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When everyone is connected, that's where the real amazing transformation will happen.

Speed x intelligence: A formula for digital transformation

Atsuko Okuda, Regional Director, Asia and the Pacific, International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

The International Telecommunication Union is the oldest UN agency specializing in information and communications technology (ICT). We have three areas of expertise.

First, in the area of radio communication, we coordinate the efficient use of radio spectrum frequency.

Second, we work on standardization, an important topic for the development and use of technology. Third, we have a development bureau, which aims to connect the unconnected and bridge the digital divide.

My responsibility is to support all three in Asia Pacific, where our office covers 38 countries.

Can you tell us a little bit about your career?

I started my career in New York, at the United Nations Development Program, in 1997. At the time, the field of “ICT for development” was very new. When I came to the UN, there was no expectation that I was going to stay, or was going to do the job I'm doing now; it didn't really exist. But it was an exciting time and the field started expanding.

After working in New York for about four-and-a-half years, I was given the assignment to go to Bhutan, to implement an ICT-for-development project, which was really exciting. Then other organizations started picking up this line of work. I then moved to Africa, then Thailand, New York, Lebanon, and back to Thailand, all within the context of UNDP and the UN Secretariat. But two-and-a-half years ago, I was given this opportunity at ITU to really specialize in telecommunication and ICT for development. So that was an opportunity for me to scale up what I had done in the past. So that's, like, the last 25 years in one minute!

Can you talk more about your experience as a woman in the ICT world?

I'm often asked, “How do you feel about being a woman in this male-dominated sector?” But in hindsight, in the UN, my supervisors and colleagues were frequently women. And I have many female counterparts in the industry and in academia.

Do you feel there is any sort of different perspective you can bring to your professional work as a woman, in terms of the way that you approach projects and so on?

I didn't realize until I actually implemented projects and worked on policy, how important it is to make sure that men and women benefit equally from technology. For example, when I was working in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, we needed to make sure that women's perspectives were taken into account in the design of the projects. Men, for example, felt that in order for expand the access to the internet, it would be a good idea to set up an internet kiosk in a bar, because that's where people gather.

But women wouldn't necessarily go to a bar. So if this project was in fact implemented, and an Internet kiosk was set up in a bar, it would have excluded women from accessing the internet.

Women are technology consumers, so we should express our demands. We can say no, let’s not make it a bar, let’s instead establish the kiosk in schools, or hospitals, or community centers.

Another example is gender bias in AI. If AI solutions screen out equally competitive female candidates for a job, for example, that’s wrong. We need a collaborative effort with the government and industry and society as a whole, so we can really create an inclusive society through the application of digital technology.

What about the challenge of getting more women into ICT?

We want to make sure that more girls and young women become interested in pursuing STEM as an academic and professional career.

I believe it's very important to show that there are important roles women can play in the ICT sector, including leadership roles. We must encourage more girls and young woman to pursue STEM and ICT careers. Eventually, we will see more female leaders in the ICT sector.

The ITU runs ICT Day celebrations in different parts of Asia Pacific, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, and the Philippines. We’re also planning events in Pakistan and India. So I believe that momentum is being built in Asia Pacific. And many girls and young woman as well as government counterparts are seeing the benefits.

What measures do you find are most effective in encouraging women to study STEM subject?

In Thailand, we organized a training program with UNESCO on AI programming. They met online, girls and young women, aspiring programmers, and ICT leaders from all across different provinces of Thailand. And they saw other enthusiastic participants in this program. That builds confidence: they can see that it's not only them, but that there are many other girls and young woman in Thailand who feel the same way they do.

What drew you to work in the United Nations in the first place?

I was studying in Helsinki, Finland, in the early 1990s. The internet wasn't really well-known, but I had to take a course to learn how it worked. And I thought, “This is it, this will really change the world, change the development landscape. This tool is powerful for developing countries.” 

It wasn't my original intention to work for the ITU, but I applied for an internship at the UNDP that was just starting to use ICT for development. My background and interest really fit into what they wanted to do, and there were not so many graduate students who had a telecommunications and internet background.

My supervisor at UNDP also said, “It's interesting that you have an internet background, so early in the development of that technology.” So that was the genesis of my career.

I found the UN environment to be inclusive and empowering. And I could pursue my career, while promoting the internet and technology for development. So that's the reason why I stayed on for the past 25 years.

What are you working on now?

As you may know, ITU has a mandate by 2030 to connect the unconnected – about 2.7 billion people. Most live in developing countries, in remote areas and islands, and have limited incomes. Our work focuses on understanding their challenges, then providing solutions. These include policy recommendations, or initiatives, as well as capacity development and advocacy.

Two examples are the Smart Island and Smart Village programs, ITU programs aimed at delivering connectivity and services to disadvantaged village and island communities. In Asia Pacific, because of the geography and the smaller economies in the region, some commercial telecommunication services cannot be provided. So we need a separate, dedicated program to address development challenges, including climate change. This is a quick summary of what our support could look like, especially for those sub regions and countries and communities, which are not all connected until now.

What responsibility does a company like Huawei have in encouraging women to enter into tech?

