelong cost.”
Doreen Bogdan-Martin of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) urges that “we need to build on the political will and understanding that COVID-19 has brought about and make sure that we use it to connect the unconnected.” Microsoft’s Leen Kashyap, an engineer who now works on 5G policy issues, adds that “now is the moment to cross the digital divide.” In short, there may never be a better opportunity for nations to fill the broadband gap than now.
What we heard about broadband strongly reinforced our own thinking on this subject. In recent years, through efforts such as our Airband Initiative, we have worked with partners to expand connectivity for underserved populations in both developed and developing nations.
But putting an affordable broadband connection within reach of every household – which remains a huge challenge for both developed and developing nations alike – is not enough. We also need to ensure that everyone has the resources and the opportunity to actually use this connection. Bryan Kariuki of the innovative Kenyan ISP Mawingu Networks reminds us that equality of access is only the first step: It must be accompanied by equality of participation. For example, Kariuki observes that, in many rural villages reached by Mawingu’s service, women still lag men in actual internet usage. The broadband gap also disproportionately impacts other marginalized groups, such as people with disabilities and ethnic minorities. These inequities urgently need to be addressed in many places around the world.
Inequities in access to technology are often mirrored in the damage done to labor markets by pandemic-mandated lockdowns. LinkedIn Chief Economist Karin Kimbrough, having analyzed her firm’s unparalleled data on employment trends, observes that:
“People who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 lockdowns were more likely to be younger or female. Because they were perhaps traditionally less skilled, this means that COVID-19 has amplified inequities that already existed. We now have to make a special effort to bring people along so that we don’t just relegate entire groups to disadvantage.”
LinkedIn’s labor market experts tell us they see recognition by governments around the world that big changes are coming to those markets in the post-pandemic era. Bringing large numbers of people into the jobs of tomorrow will require rapid and large-scale efforts to skill and reskill people already in the job market and those who are just entering it. In June, Microsoft announced a new global skills initiative with the goal of helping 25 million people get the skills they need for the jobs that are in demand in the changing economy. As with broadband, there is widespread agreement among experts that we now face a rare opportunity that must not be missed. Sue Duke, who leads LinkedIn’s Economic Graph team, argues that:
“The urgency around skills development and building equity and resiliency into our labor markets has been with us for a long time. But the pandemic has given us the impetus to go out and do what needs to be done. We should seize this opportunity.”
In short, the challenges presented to economic and social policymakers by COVID-19 are large, but so are the opportunities. The scale of these issues inevitably raises the question: Will governments be able to respond? The fact that governments have been able to continue functioning and providing vital public services throughout the pandemic provides some grounds for optimism. Barbara Ubaldi of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) provides the following analysis:
“With COVID-19, governments around the world suddenly found themselves thrown into a laboratory where they had no option but to experiment. What we’ve learned from this experiment is that governments had great success in moving their workforces into the digital environment in a very short time, and without disrupting vital public services. This is something that no one could have anticipated before the crisis. At the end of the day, connectivity worked, and governments found they had the tools and the skills they needed to carry on their work effectively online.”
Microsoft’s Julia Glidden, who leads our global Public Sector teams and is in touch with governments around the world, cites examples of entire government administrations that were able to shift successfully to online modes of working in mere days. Julia adds:
“When the world needed technology the most, the technology was there. When we needed innovation and openness to change the most, we humans rose to the occasion.”
At the same time, half the world’s population is still not online. Even in the United States, BroadbandNow estimates that at least 42 million people have no access at all to broadband in their homes, and many more whose homes are theoretically within reach of a broadband service cannot afford to pay for it in practice. Lack of ubiquitous broadband means that online government services are simply not accessible to large portions of the world’s population. The current pandemic reinforces the need for all interested parties to work together to close the global broadband gap.
I’ve emphasized above the vital role that universal high-speed internet and the wide acquisition of new tech skills will play in the recovery. No one doubts that the economy of the post-pandemic era will be fundamentally digital in nature. Such an economy will require a new generation of critical supporting infrastructures, chief among which are 5G networks and the cloud. These infrastructures depend for their effectiveness on shared technical standards, strong privacy protections and resilient cybersecurity. We are working closely with policymakers and regulators around the world to ensure that these objectives are achieved.
We repeatedly hear from policymakers and experts that the post-pandemic recovery is an opportunity to create jobs, restore economies and accelerate work to mitigate climate change. Doing so calls for collaboration between governments, businesses and non-profit organizations. As Microsoft President Brad Smith says, saving the planet can’t wait. Technology can help improve the economy and the environment. That’s why we recently joined with seven industry leaders from Europe, North America and Asia as well as an NGO to found the Transform to Net Zero coalition. Guided by science and transparency, the coalition is focused on moving beyond making commitments to accelerating business transformation with data, playbooks and tools.
In conclusion, much work on many fronts needs to be done to undo the effects of the pandemic on our societies. It is clear to all that the world is only at the start of what will certainly be a long path to recovery. But, like many of my colleagues at Microsoft, I am reassured by what we have learned in these past few months. We are fortunate that the world’s governments do indeed have many powerful tools – both digital tools and policy tools – at their disposal that can speed and broaden the recovery.
In the organization I lead at Microsoft, I have the privilege of working together with our legal and government affairs professionals in 54 countries around the world. It is our job to listen to what our partners and customers have to say. We at Microsoft will actively engage with governments, businesses and non-profits to collectively create a shared road to a better world in the post-pandemic era.
Tags: Airband initiative, broadband access, carbon neutral, Cloud Computing, connectivity, COVID-19, digital access, digital divide, digital skills, rural broadband, Skills