Can the Philippines keep pace with technology?

Paco A. Pangalangan, Executive Director, Stratbase ADR Institute

I recently had a chance to moderate a great discussion on the Philippines’ digital readiness. The virtual town hall discussion (vTHD), organized by Stratbase ADR Institute, was kicked off by Secretary Gringo Honasan of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT). Members of the panel included representatives of the companies shaping the Philippine digital landscape— Globe Telecom, Smart Communications, Facebook, Microsoft, HP and Grab.

Having such a stellar group of speakers talk about how their companies support digital readiness through their breadth of programs and services made me realize just how much these technology companies have evolved over the years. Nowadays, technology companies no longer provide just a single or a handful of services. Instead, their products and services now cut across sectors, processes and functions.

Take Globe Telecom, for instance. These days, the company doesn’t just provide telecommunications services like mobile data and fixed-line internet services. It offers technology-based solutions in the fintech, healthcare and e-commerce sectors. 

Moreover, as pointed out by Globe’s Head of Corporate Communications, Yoly Crisanto, the company is also involved in distance learning and provides public school educators with computers, connectivity solutions and digital training.

We can see the same thing in the services being offered by Grab. When it started in the Philippines in 2013, Grab was known as a ride-hailing app. Since then, the platform has expanded its offerings to include pandemic essentials, such as food delivery, grocery delivery, and pabili services.

In the same way, Microsoft is as much, today, about Windows OS, Word and PowerPoint, as it is about cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI). Its products like office 365 and MS teams are staples for distance learners, while its AI is used around the globe to generate insights, improve access, and accelerate research to help battle COVID-19. 

Facebook is no exception, either. From a social media network to connect with friends, it has become a platform that plays host to all sorts of communities and has become a venue to share content and ideas. Just to illustrate how central a role Facebook now plays in the lives of Filipinos, a recent report from Hootsuite found that we lead the entire world in terms of time spent on social media. 

It should also come as no surprise that as the number of digital products and services grows, so does the number of people using them.

According to some studies, COVID-19 is one of the reasons digital adoption has accelerated so quickly. One of these studies, from McKinsey & Company, found that the rate of digital adoption in the Asia-Pacific region accelerated by four years when the COVID-19 crisis hit. 

Another study from the Tech For Good Institute (TFGI) said the pandemic added more than 100 million new digital platform users in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Digital technology is also seen to play a vital role in economic recovery. For example, the Asian Development Bank released a report that said when the world’s economies contracted because of the pandemic, accelerated digital transformation could potentially boost global output, trade and commerce, and employment. 

The World Bank, too, said that increasing digital adoption by the government, businesses and citizens is critical since it could help the Philippines adapt to the post-COVID-19 world and achieve its vision of becoming a society free of poverty by 2040.

Given digital technology’s indispensable role in our day-to-day lives and our future, a central theme that emerged during the vTHD was accelerating the country’s readiness to take advantage of technology. 

In his remarks, Stratbase ADR Institute President Dindo Manhit stressed that “A people-centered approach must start with developing the people’s skill sets and values that will enable our workforce to build digital technologies optimally.”

Upskilling micro, small and medium enterprises to take advantage of the e-commerce boom is essential. So is prioritizing STEM education in schools because these are highly sought skills in the job market.

All speakers agreed that digital transformation must be driven by both the public and the private sectors.

The private sector continues to evolve and push the envelope for innovation. However, for digital transformation to work, the government must also appreciate technology. The only way it can do that is by actually using technology.

Unfortunately, there are still roadblocks that stand in the way of digitization in government. For instance, inflexible fiscal, budgeting and procurement rules restrict the kinds of digital services government agencies can access. 

This is because many of today’s technologies, such as Cloud services, are more akin to utilities than capital outlay. Hence, updating fiscal rules to reflect this new reality would allow governments to quickly and flexibly procure and scale digital services based on their needs.

The lack of reasonable and balanced policies is another. As Roy Ibay, the Head of Regulatory for Smart Communications, pointed out, the country needs a regulatory environment that attracts further investment into digital technologies. He also pointed out the need for sound fiscal policy, noting that despite hailing technology as a critical component of our economic recovery, government projects like the DICT’s National Broadband Plan to connect more Filipinos to the internet remain underfunded. 

Secretary Honasan said: “The COVID-19 issue as it relates to digital readiness has been used as an excuse and a reason by many to do or not to do things. It must now be an opportunity for all of us to rewrite our laws if necessary, re-craft, re-engineer our implementing rules and regulations so that they can be more proactively responsive to the developing situation that will lead us into a better new normal.” 

In a sense, the way the products and services of technology companies have broadened mirrors just how deeply our society has integrated technology into its every facet. However, technology will undoubtedly continue to evolve, and questions still remain if the Philippines is digitally ready to keep pace. 

But one thing is resoundingly clear: the Philippines needs innovation-oriented policies and a digitally trained workforce for it to even stand a chance.

This article was originally published in philstar.com.

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