Zulfath Saheed reviews Sri Lanka’s plans to develop a digital economy strategy

“The exponential growth in digitisation and internet connectivity is the backbone of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It has the potential to propel societies forward, enable innovative business models and help governments address legitimate policy concerns. Digitisation is transforming business models, the policy landscape and social norms,” says the World Economic Forum (WEF) in addressing how private public collaboration can realise digital technology’s potential to benefit humankind.

According to WEF, cultivating “a shared, trusted digital environment that is a driver of inclusion, economic development and social progress” is key to shaping the future of the digital economy and society.

It is against such a backdrop that in December 2017, the Ministry of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure – with the support of McKinsey & Company – embarked on the process of developing Sri Lanka’s ‘Digital Economy Strategy.’

This initiative is set to enable Sri Lanka to identify scientifically the appropriate opportunities for promoting a digital economy and key enablers to promote it, as well as initiate three flagship programmes that would promote the country’s Digital Economy Strategy.

PROGRAMME PHASES According to a press release issued by the policy development unit of the Prime Minister’s Office, the consultancy with McKinsey & Company involves a short-term 11 week assignment that will be conducted in three phases.

Phase one will focus on the diagnostics to develop an understanding of Sri Lanka’s readiness to move into the digital economy. The second phase will concentrate on designing three flagship programmes to kick-start the digital economy and 10 projects to establish key enablers to support it. And the final phase will focus on launching the identified programmes and projects.

At a meeting of the steering committee held on 4 January at the policy development office at Temple Trees where the inception report was presented, it was decided that the diagnostics phase of the assignment would commence by 15 January and last for two weeks. This would be followed by a five week design phase, during which it is expected to have the relevant programmes and projects identified, and ready to be launched by early April.

THRUST SECTORS This initiative would strategise the promotion of the digital economy through the lens of three economic development thrust sectors – viz. agriculture, tourism and manufacturing. It is expected that each of these sectors could develop at least one flagship programme to support the initial stage of Sri Lanka’s Digital Economy Strategy.

McKinsey & Company while presenting its inception report also confirmed that the proposed digital economy for Sri Lanka could uplift GDP by one to three percent in 2019.

GLOBAL ECONOMY Professional services firm Deloitte defines the digital economy as “the economic activity that results from billions of everyday online connections among people, businesses, devices, data and processes. The backbone of the digital economy is hyper-connectivity, which means growing interconnectedness of people, organisations and machines that results from the internet, mobile technology and the internet of things (IoT).”

“The digital economy is taking shape and undermining conventional notions about how businesses are structured, how firms interact, and how consumers obtain services, information and goods,” it adds.

YOUTH LANDSCAPE As for how young individuals would access and use the internet, a UNICEF report on Sri Lanka’s digital landscape recommends key actions to ensure that young people benefit from the full and positive potential of these technologies whilst minimising the potential for harm.

UNICEF Sri Lanka Representative Tim Sutton observes that “as Sri Lanka identifies and positions itself for a new role in the wider region, and drives to become a knowledge based economy as a route to further prosperity, it is clear that the digital skills and wellbeing of its young people will be fundamental…”

He continues: “We can help… ensure that we maximise the vast opportunities provided by digital technology to children whilst minimising the risk of harm for the benefit of all in Sri Lanka.”

DIGITAL FUTURE As WEF points out, “the critical role of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in a nation’s economic competitiveness has long been recognised, and national and sub national governments in many countries have rolled out digital strategies in an effort to build out infrastructure, improve access to ICT, improve levels of digital literacy, attract technology entrepreneurs and create centres of digital innovation.”

However, it notes that such plans tend to focus more on infrastructure rather than privacy, security and skills development.

The challenge for Sri Lanka’s future Digital Economy Strategy then will be to successfully unlock leapfrogging opportunities for the country as a whole while also making specific policy recommendations to address security and privacy concerns.