Reflections on Mobile World Congress 2019: Working Towards an Inclusive Future

A few weeks ago, members of the mobile industry including mobile and fixed network operators, handset manufacturers, software and technology firms, network equipment providers and others gathered in Barcelona, Spain to attend the GSMA’s annual Mobile World Congress (MWC) to show their new tech and look to the future.

What’s new? 

Aside from some cool side-shows of piano and drum-playing robots, the new Tesla and queues around the block to try Microsoft’s latest HoloLens, the bulk of the exhibition and conference focused on ‘intelligent connectivity’ in one form or another – the combination of 5G, WiFi 6, AI and big data presented as the latest revolution that will transform the world and embed mobile tech in every aspect of our lives. (this study by McKinsey offers a more nuanced view of the ‘5G hype’).

A whistle-stop tour of the exhibition halls gave a glimpse of the following:

  • End-to-end intelligent connectivity over fibre, 5G LTE and WiFi6;
  • AI and Internet of Things (IoT) being applied to robotics, gaming, smart cities, facial recognition;
  • Connected homes, cars and spaces (and even IoT-connected beer!);
  • A plethora of new laptops, handsets, tablets, curved screens, bendy phones (many 5G compatible);
  • A range of new use-cases for 5G-enabled VR, AR and XR (beyond gaming to industrial design, architecture, medicine and more) and;
  • A smattering of wearable tech, blockchain-based solutions and the occasional karaoke stand!

More detail on the technology showcased at MWC19 can be found on Tech Radar.

What does this mean for the development sector?

A lesser known side-event during MWC  is the ‘Ministerial Programme’ which brings mobile industry actors together with governments, donors and development practitioners to identify how to collaborate on using mobile technology to improve the lives of the underserved, or to lobby for investment and de-regulation to open up new markets.

This programme took place over three days which focused on the “Rise of the Digital Citizen”, “Modernising Policies for the Digital Citizen”, and “Innovating for the Digital Citizen.” The many sessions covered the impact of digital transformation on economies, business models and societies, the democratising potential of technology as well as its darker side of potentially increasing inequalities and causing mass unemployment.

As part of a keynote on An Intelligent Future for All, DIAL’s CEO Kate Wilson moderated a panel that included a conversation between:

This discussion centered around shared responsibility of-governments, donors and implementers– to steer rapidly scaling technology so that it can be directed for good. This requires all parties to come together with a shared voice and collaborate – ensuring that the most disadvantaged are taken into account through these ‘four Ts’:

  • Translation: Tech and international development often don’t speak the same language – how do we build a shared language that is understood by all?
  • Trust: It’s critical to build trust across all ecosystem actors based on shared values and the desire to reach everyone. Ultimately, we are all citizens and want to do good – we have to believe this and not doubt all the motivations.
  • Training: Less than 1% of the worlds populations is trained in digital technologies including big data. We cannot reach our shared goals by working alone or cutting out key private sector actors.
  • Time: Digital and data revolution is still very nascent; we will need time to develop the capacity, trust and shared language together.

A few highlights from the discussion demonstrated the breadth of the potential impact on our sector:

  • “In 10 years, every company will be a technology company”

The same is true for every NGO and every development organization, something underpinning the digital transformation underway across the sector.

  • “A business model shift is way tougher than a technology shift”

This is a challenging shift. DIAL is currently testing new business models, built on technology platforms, to connect and defragment the digital development ecosystem and improve its efficiency and effectiveness in rolling out software, using mobile channels and taking advantage of existing data sources.

  • “The core of any business transformation is coming closer to an unmet customer need”

This is especially true for the development sector which in recent decades has started to focus on ‘customer’ or ‘beneficiary’ needs more coherently but is dangerously behind in doing this in a world that transforms at the speed of digital.

  • “What’s coming? Ubiquitous computing, with the ability to reason over large amounts of data, and experience this through the user-experience of a mixed reality (e.g. HoloLens) . . . and ubiquitous connectivity with autonomous systems”

In the future, how do we do development in a world where most of the world is connected 24/7 and in every aspect of their lives, and some of the world remains entirely outside of this connected grid. This is perhaps the biggest challenge facing the digital development sector today.  As the panel emphasize – clearly “collaborative leadership, clarity and energy without hubris, and working in harmony across boundaries and in a multi-constituent world” will be key – for industry leaders as well as those in government and development.

  • “Policy innovation happens because of technology innovation”

Debatable of course, but an interesting perspective – how much further behind would donors, development implementers and governments be if they weren’t racing to catch up to (and regulate) the rapid pace of private-sector innovation?

Kate also introduced Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary General of the UN, who emphasised four challenges that those working at this critical interface of industry with government/development face:

  1. The future is collaborative and adaptive: The time for heavy slow top-down approaches are over, we have an opportunity for decent multi stakeholder partnerships to steer technology for good, bringing together government, private sector and civil society.
  2. Technology must be made inclusive: The spread of new technology must be inclusive both within countries and between countries – that includes protecting people’s online and offline rights.
  3. All people need the skills to incorporate technology meaningfully into their lives: We need to repurpose education systems to be about lifelong learning, resilience and adapting to change – they need to incorporate software, coding, the ethics of science, and application of human rights and sustainable development to technologies.
  4. How do we get there? Communicating with each other: Reflecting on us as individual and as societies – we need to be more cohesive across societies, sectors, academic disciplines and across business issues, social issues and ethics.  Events like MWC foster the type of communication and collaboration necessary to impact change.

One thing is certain: as technology continues to grow and evolve rapidly, we must collaborate across sector and geographic boundaries to identify the most efficient and effective digital solutions for the betterment of society as a whole. DIAL is actively working to rise to this challenge – our core vision is to ensure that the underserved benefit from technology. We are working to realize this vision with a cross-sector approach, convening partners, exploring new models and improving the way we use technology to better connect the digital development ecosystem.