I can cite one concrete example of what we did with Huawei. That was the “Girls in ICT Day” celebration in Thailand last year. We supported about 25 girls and young women to visit Huawei’s innovation center in Bangkok. It showed them about IoT, 5G, and AI, and about augmented reality. They could see how intelligent cities can manage, say, the flow of traffic at rush hour. Feedback from participants was, “You can learn about this on TV, but seeing it in person is much more powerful.” This is just one concrete example of how a company such as Huawei can partner with the ITU and other organizations.

As a woman, do you get as many opportunities as your male colleagues? 

Because there are very few female specialists in ICT-for-development, I think I actually get more opportunities than male colleagues. These days, if the panel discussion doesn't include women, it doesn't look complete. I think that's a game changer. And I think that should encourage more women to be visible and to be invited.

Throughout my career, I got more exposure and opportunities to speak with various audiences at different events. And maybe there is an expectation that I should behave in certain ways, but because I've been away from Japan for so long, I'm not that sensitive to such expectations anymore. I hope that the girls and young woman who are pursuing this path will not be discouraged if there are such expectations from society on how they should behave. They should follow their passion.

Perceptions and culture constitute a very real barrier preventing girls and young women from pursuing STEM as a career. In my previous job at the UN, we did a study on gender perspectives in STEM education in five countries in Asia and the Pacific. Although some of the more advanced countries have more female students and faculty members in STEM, the number is still very small. It’s about 30% in some countries, and less than 10% in others.

How did you get into the STEM field?

I just wanted deeper understanding of how things work. So when I jumped from my undergraduate study in Japan to Finland, it was like, this was something I wanted to pursue. And the same with my PhD program. It wasn't really necessary; I wasn't pressured to obtain a degree. But I really thought that this is something that I wanted. That's why I think I could finish it, because the path is very hard.

Did you feel any sense that the absence of role models and so on was an issue?

In hindsight, I never actually looked for a role model in my career. The internet was new, and ICT-for-development was very new. So, man or woman, there was no one in front of us. So it wasn't necessary to have a role model. We just wanted to carve our niche in this vast development field, and to advocate for what we believed: that technology could really be good for development.

Have there been any women in your life who have been particularly impactful for you?

My supervisors who were women were very inspirational. In the past, I had a very good supervisor who was an economist. She didn't have an ICT-for-development background, but because she looked at the technology in a different way, from an economist’s point of view, she asked many questions we wouldn’t have thought to ask.

The inspirational colleagues and supervisors in my career were not necessarily from the ICT field. But they also enriched my perspective and way of thinking. For example, I had a female supervisor who was a communication specialist. In fact, she had worked for the BBC before. I learned a lot from how she wrote, spoke, and presented ideas.

Coming from Japan, I am very shy when it comes to public speaking. I was really bad at it. But she was really inspirational. And I learned a lot about how to communicate clearly and precisely. So I had interesting supervisors and colleagues throughout my career, and I'm really thankful for them.

Are there any specific technologies you think will be particularly impactful when it comes to development?

It's not just one technology that’s going to change the world, it's a combination of technologies. I think digital transformation is driven by one formula: speed multiplied by intelligence.

So the speed is, let's say, 5G or 6G, multiplied by intelligence, such as AI, or blockchain, or data analytics.

But equally important is connectivity. Because if this formula applies only to a few individuals in a big city with excellent connectivity, that may not be impactful. So when we equate inclusion to connectivity, and everyone is connected, and the data comes from everyone, which will feed into the speed multiplied by intelligence formula, I think that's where the real amazing transformation will happen.

What does it feel like to set the rules and practices for the whole ICT industry?

I feel the responsibility to make sure that what we are promoting or recommending works for everyone, and to connect the unconnected and achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. I feel a great pressure to fulfill that function.

I think about the practicality and applicability of these recommendations because we know that, if they are not implemented, for whatever reason, they won’t do any good. So we always consider the circumstances and contexts and how they can help governments achieve socio-economic development.

One concrete example of that is our support of Indonesia's G20 presidency. As you may know, the ITU was invited to become a knowledge partner to the G20 Digital Economy working group. And we worked with member countries on four topics: people-centered digital connectivity; digital skills; overcoming COVID-19 challenges; and how to connect practically through Smart Village and Smart Islands.

And through the Indonesian presidency of the G20, we supported Indonesia in establishing agreement among the G20 countries on these key topics. So this is one concrete example of how the ITU supports both developed and developing countries through the G20 platform.         

What emotional impact does your work have on you?

Personally, the impact that I see on the ground really motivates and inspires me to do more. For example, a few years ago, the ITU conducted a study on unconnected schools in Thailand. When we shared our findings with the Ministry of Education, they immediately started connecting the schools, and a student from one of the newly connected schools joined our “Girls in ICT” Day. It was a moving moment for me, and made me feel that what I do is meaningful.

You've led many ICT projects through your career. Can you share a way that women can improve their digital skills and be more engaged with technology?

I think the important entry point is to find out why you want to improve digital literacy. That will motivate you to really master the particular digital skills you need.

For example, my family back in Japan wasn't really interested in the internet, or email. But since we live abroad, and very far away, they now are motivated to learn how to do a video chat, and send email and share photos with me. That was really the starting point for them: exploring different applications and different things that they can do with digital technology. So a good way to build and to explore these skills would be to find the topic that really is important to you, and motivates you to go for it.

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