Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 August 2019

Youth must be centre stage as data economies become the new norm

Every government in the region "can and should" promote the promise of data-driven economies and involving young people must lie at the heart of strategy

Mona Abou Hana of PwC Middle East. Courtesy PwC
Mona Abou Hana of PwC Middle East. Courtesy PwC

The world is swimming in data; in less than three decades, a powerful age of smartphones, Wi-Fi, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and a host of other technological marvels have swept the world.

Yet such global promise is weighted in equal measure by potentially vast inequalities. Without a determined approach by policymakers, the benefits of our new data economies will not be shared equally, with youth being especially sidelined.

Already, there is an imbalance of power tipped towards a few global tech giants. These companies leverage their immense capital resources, skilled workforces and unrivalled access to information to exploit new data opportunities.

As a result, policymakers face a dilemma: how to promote equality of opportunity in a data-driven world dominated by a handful of companies; one in which data flows seamlessly across national borders; new technologies are disrupting established industries; and the ownership of data remains ill-defined. The challenge is to reconcile two opposing forces: ever-increasing data flow; and scarcity of access to its economic potential.

The UAE takes pride in its futuristic, innovative approach to technology – the country has already appointed the world’s first AI Minister, trialled vanguard driverless transport, and constructed the world’s first 3D-printed office. For the Middle East to prosper into the future, the whole region must take note of these ambitious, data-focused initiatives and make them a sign of things to come.

In January this year, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, announced a list of "guiding principles" that the Emirates aims to live by, including the nation’s "everlasting" commitment to economic diversification and the promotion of fresh industries.

Dubai has ingeniously championed and incubated a string of new economic sectors in the past few years, such the global Islamic economy, 3D printing, renewables and smart cities. In this vein, the nurturing of the nation’s fledgling data economy sector could serve to diversify the economy, create jobs and even dominate the country’s road map for decades to come.

According to the just-released PwC report, Building The Data Economies of the Future, produced in conjunction with World Government Summit in Dubai from February 10 - 12, every government in the region "can and should" promote the promise of data-driven economies. To achieve this aim, PwC’s research has found that involving young people must lie at the heart of the response.

Here are the six imperatives that PwC believes are necessary to empower youth to drive the data economies of tomorrow:

Disrupt the education system

Governments have recognised the need to move towards innovative educational models. Yet such reforms generally do not go far enough in disrupting traditional education systems in preparation for a data economy or in providing all young people with the digital skills and opportunities to build and benefit from the data economies of the future.

The purpose of any government educational initiative or public/private partnership should be to put young people in the driver’s seat, as shapers of their own digitised future. To this end, collaboration rather than competition between government, business and academia will bring mutual benefits.

Support and empower young people to engage with governments

Involving youth in government policies and planning for data economies requires innovative, participatory tools to engage young people. Engagement, rather than formal recruitment, should be the watchword.

Rehabilitate governments to become digitally fit

It is undeniable that the demographic profile of senior policymakers and technology workers in the public sector is generally older than their peers in the private sector. Yet this age gap between the private and public tech sectors overlays a more fundamental cultural divide. Too many central and local governments, tech ministries and other public bodies that interact with the tech sector are still culturally and structurally behind the curve.

Governments urgently need to invest more in training employees of all ages in the innovative skills required to understand the implications of emerging technologies. The challenge is to make public officials and the politicians they serve think and act more like innovative tech entrepreneurs.

Set youth and data economy national indicators

For decades, governments have used conventional indicators such as GDP growth rates and employment statistics to measure national economic performance.

Yet such yardsticks are far less useful in tracking data economies, which thrive on turbulence and leave trails of destruction in their wake. Assisted by youth, governments need to develop a new range of indicators and targets that can pinpoint the degree to which young people are – or are not – engaged in efforts to build the data economies of the future.

Capitalise and use data

What governments are starting to grasp is that their own data, which are given away for free, offer a potential alternative to the data flows that private companies monetise through their own networks. What’s more, governments have the power to bring their proprietary offline data online and then leverage youth to create opportunities from the expanded data flow.

Identifying economic potential in data has been at the heart of tech giants' growth strategies. Similarly, at the national level there is great potential in creating new economic sectors around data and data services.

Create an AI market and jobs

Companies and other private entities can only go as far as their services and networks extend, whereas governments have much greater data coverage and greater power to fill any gaps in data flows.

Therefore, innovative governments, working with digital savvy youth, can help create new AI markets and jobs and, in the process, widen and deepen the opportunities available for all young people in the data economies of the future.

In building tomorrow’s youth-centric data economies there is no silver bullet or single example of general best practice. These policy recommendations and case studies should be regarded holistically and flexibly, with innovative ideas adapted to fit local contexts and then piloted before being rolled out. What they all have in common is a view of young people as partners and advisers of government, working together towards the same goal of inclusive, sustainable and socially-just data economies, where all youth have the opportunity to create and share the benefits.

By engaging with youth as present and future drivers of data economies, governments can ensure that the rewards of the data revolution reach everyone in society.

Mona Abou Hana is Government Consulting Partner at PwC Middle East

Updated: February 10, 2019 01:46 PM