COLOMBIA'S DIGITAL REVOLUTION

Colombia 2019 | ICT & MEDIA | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Sylvia Constaín, Minister of Information and Communication Technologies, on the national ICT strategy, improving computer literacy among children, and the future of the Colombian economy.

What role will ICT play in the government's plan to develop the economy?

ICT's role is central and takes up a whole chapter in the National Development Plan. If we look at other sectors such as health, education, labor, transportation, and agriculture, technology is all over the place. We are working hand-in-hand with every sector, and our objective is to see a change in focus in the way the government provides services and how we interact with our citizens. Our role is to make citizens' lives easier, not just on an individual level, but also for companies small, medium, or large. We want people to be able to dedicate more time to being productive and less time doing paperwork. That is what the digital transformation effort is all about: putting citizens and companies at the center and ensuring the government supports initiatives to make our workforce more competitive and our citizens happier. It is a cultural change; the digital transformation is not a software or hardware change, but a change in the approach to solving problems. One of the most important things we are doing within the National Development Plan is a bill in Congress now that modernizes the sector. President Duque has three pillars in his policies: legality, entrepreneurship, and equality. This bill hits equality directly and the others indirectly; as one becomes more connected, things such as fighting corruption become much easier with technology behind them. On the entrepreneurial end, it is easier when the government provides services rather than asking you to do everything. On the equality end, it is hard to find a better tool for equality rather than making sure everyone is connected. Our map of 4G connectivity is extremely concentrated, and a large portion of the country does not have it yet. If one leaves the main square of some cities, even just a few blocks away, they cannot make calls, get emails, or send videos. We are working extremely hard to fix that by changing the criteria by which we assign spectrum and doubling the number of years, plus shifting away from maximizing financial income to reduce the digital gap. That will give us the tools to reach many more Colombians and provide much more connectivity, and that will make a huge change in terms of the way Colombians live. The OECD and World Bank have released a great deal of data indicating that broadband has a significant impact on poverty, health, and education.

How will improved broadband access change the Colombian economy in coming years?

It will make it much more dynamic and innovative. There is a direct link between download speed and innovation. Colombia's download speed is half the global average and one-third of the OECD average. Our goal is to raise it to the OECD average. If we triple the download speed, we can have as much as a double-digit impact on GDP per capita, which is huge. That one indicator is a huge leap in terms of growth, productivity, and changing people's lives. There are 20 million Colombians who do not have access to broadband right now, and if we can connect them, it will be significant. We also have huge quality challenges as well, so it is not just about connecting more people, but also about connecting them better. That means not just having high-quality connectivity, but also working with the population to make sure it is being used for more than just viral content. It needs to be used for things that improves companies, or makes one a professional or a more informed person, getting access to content that they would not have otherwise. Our policy has four components. The first is creating a digital environment where the ecosystem can thrive. That includes the bill I mentioned and things like issuing decrees on PPPs in the sector. We want a framework where those projects can happen. The second component is having citizens and companies that are powered by connectivity and technology. That is where we are working on things like coding for children, as we will reach 12,000 children in 2019. We also want to provide online courses that provide basic digital skills from the start, from turning on a device to the languages we can learn to code in and which are more important for which industry. The third component is social inclusivity; some people have never been connected, and some people do not learn how to use it instantly. There is supply and demand support, and as we reach new people, we can help them integrate into the digital ecosystem. For those who are already integrated and face challenges like paying for that connectivity, we can help with our social welfare net. The fourth component is the digital transformation itself. It is a well-rounded policy moving in four areas at once, and in digital transformation in particular we are proud of the announcement that President Duque made in Davos with Professor Schwab and the mayor of Medellín, where it was declared that the first Spanish-speaking center for the fourth industrial revolution will be in Medellín.

How will the ICT sector continue to be a driver for growth in Colombia?

I do not see us as a sector in itself as much as a facilitator for growth in all other sectors. There is no sector that does not use technology or that does not need innovation; we have to pull that innovation and technology and bring it to all the other sectors. It creates new opportunities for people who may not have had them. That is a big change from where we were used to a certain number of years spent for degrees or certifications. Frankly, if you know how to program, get on board: we need you. We are pushing to help people get excited about it. I am part of a small group of women in tech, and we are convinced that the younger the ages of the girls when we reach them, the more impact we can have on them, as they think about careers in tech. The number of women versus men in the tech sector in particular is always behind, and not just in Colombia. When one is a woman in tech, they have to do their part to inspire other women and especially younger girls to think about it.