Future. Future! Future? Technology worldwide – between utopia and dystopia

Speech by Parliamentary State Secretary Thomas Silberhorn at the re:publica conference

10 May 2017 in Berlin

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Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for your thoughtful words and powerful examples. You give us hope with your stories of global knowledge and the spread of wealth by digital means. And you make us shiver at the thought of entire groups of people, countries and regions left forgotten in the shadows of a bright digital future.

The future is uncertain. Anything is possible: from futuristic high-speed, high-tech universes to an Orwellian 1984 nightmare. Dystopian or utopian – the fact is: tremendous, unexpected changes await us.

What we cannot afford to do, is just sit on the side-lines of history and watch as the future unfolds. We will need to actively shape the evolution of the digital transformation. That is the only way to unleash its full potential for mankind and safeguard our rights and values in the future. Because, in my opinion, the future is a mix of opportunities and challenges. But, in this we need guidance, for example, through the digital agenda that we have developed and that I am here to officially present to you.

There is a lot that can be learnt from the past. The digital community of today is quite young. Therefore, some of you might not recall the two global summits on the internet, which took place in 2003 and 2005. These so-called "World Summits on the Information Society", WSIS, were the first forums to discuss the future of the digital world. In Geneva 12,000 delegates and in Tunis 17,000 delegates from around 175 countries were asked, and I quote, "to take concrete steps to establish the foundations for an Information Society for all."

At that time, the digital possibilities were very different from what we have today, not yet encompassing every part of our daily lives. But even then, these two global summits were full of controversy: Some hailed the internet as the solution to almost all the problems in our world, others pointed to the new challenges the digital age would bring with it, such as data security, intellectual property rights, internet governance and human rights issues. What were the outcomes? Different plans and goals were drafted: the Geneva Plan of Action and the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society.

Ten years later, in 2015, the WSIS outcomes were reviewed: It is interesting to note that most of what had been anticipated ten years earlier had not taken place. The technologies, applications and policies that we have now had not even been thought of back then.

From this we can draw some lessons: When we develop strategies and policy guidelines which look at the future, we need to avoid a technocratic or overly deterministic approach and stay flexible.

The failure of these summits to anticipate the future is probably one reason why we are here today. The re:publica and other digital conferences and commercial fairs have taken over the task of discussing the potentials and challenges of the digital world.

Most importantly: Today, we have understood what we must do about digitalisation. We want to use and shape digitalisation for sustainable development worldwide!

And in that regard, we have a lot of work to do! Right now, many are excluded from the great digital trends we are discussing here at the re:publica. The digital divide is a reality – and it may even become wider. This is one of the key findings of the 2016 World Bank Development Report.

Half of the world’s population is offline today. But not by choice: Most of the people who do not have any access to the internet and to internet-related tools live in developing countries. In Africa, today, 75 per cent of all people never use the internet. Not because they don't want to. But because of a lack of infrastructure, hardware, software, skills and relevant content – or because internet use is unaffordable for them.

Furthermore, most of the content on the internet is only in one language: English. How can a young father in Somalia looking for helpful information about his child's illness benefit from the tremendous knowledge that is – theoretically – available online?

Equal opportunities and access for all communities are important, so that people can decide at the local level how best to make use of digitalisation. Access is not only about having a smartphone or an internet café around the corner. It is also about digital skills and relevant content: because high-speed internet by itself will not save the world.

The digital transformation has the potential to create hundreds of millions of jobs in our partner countries in Africa, Latin America and around the world. Already today, households in developing economies are more likely to have access to a mobile phone than to electricity or clean water.

Additionally, more than 300 million people are already using mobile payment systems. Today, the internet is boosting Africa's GDP by 18 billion US dollar. That figure will rise to 300 billion US dollar in additional GDP in the next few years!

In some developing countries, the digital technologies already in use are more advanced than those being used in Europe. Young developers working in impact hubs in Kigali, Lagos or Nairobi are working on creative innovative digital solutions to solve local challenges. We want to foster these local innovative ideas. We want to harness the digital transformation for sustainable development.

We are aware of the painful duality of the digital transformation: The technology that empowers you, can also subjugate you. The digital transformation is certainly not a cure for everything. The challenges for humanity will not be resolved through digital technologies alone.

But I believe we have a moral obligation to make the potential of digitalisation a reality and shape these developments! That is why I am here today. That is why we have identified "digital development" as one of our core focus areas. The topic is not new to us. We have been shaping technology policies and integrated tech tools in our development work since the late 1990s. But today the sheer speed of digital change makes this task far more essential and more urgent than it used to be.

Already, today, the internet is not the free place it used to be ten years ago. Things are changing quickly. In many places freedom is at risk. Yet freedom of speech and access to information are key issues for human development. I strongly believe that, only if people have the chance to access information, to use the internet and to express their views freely, will they be able to assert other rights like education or fair working conditions!

Thus we want to empower people. The German government was one of the advocates for including free access to information in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

What we need to do right now is actively formulate what we want a digital world to look like. We need orientation and action! Because the future is neither black nor white: For this purpose, we have drafted a strategy paper entitled: "Harnessing the digital revolution for sustainable development".

Rather than repeating the mistakes made at conferences ten years ago, we want to focus on democratic values and on empowering those who will shape digital developments in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

We want our strategy paper to serve as a compass for an uncertain policy future which can be used to chart a course between utopia and dystopia. We want to implement this "digital agenda” with all of you.

In 2015, I stood on this very stage telling you that my ministry has about 160 ongoing projects with digital technologies at their core. Today, we have more than twice that number and are implementing around 350 projects in 75 countries with a total investment of around 1.3 billion euros.

Yes, 1.3 billion euros: This amount might sound surprising for a ministry that is not traditionally a "digital" ministry. But our partner countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America are investing heavily in digital infrastructures. They demand digital projects and digital support. Because they know as well as we do that the future is digital!

We also want to look ahead, anticipate developments and use them for sustainable development for all. We therefore scan the future periodically. We do this through projects like the "Trendradar" by Betterplace, which we are proud to have supported. It is a stunning – and clever! – look at our world in 2030. We have just heard Joana Breidenbach of Betterplace describe her "utopia" version of the future, but I can assure you that the "Trendradar" takes a very balanced and unique look at trends set to unfold, such as "big data", the global "maker movement", the future implications of the "internet of things" or so-called "fintech" solutions in the financial sector. We will continue to stay up-to-date with changes as they evolve, adapting the strategies in our field of international development accordingly! Given the pace of digital transformation, one thing is sure: we will need to adapt constantly in order to stay up-to-date.

Now let me introduce three people who will give us concrete examples of how we can shape our digital future instead of being shaped by it.

  • We will hear more about how we can better visualize and understand poverty rates and how they evolve in real time around the globe. (Presentation: Dr. Wolfgang Fengler, World Data Lab)
  • We will also see how Africa is reinventing its computer hardware and production and industry with digital manufacturing. (Presentation: Dr. Kamau Gachigi, Gearbox)
  • Finally, we'll hear more about how digital tools are helping him get access to higher education. (Presentation: Ahmad Mobayed, Kiron-student).

It is through initiatives and stories like yours that our strategy, our "digital agenda", will be filled with life.

In the near future, it is likely that the division or concentration of power will be more pronounced. This will make it more difficult for us, for civil society, to change rules or integrate norms in cyber space.

Therefore, I want to call upon you to become active! Get involved! Join NGOs that are working on shaping our digital future. Advocate for digital rights and real digital opportunities. We are not the passive objects of current developments, we are active subjects. It is up to us how we shape the future. The time is now.

Join us – support us in closing the digital divide and making the world a fairer place.

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