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Mobile World Congress 2021: Connectivity as a lifeline

30 Jun 2021Empowering People
9 minute read

A speech by Joakim Reiter, Vodafone Group Chief External and Corporate Affairs Officer, to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Post Covid Policies Shaping Industry 4.0, 28th June 2021

As we look today at how to shape the future of industry 4.0, in a post-Covid world, I want to start by pulling out some lessons from the unprecedented period of a global health crisis of this last year. ​​

To start with the most obvious point: As this horrific pandemic unfolded, connectivity became a lifeline for citizens, businesses and government. The crisis showed just how essential telecoms and digital services are to citizens, societies and economies.

To be clear, at the start of this pandemic, this was not a given. All of us – governments, business and civil society – had to rise to the challenge, lean in and help manage the crisis.

Here in Spain, just as across all of our markets, Vodafone worked with the authorities:

  • to maintain resilient network quality, investing heavily in expanding capacity to meet the spike - of more than 80% - in data traffic,
  • to offer free access to education and healthcare information and
  • to provide data analytics to help track and contain the spread of the virus.

From March to December last year, through Vodafone’s social contract five-point plan, we gave more than €150m in donations and services in kind, supporting some 100m people across Africa and Europe.

All of us have good reasons to be proud over these – and similar – achievements.

But we also need to discuss where we collectively struggled, or even fell short. ​ ​We need a frank discussion about both our positive and less positive learnings from this traumatizing period, which is still very much ongoing. And to let these learnings guide us for what we need to do in the future. ​

I would like to call out three key lessons that, to my mind, are particularly relevant in this regard.

Pushing the art of the possible thanks to digital

All of us adapted in ways that – before the crisis – seemed impossible.

  • Entire businesses moved to kitchen tables, bedrooms and home offices around the world. In Vodafone’s case, more than 95% of our staff globally were sent home, even network and customer operations.
  • Similarly, many government authorities, such as within health and education, had to digitize overnight to ensure that citizens could still access essential public services.

Collectively, we pushed the art of the possible. We didn’t constrain ourselves with what held true in the past. Instead, we used the urgency and necessity of the crisis, combined with our creativity, to reimagine new solutions for the problems we were faced with.

Much of this was made possible by digital tools. Digital was the essential lever for our adaptability.

Thereby, COVID turned digitalization from a nice to have to a must have.

Digital divides affecting life-outcomes

But, which is our 2nd lesson, we also learnt that not everyone are able to adapt at the same pace, or even adapt at all.

Well-known and longstanding digital gaps came back to haunt us in this crisis.

And none of us could have predicted just how life-defining these digital gaps would become for both citizens and businesses:

  • Access to online learning became decisive for whether children could get education;
  • access to telemedicine is now a key factor in health outcomes for patients;
  • more digitized SMEs identified new opportunities at twice the rate of their less digitized counterparts.
  • In Africa, vaccines are currently lying unused because of unequal access to digital solutions to ease distribution.

Just as connectivity and digital proved to be a lifeline, it is also now a great divider in our societies.

People lacking digital skills, unconnected rural communities and SMEs: all of them were disproportionately affected by this crisis.

We must work together

Which leads me to my third lesson.

None of us were fully prepared for the pandemic. Nor could any of us – in isolation - manage the situation. ​

We had to park our old ways of working both within industry and between industry and government. ​We all came together to find and co-create solutions:

  • providing connectivity for COVID wards in hospitals, or
  • creating new solutions with governments to help businesses get back to work, or
  • More recently, supporting the vaccine supply and distribution programmes globally.

And, when we didn’t collaborate, we struggled.

  • One example was cross-border data sharing , where some countries’ regulatory barriers limited mobility insights used to predict the spread of the virus and, crucially, save lives. ​

In short, cooperation between us bred success in the crisis, while division facilitated failure.

The new great disruption on the horizon

These three lessons come at a unique moment in time.

Pre-pandemic we already knew that industry 4.0 would be transformational. Now it is combining with much accelerated digitalization post-COVID.

We are at the cusp of the next GREAT disruption:

  • One where every industrial sector will be transformed through the merger of ICT with the real economy.
  • One in which how we produce, how we work and how we live will be redefined.
  • One where digital infrastructure and related services – through 5G, cloudification, edge computing, IoT and AI - will become the cardiovascular system of our economies.

