Preparing for long haul by filling in digital gaps

Paco A. Pangalangan, Executive Director, Stratbase ADR Institute

The highly transmittable Delta variant of COVID-19 has sent Metro Manila and other areas in the country back into hard lockdown mode. With cases surging and the country seesawing between strict and slightly less strict community quarantines measures, having the ability to access and the skills to navigate the digital world have become essential to surviving in the COVID-19 era.

However, ensuring that Filipinos have adequate digital skills and access is a massive challenge requiring a whole-of-society approach to fill in existing gaps. The whole-of-society approach calls for collective action to address broad societal problems, such as bridging the digital divide.

During the recent online forum of the 15th Liveable Cities Lab organized by the League of Cities in partnership with Globe Telecom, founder and managing director of the Stratbase Group, Prof. Dindo Manhit, emphasized in his presentation on rational digital transformation strategies and policies, “Government and the Private Sector must work together to identify, analyze, and find the best strategies for the digital transformation of all sectors in a policy environment that will foster a digital economy with thriving industries that are globally competitive and sustainable.”

Manhit also highlighted highlighting the dual need for both digital infrastructure and digital skills; Manhit said, “Technology, infrastructure, and tools can be developed and purchased. However, this must be matched with talent and the next generation of skills that can wield the power of Technology.”

“Central to digital transformation is developing the knowledge and skills of the Philippine workforce to adopt to digital transformation,” he added.

Also speaking at the event, Hermosa, Bataan Mayor Antonio Joseph “Jopet” Inton highlighted the importance of developing digital skills for and after the pandemic.

In his presentation on equitable education through e-learning said, “With fast advancements in education and communications technology, our children need to catch up with science engineering and technology of STEM, and we as leaders need to formulate concrete steps to translate policies into workable solutions.”

Inton said that “Eventually, after the pandemic, education should be a combination of classroom and online learning,” and that he believes that e-learning and digital learning are essential to achieving real change in our educational system and for our youth to be globally competitive.

However, Inton also recognized that the local government is but one cog in the wheel. “We are doing our small steps to fill the big gaps in our education system. But of course, we recognize that we cannot do it alone in the local government unit. We need the support of our policymakers in the Department of Education, and we also need the support of the private sector,” he added.

Indeed, the effort, vision, and political will of local government leaders like Inton, must be complemented by parallel efforts from the other sectors. For instance, Microsoft recently launched a Para Sa Bayan program that seeks to stimulate digital transformation by building coalitions with the private sector, civil society, and government to encourage responsible innovation, close the skills gap, enhance employability, and create sustainable societal impact.

When it comes to the challenge of expanding access to the internet, one way the government is trying to address the issue of accessibility is through its Free WiFi project.

For a few years now, the Department of Information Communications Technology, under the leadership of Secretary Gringo Honasan has been successfully rolling out more of these WiFi hotspots around the country. The latest being in Pangasinan and the Dinagat Islands.

However, the DICT’s Free WiFi project was just one component of its larger National Broadband Plan, which would have allowed it to build much-needed digital infrastructure in currently unserved areas.

Since the project was not funded in the 2021 national budget, the country has had to rely on the local telecommunications industry to do most of the heavy lifting.

Fortunately, local telecommunication firms have continued investing in network improvements and expansion.

For example, speaking at the recent Liveable Cities event, Vince Tempongko, VP for Site Acquisition and Management of Globe Telecom, said that in 2021, they would increase capacity and expand their network with 2,000 new sites investing 70 billion pesos which is equivalent to 40% of the company’s revenue.

“The effects of this pandemic, particularly in the advancement of digital adoption, will definitely stay and affect the way we work, study, and promote awareness campaigns,” Tempongko said.

“Assessing our readiness as a country is vital in identifying gaps in order to move forward,” he added.

Indeed, as emphasized by Manhit during the event, digital readiness is about the people’s readiness; hence a people-centric approach to harnessing the benefits of digital technologies is essential to keeping pace with the evolving digital revolution.

Manhit also stressed that in order “to leverage the opportunities of digital technologies for public health and the economy, there must be openness to continuous innovation of processes and policies to create an environment that has been liberated from defunct models of governance and stagnant regulations.”

“A new culture of leadership, learning, working, and living with technology, inspired by the prospect of limitless possibilities for inclusive growth and sustainable prosperity is an exciting vision that we must all endeavor to achieve,” Manhit said.

With the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight and the government’s disappointing and increasingly politicized approach to the pandemic response, Filipinos must prepare for the long haul.

Therefore, increasing access to the internet and developing digital skills should be a top priority as we learn to live with COVID-19.

Furthermore, we must also recognize that we are at a digital crossroads. We either try to fill in the skills and connectivity gaps, or we can wait, watch the gap widen, and risk being left behind by the digital revolution.

This article was originally published in philstar.com.

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