Photo: UNDP Rwanda/Cyril Ndegeya
It’s hard to remember the world before the digital revolution. Many of us rely on digital technology to carry out the basics of modern life, from work, study, chores, socialising, or family life. These include digital tools like smartphones, digital analytics like product recommendations, or other digital processes like online banking.
But what does digital mean in the context of development? At the United Nations Development Programme, we’ve leveraged each new wave of digital technology – from mobile connectivity and social analytics, to artificial intelligence and machine learning, to robotics and virtual reality – to deliver more impact more efficiently to more people. We’ve also seen firsthand how digital technology can deliver solutions to old and new problems to improve people’s lives in transformative ways.
In the COVID-19 era, digital tools have become even more critical to contemporary life, bringing services that were traditionally offline, like education, into the digital sphere. But this also means that those with limited access to digital tools and technologies have fallen, and continue to be falling, even further behind. The pandemic has amplified the need to make digital services more universally accessible – while carefully considering and mitigating the effects digital approaches have on human rights and the planet.
Examples of ‘digital’ are everywhere we look: our smartphones and the apps on them, social media sites, audio players and music files, cash machines … the list goes on. But instead of thinking of these as things, we see them as solutions. At its simplest, digital is a way of work that enables people and institutions to use ever-evolving technology to improve the world in ways that weren't previously possible.
But solutions don’t just come into the world unbidden. Another key aspect of digital is how people approach problems. Rather than being satisfied with old, familiar ways of doing things, people with a digital mindset will creatively apply new technologies and approaches to thorny, intractable problems. Critically, people with a digital mindset don’t view failure as the end of the road. Digital-first problem solvers learn from mistakes, and apply learnings to new experiments for better solutions.
Assessing where we are
At UNDP, we have made significant strides toward digital transformation, both in our work with partners and internally. Last year alone, we adopted over 580 digital solutions in 82 countries in response to COVID-19.
This digital-first, entrepreneurial mindset is already having a positive impact in our work with government partners across the world. For example, Moldova’s shift to online education platforms and technology training has helped both secondary students and teachers improve their digital skills. In Palestine, UNDP has worked with various ministries to digitise birth and death records, which has greatly simplified the process for both families and hospitals. In Dominica, the government has launched a Work Online Programme, where professionals are trained in the skills they need to work remotely.
In Rwanda, five robots donated by UNDP assisted staff at two COVID-19 treatment centres in Kigali as well as the international airport, by scanning people to identify infections. UNDP also participated in robot deployment programmes in Nepal and Viet Nam, where robots performed non-clinical tasks in hospital isolation wards. These are just a few examples that showcase the endless possibilities of digital approaches for transformative development.
To respond to a growing demand from our partners for digital transformation, we also developed a Digital Readiness Assessment to identify digital strengths and weaknesses. The Assessment, in the form of an interactive dashboard, helps monitor progress, impact and growth. It fills a gap between current perspectives and future goals, creating a baseline from which we can forge a path to real results.
Digital is a journey
Digital-first approaches stand a higher chance of delivering the kind of transformative impact needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. But digital isn’t a destination; it’s a journey. Internal knowledge-sharing workshops like the Digital Hour webinar series offer opportunities for colleagues to share stories of digital projects and develop new skills. Programmes like the Digital X Scale Accelerator take things one step further, challenging us to adopt a digital-first approach to scaling projects for maximum impact. And toolkits, like the open-source digital toolkit launched by UNDP’s Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development help accelerate our response to COVID-19.
Looking ahead, we will build on lessons learned to continue to accelerate development outcomes. At the same time, we will remain vigilant and ensure that technology’s potential risks to privacy, human rights, and safety don’t derail our efforts. We will take advantage of digital to strengthen our response to crises, and quickly evolve further to meet the demands of the future. UNDP is planning for an inclusive, whole-of-society digital future. We hope you’ll join us in building it.