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How can the world achieve ‘equitable progress’?

12:32 AM May 19, 2014

“Leveraging growth for Equitable Progress”—this is the theme of the 23rd World Economic Forum on East Asia to be held May 21-23 in Manila. Looking at the individual words in the theme challenges us to revisit some of our most basic assumptions.

The first is that “growth” itself will remain the prerogative of the developed world. This is wrong. The 10 member-states of Asean are anticipating growth of at least 5 percent this year, and will be yet again the envy of their mature market counterparts. They are witnessing “history on fast-forward,” as the population migrates in unprecedented numbers toward the cities.

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The next is “leveraging.” We have all heard of leveraged transactions, with its uneasy implication of advantage engineered at the expense of others. But, if we are to achieve “equitable progress,” surely it’s time to redefine what the word means. We need to adapt it to a new and different vision, one where the people who create and sustain growth are, in turn, sustained by it; where there is growth in new opportunities and horizons, as well as in margins and volumes.

So, our paradigm can no longer be restricted to the old idea of “teach a man to fish”; it must enable people to bring the fish to market for a fair return, and in ways that protect and prolong natural resources. It must also teach people physics and philosophy, so they are able to become lawyers and doctors, currency dealers, artists and teachers—whatever their talents and ambitions fit them for, in a life of global opportunity. This, surely, is “equitable progress.”

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But—and here’s the rub—how exactly do we help the 600 million people in the Asean community achieve their ambitions? There is no single panacea. But there are practical, workable responses in the face of huge challenges. It is perhaps no surprise, given my professional background, that I believe a significant proportion of the answers lie in the networks we create, regionally and globally.

Broadly, these fall into three categories. First, for the effective physical movement of people and goods; we need logistics. This is a fast-developing science that is helping to overcome the limitations of physical infrastructures, as well as to identify and exploit their potential. Second, we need communication networks that allow people, wherever they are today, to take their talents to where they are needed. Third, we need information networks that allow access to knowledge and education, so barriers to the enhancement of raw human capability (whether geographical or cultural) can be overcome.

Nobody would be foolish enough to claim that the tasks ahead are easy. But difficult is not the same as impossible. There are already countless positive Asean examples of what can happen when the power of virtual information networks is applied to the infrastructure challenges of exponential urban expansion.

Network growth and network access are leading to equitable progress, by democratizing access to cultural and commercial opportunities. Where a robust communications network exists—and can be accessed by affordable (typically mobile) technology—citizens are instantly empowered. This happens regardless of location, age, gender or ethnicity.

Commercial competition creates a marketplace where networks are realistically priced and function reliably. Mass connectivity means more people enjoy a previously unimagined degree of secure and undiscriminating—equitable—access to a range of social media, financial services and consumer choices. These choices are not “second” or even “first” world, but simply world-class.

In cities, communication networks are reducing traffic gridlock by keeping people in touch remotely, providing real-time insights into the patterns and flow of congestion, so disruption can be minimized. Logistics networks that shift goods such as medicines or mass transit commodities are reducing inefficiencies, cutting fuel consumption and compressing delivery times, while assuring provenance and quality.

Through the power of networks, we are reducing physical, cultural and financial barriers to equitable personal and social progress. We are doing this despite increasing pressure on finite resources. And the near-miraculous thing is this: People around the world, whether in the Asean region or anywhere else, do not have to settle for less. We can now actually do more with less: less wastage, less pollution, less using up of finite resources. We can have more education, more healthcare, more movement of raw materials and finished goods, more migration, more opportunity and more realized human potential.

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How are we doing this? Through the creation of new and efficient supply networks—physical for things, virtual for thoughts. We are doing it by reinterpreting logistics, not as an ancillary activity but as a core discipline of planning and delivery. And we are continuing to build networks that allow everyone access to two of our most precious global resources: information and opportunity.

Through the art of connecting, we are leveraging growth for equitable progress. And that must be one of the most practical and sustainable commitments we can make to improving the state of the world.

Ron Totton is the managing director of South-East Asia-BT Global Services.

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TAGS: Asean, networking, World Economic Forum
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