Envisioning a Confident and Sustainable Digital Society in Southeast Asia

This article delves into what a Confident and Sustainable Digital Society in Southeast Asia looks like, leveraging insights from the institute’s "From 'Tech for Growth' to 'Tech for Good'" research report.

SEA-6’s digital economy is poised for remarkable growth, projected to achieve a gross merchandise value (GMV) of US$330 billion by 2025 and US$1 trillion by 2030.

In the era of rapid digital growth, a key question arises: How do we achieve inclusive and sustainable growth?

In our report titled “From ‘Tech for Growth’ to ‘Tech for Good'”, we delve into this question and identify two broad enablers that will pave the way for inclusive and responsible digital development: a confident digital society and technology, business, and regulatory innovation.

The Vision of a Confident Digital Society

The ideal vision of a confident digital society is one where everyone has equal access to digital opportunities. It is a society where digital literacy is universal and technology is leveraged to help all individuals to participate and benefit from both the digital economy and society.

Current national priorities are building towards this vision, and it is heartening to see  many countries placing an emphasis on digitalisation and creating a strong foundation for growth. These efforts include:

  • Affordable quality access: A robust and resilient digital infrastructure serves as the cornerstone of a confident digital society, offering reliable and affordable access to digital services, even in remote areas. In 2021, Malaysia classified communication services as a public utility, underscoring their importance in the economy and society. To ensure equitable access to digital infrastructure development, multilateral organisations, governments, and digital companies can provide technical support, financing, and innovative solutions.
  • Meaningful and productive participation in the digital economy: Using digital tools is not enough, there is a need to also use them productively. For instance, low-income Singaporean youth primarily use digital tools for leisure rather than for educational and career advancement, leading to “invisible illiteracy” in the “timepass economy.” To address this issue, digital literacy programs should be implemented to equip digital users with the necessary knowledge to maximise the benefits of digital tools. It is important to note that digital fluency requires ongoing investment, as demonstrated by a collaborative effort in Vietnam where multiple organisations developed scalable solutions to benefit farmers and boost economic production in both urban and rural areas.
  • Resilient and flexible livelihoods through the digital economy: While digitalisation and automation may result in job losses, they also create new opportunities. As technology replaces traditional jobs, reducing citizens’ reliance on economic activities that could be vulnerable in the future has become an urgent imperative. In this context, the evolving skills required by the digital economy and transferable skills across industries are becoming increasingly important. Regular reviews of national skills roadmaps to ensure continuous talent development are crucial in inculcating workforce resilience.

Innovation: The Heartbeat of Sustainable Development

Digital transformation is a critical driver for the future of our region, and this message was strongly reiterated by our roundtable participants from the institute’s sessions in early 2023 across Southeast Asia. While we recognise the importance of ongoing innovation in fostering sustainable digital development, it is crucial to understand that this innovation should go beyond just technology and business models. In addition to spurring economic growth, technological innovation must also prioritise serving society.

Here it is crucial to differentiate between sustainable digitalisation and digital sustainability. Sustainable digitalisation refers to technology and business models that are responsible, causing no harm and setting a baseline that ensures safety, confidence-building, and trust. However, achieving genuine sustainability goes beyond this point; it entails leveraging innovative digital solutions to attain sustainable goals.

This concept, known as digital sustainability, requires us to clearly define the problems that need solving and align on desired outcomes. It involves the active participation of the private, public, and civil sectors to ensure inclusivity and a comprehensive approach.

Digital economy companies are well-positioned to create and deploy purpose-built products and services that align with the objectives of sustainable digitalisation and digital sustainability. For instance, companies like GrowSari, a tech-enabled B2B platform serving over a million sari-sari stores in the Philippines, integrate various microservices, enabling store owners to consolidate capital and expand their businesses easily. This rise of multipurpose apps, exemplified by GrowSari and Grab, centralises millions of micro, small, and medium enterprises in Southeast Asia, bridging various industries and fostering both business growth and sustainable practices through efficiency improvements, waste reduction, and increased resilience.

The Road Ahead

The intersection of technology and sustainability in Southeast Asia offers both challenges and opportunities. As we continue our journey of embracing digital transformation, it becomes imperative to prioritise responsible and sustainable growth, responding to the desires of the people.

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report, “Trust at Work,” reinforces the growing significance of societal impact, with more than 71% of employees considering it a critical factor when evaluating job opportunities. This underscores a strong desire within the population to make positive contributions to society.

To achieve a confident digital society, collaboration among governments, digital economic companies, businesses, and individuals is essential. Only through a unified effort can we bridge the digital divide and foster inclusive and sustainable growth.

As we venture forward, what is your vision for a confident digital society in the next decade?

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Mouna Aouri

Programme Fellow

Mouna Aouri is an Institute Fellow at the Tech For Good Institute. As a social entrepreneur, impact investor, and engineer, her experience spans over two decades in the MENA region, South East Asia, and Japan. She is founder of Woomentum, a Singapore-based platform dedicated to supporting women entrepreneurs in APAC through skill development and access to growth capital through strategic collaborations with corporate entities, investors and government partners.

Dr Ming Tan

Founding Executive Director

Dr Ming Tan is founding Executive Director for the Tech for Good Institute, a non-profit founded to catalyse research and collaboration on social, economic and policy trends accelerated by the digital economy in Southeast Asia. She is concurrently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore and Advisor to the Founder of the COMO Group, a Singaporean portfolio of lifestyle companies operating in 15 countries worldwide.  Her research interests lie at the intersection of technology, business and society, including sustainability and innovation.

 

Ming was previously Managing Director of IPOS International, part of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, which supports Singapore’s future growth as a global innovation hub for intellectual property creation, commercialisation and management. Prior to joining the public sector, she was Head of Stewardship of the COMO Group and the founding Executive Director of COMO Foundation, a grantmaker focused on gender equity that has served over 47 million women and girls since 2003.

 

As a company director, she lends brand and strategic guidance to several companies within the COMO Group. Ming also serves as a Council Member of the Council for Board Diversity, on the boards of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC), and on the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.

 

In the non-profit, educational and government spheres, Ming is a director of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC) and chairs the Asia Advisory board for Swiss hospitality business and management school EHL. She also serves on  the Council for Board Diversity and the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.

 

Ming was educated in Singapore, the United States, and England. She obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University and her doctorate from Oxford.