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The MENA region must invest in technology to solve social issues

The MENA region must invest in technology to solve social issues

Issues like unemployment and healthcare can be addressed with technology, writes John Chambers, chairman and CEO of Cisco.

Government, business and civil society leaders convened at the MENA World Economic Forum 2015 in Jordan last week, with a common goal to create peace and prosperity in the region.

This comes at a critical time when increased geopolitical tensions are creating a sense of urgency for a pillar of hope. While world leaders discussed an actionable framework to solve the region’s challenges, strategic investments in technology will be crucial to providing an opportunity for job creation and a new path for the future.

Today, there are 15 billion devices connected to the internet, and that number is expected to increase to over 50 billion by 2020. This next phase of the internet called the Internet of Everything (IoE)– which is the connection of people, process, data and things – will usher in a new era.

These connections have the power to help the MENA region tackle employment and economic difficulties but first, every country must build a national broadband infrastructure. Those that prioritise network readiness will be able to realise the economic and societal benefits of the internet.

Across the region we are starting to see the impact of connectivity.

In the UAE, the vison of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum to make Dubai a smart city by utilising technology to create a new reality, is already coming to fruition.

Sensors embedded throughout the city will connect everything from utility use to traffic, improving the lives of citizens and creating a potential value of $4.87 billion (Dhs17.9 billion) by 2019.

Qatar is also facing increased urgency to implement a smart city plan with the upcoming World Cup 2022. It also recently unveiled the Qatar National Vision 2030 with the goal to turn the country into one that listens, learns, and responds to its citizens’ daily needs, making an impact in every field: education, healthcare, energy, security, and transportation.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also invested billions of dollars to build four new economic cities in order to diversify and move gross domestic product away from the hydrocarbon sector (oil accounts for 94 per cent of the country’s export revenue).

The smart cities are expected to support the creation of a knowledge economy that will provide the country’s youth with the skills required for professional and senior-level jobs.

While these innovations are helping to create jobs, more needs to be done across the region, as it still faces one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world at over 27 per cent – more than double the global average.

The issue remains that there is a gap between ICT job openings and the qualified candidates needed to fill them. To help the unemployed youth find jobs, the public and private sectors need to come together and create opportunities for foundational ICT skills development.

Healthcare delivery is equally important to economic development in the MENA region. People in remote and rural areas often cannot get the healthcare they need – the distance may be too far, the travel cost too high, or the coordination too complicated.

Telehealth technology, powered by the internet, can help fix this problem by enabling rural patients to have face-to-face video consultations with specialists and to have their treatment plans monitored from a distance.

Cloud-based platforms also enable access to picture archiving and communication systems (PACS) and collaboration software “as a service” to help improve the quality of care for patients by enabling radiologists to read exams remotely.

As the MENA region charts the course for its economic transformation, the public and private sectors must come together to lay the digital foundation for its long-term economic development.

I believe that the future of the region lies in the ability of its leaders to set a bold technological agenda and take the initiative on transformational projects that harness the power of internet to bring about meaningful change. The time to act is now.

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