What “Good” Looks Like for the Philippine Digital Economy

In September 2023, the Tech For Good Institute hosted its Country Roundtable in the Philippines with senior government officials, business leaders, and the academe. The Institute’s Country Roundtables bring together thought-leaders from the public, private, academic and civil society sectors to discuss emerging and urgent topics on the future of the digital economy and digital society.

Front row (from left to right): Doris Magsaysay-Ho, Jocelle Batapa-Sigue, Ming Tan, Martha Elaine Borja, Roxanne Lu

Back row (from left to right): Regina Ng, Hui San Seah, Natassia L. Fortea, Carlo Calimon, Jose Jesus Disini, Leandro Angelo Y. Aguirre, Francis Mark A. Quimba, Joseph Benjamin R. Ilagan, Keith Detros

Leveraging insights from the study “From Tech for Growth to Tech for Good” by the Tech for Good Institute (TFGI), TFGI convened business leaders, senior government officials, representatives from academia, and delegates from digital startups to engage in a meaningful discourse about redefining the concept of “good” within the context of the Philippine digital economy.

While the Philippines has emerged as one of the fastest-growing digital economies among major ASEAN member states, the study underscored the inadequacy of relying solely on traditional economic growth metrics. The notion of “good” now encompasses a broader spectrum of indicators, all contributing to sustainable advancement, fostering an inclusive and flourishing digital society within a dynamic innovation ecosystem.

The discussion delved into recommendations intended to further assist the Philippines in achieving sustainable development through digital transformation. Additionally, it highlighted the need for appropriate regulations and the potential for partnerships among ecosystem stakeholders to promote innovation while effectively managing associated risks.

Participants: 

  • Jocelle Batapa-Sigue, Undersecretary, Department Of Information And Communications Technology (DICT)
  • Leandro Angelo Y. Aguirre, Deputy Privacy Commissioner, National Privacy Commission
  • Doris Magsaysay-Ho, Chair President & CEO, Asia Society Philippines
  • Ming Tan, Founding Executive Director, Tech for Good Institute
  • Martha Elaine Borja, Head of Payments and Rewards, Grab Philippines
  • Roxanne Lu, Public Affairs Manager, Grab Philippines
  • Jose Jesus Disini, Associate Professor, University of the Philippines College of Law
  • Joseph Benjamin R. Ilagan, Program Director, Information Technology Entrepreneurship Program, Ateneo de Manila University
  • Carlo Calimon, President, StartUp Village
  • Francis Mark A. Quimba, Senior Research Fellow, Philippine Institute for Development Studies
  • Natassia L. Fortea, Policy Review Division, National Privacy Commission
  • Keith Detros, Programme Lead, Tech for Good Institute

Key Takeaways: 

  • Digitalisation plans in the Philippines should go beyond providing connectivity. 

Connectivity continues to be one of the major challenges for the Philippine digital economy.  Based on the recent estimates of the Philippine Statistics Authority, only about 56% of Filipino households have access to the internet.  This household internet penetration rate is largely Manila-centric, with the rest of the Philippine archipelago with areas of improvement. The participants recognised the importance of digital inclusion in the country’s digitalisation plans.  Some recommendations include better transparency in pricing, improved common internet infrastructure, and use of innovative solutions such as satellite technologies to connect remote areas. 

According to senior government officials in the roundtable, the government remains committed to increasing access through projects such as the National Broadband Plan and the Free WiFi for All programme.  However, more than connectivity, there is an ongoing shift in policy discussions. Policymakers are recognising that real digitalisation is not just about the basic aspects of connectivity and access, but more importantly how the internet can be used to have meaningful connections and address pressing issues such as unemployment, poverty, and citizen empowerment. The participants recognised the efforts of the government, but highlighted the fact that the government should not be the sole driver of impactful digital transformation. Instead, the private sector and the academe should also have an active role in shaping the next phase of growth for the country.  The challenge is to identify synergies and common areas of interest in order to drive sustainable digital development. 

  • Collaboration between the academe and the private sector can help develop a future-ready digital workforce. 

Aside from being a hub of research and development, universities train the next generation of the digital workforce. Participants noted that universities should work with the private sector to ensure that course offerings and curricula reflect the needs of the market. For example, consultations with the private sector can help create a demand-driven approach in the skills that universities can focus on.  The private sector, including digital economy companies, can share their expertise or offer apprenticeship programs to students. Aside from training those who have yet to enter the workforce, universities play a vital role in reskilling and upskilling those who are already in the labor market. 

  • Policy innovation and principle-based regulation may be more practical in the digital age.

With the rapid pace of technological advancement, agile governance is needed to create a responsive regulatory environment. Traditional regulatory models are deemed too slow for some of the participants, especially when considering the breakneck speed of innovation from emerging technologies. To foster sustainable digital development, participants noted that it is not merely about updating old policies or creating new ones. Crafting new legislations may be too sluggish and time-consuming that by the time they are enacted, technology has already progressed. Thus, a principle-based approach may be more practical in the digital age. 

In addition, building awareness among policymakers should not be overlooked. One recommendation is creating a ‘policy academy’ where decision-makers will have a platform to learn about the associated risks of emerging technologies and understand best practices from other regions. There is also room for collaboration between governments, businesses, and the academe to align priorities and interests. This would lead to a consultative policymaking process that would consider market needs, societal benefits, and the governance structure needed. 

Finally, innovation should not only be understood from the aspect of technology and business models. Policy can also benefit from innovative solutions. Using data-driven technology solutions can serve as a foundation for an evidence-based regulatory response.  Sandboxes, where a regulation and technology is tested first in a controlled environment, should also be considered before being fully implemented or deployed.  

  • An inclusive innovation ecosystem should remain a priority for the Philippines. 

The innovation ecosystem is not just limited to big tech companies and digital startups. Innovation can also stem from micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) who are employing technologies to improve their products and services. However, according to the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, less than half of the firms in the country are considered innovators. Moreover, innovation is primarily concentrated among larger firms than MSMEs.  This underscores the need for a supportive environment to boost innovation across all sectors and industries. 

There should be a concerted effort among government agencies, large corporations, startups, educational institutions, and investors to strengthen the innovation ecosystem in the Philippines. For example, creating a policy that would incentivise angel investing can open more resources for MSMEs to innovate and help startups to find funding.  In addition, the government can create a framework that aligns public sector goals with private capital to achieve common societal outcomes. These would help mainstream impact and angel investing practices. Finally, creating a one-stop-shop for smaller players such as MSMEs can help lower barriers to entry in the digital economy.

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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.