Put in another way: connectivity and digital is likely to become the essential enablers – if not determinants – of future competitiveness and job creation within all sectors, just as our ability to decarbonise and to improve public services.

This new era will be as disruptive as the past 18 months.

As such, it will require a clear reset to ensure we can navigate the choppy waters ahead, capturing the significant opportunities that digitization of industry will bring, yet tackling its important challenges.

Setting ourselves up for success in digital disruption

Most fundamentally to manage this disruption, we need to embrace the bold mindset from COVID crisis: to jettison incrementalism, set ambitious visions and act decisively.

With the mindset that anything is possible, it is encouraging that we now have a clear long-term Digital Decade Compass from the European Commission, grounded in the digital and green transitions.

We now need similar clear visions and concrete measurable targets for all countries, not least in Africa.

But: bold ambitions need to go hand in hand with equally bold actions.

We are encouraged by the massive amounts of public funds being made available in Europe to drive the recovery and the strong focus on digital.

Yet, far from all countries – especially developing countries – have the fiscal flexibility to devote significant public resources to digital transition. IFIs and IOs will need to step in more to cover these gaps.

Equally important, even with unprecedented public funding, this will not be enough. In Europe, despite 750 bn euros in recovery funds, over half of the digital infrastructure gap remains unfunded. Same is true for SME digitisation and ICT skills.

In fact, the real benefit from public money will come when it is deployed in tandem with – and as a means to unlock – private innovations and investment.

But that means that our new ambitious mindset and collaborative approach urgently needs to be extended into the policy sphere.

  • Trust in the Digital Age,
  • the digital empowerment of all citizens and SMEs,
  • connecting the unconnected,
  • raising the bar on security and privacy,
  • promoting mobile private networks, IoT and edge computing applications for everything from agriculture to smart cities, logistics and manufacturing, and much more,
  • None of this can be achieved by governments or by regulation alone. Collaboration, and partnerships between industry and governments will be key.

But then we cannot continue with the very same telecoms policies from this last decade: these have not only led to a fragmented and sub-scale industry, but also to the significant digital divides and the slowing down 5G deployment, tech innovation and IoT adoption.

In Spain, we are seeing the beginning of such a more fundamental policy reset, as part of an ambitious vision to Digitise the country. We congratulate the government for it.

We invite all governments to have the courage to reset the policy environment for sustainable competition and investment in connectivity:

  • To prioritise development outcomes, jobs and competitiveness – rather than repairing government balance sheets; as well as
  • To maximise on long term welfare gains of high-quality and secure digital infrastructure for all - rather than extracting short term consumer benefits.
  • To allow all actors a fair chance to innovate and thrive, on equal terms, within the digital ecosystem – rather than continuing with the selective and siloed micromanagement of telecoms.

Inclusive industry 4.0

The economic opportunities from the next digital disruption, now vastly accelerated by COVID, are immense.

But this digital dividend is not guaranteed. Nor will its benefits be equitably distributed. So embracing industry 4.0 is not enough:

  • We need to prioritise overcoming the harsh dividing lines, exposed by Covid, by closing the digital infrastructure gap, enhancing digital skills and accelerating the digitalisation of SMEs.
  • We need a more fundamental reset, including of policy and regulation, is required to effectively manage the next Digital Disruption.
  • And, just as we need industry 4.0 to build in inclusion from the outset, we must embrace collaboration and have the courage to push the art of the possible.

More than anything, COVID-19 should have taught us all about the immense value, and absolute necessity, of democratising technology.

  • As UN Secretary General Gutierrez put it – “Digital is now a matter of life and death”.
  • Whilst UN SG was referring to people, his lesson applies equally to countries, communities and businesses.

Only inclusive industry 4.0 will truly promote fairness and equity, while allowing all of our citizens and businesses to benefit from the future boost in competitiveness, job creation and growth.

And only if we achieve inclusive digital societies in the future will we have done justice to our hard-earned lessons from these last 18 months.

This speech was delivered by Joakim Reiter, Vodafone Group Chief External and Corporate Affairs Officer, to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Post Covid Policies Shaping Industry 4.0, 28<sup>th</sup> June 2021.

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