As recent years have highlighted, 2023 will not be simple. One thing we can be certain of is that digital has the potential to continue to deliver significant opportunities for development in SIDS, particularly in this final ‘Year of Action’ of the SAMOA Pathway. When applied thoughtfully and inclusively, these tools can transform our ways of living and working – including supporting and safeguarding the most vulnerable in our societies – and shape transformative models of development. Enabling entrepreneurial and youth voices and agendas will be an essential step in amplifying digital’s role in climate action and in driving the Blue Economy. Whilst digital can catalyse government and public services, and deliver new products and services which could continue to support financial and broader inclusion across SIDS.
All SIDS are exploring the role of digital in their economies and societies, but adopting a whole-of-society approach to digital is crucial in identifying entry-points, policy priorities, and technical interventions to best leverage digital and digital technologies. This approach is particularly important in driving diversification of national economies, ensuring digital can translate into real and sustainable value, and in shaping broader development initiatives. The latter could include regional approaches to key digital priorities, and delivering economies of scale in the context of digital – from shared procurement of digital technologies to regulatory harmonization that catalyses national digital enterprises and entrepreneurs.
Digital is foundational to tackling climate change and other priority challenges - but it's not just about surviving. SIDS are also well-positioned to thrive in this digital landscape and can even shape the 'rules of the game' - driving the technical standards, governance and policy frameworks, and other foundations, that will define the global benefits of digital for decades to come. This includes leveraging SIDS’ unique benefits in the context of digital. Smallness can enable agility in exploring new technologies, and drive innovative thinking and practices. Furthermore, digital can make geographic distance irrelevant, allowing SIDS to incubate and lead global digital efforts. SIDS’ dynamic local economies are also advancing important e-commerce and digital trade efforts – whilst the talents of SIDS youth, discussed in more detail below, could translate into global digital impact.
At the heart of these priorities is the way in which SIDS are exploring digital to fundamentally reshape their very existence – including moving beyond traditional ‘e-government’ approaches toward defining ‘Digital Nations’. A ‘Digital Nation’ is a wholesale reconceptualisation of a country – from digital-first public services, to creating core digital assets (including canonical data registries, digital ID, and digital payment processes) for a digital economy and society, and building the skills, workflows, and processes to safeguard culture, heritage, and other assets using digital tools, This approach is being explored by a number of countries (including the 'Smart Nation' initiative in Singapore). More recently, Tuvalu, in response to existential threats from sea-level rise, is exploring a digital representation of itself in the ‘Metaverse’ in an attempt to preserve the country’s physical landmarks and cultural heritage for future generations. Other SIDS are also considering the potential of this ‘digital twin’ approach, with Caribbean islands initiating discussions on traversing the metaverse and examining the opportunities and risks in such an approach. However, a ‘Digital Nation’ approach is more than transposing offline structures into a digital setting. It is a paradigm shift in development.
A ’Digital Nation’ initiative also reaffirms the broad relevance of digital for SIDS. With more than 60% of SIDS populations living in an urban setting, ‘smart cities’ can make these environments more liveable, sustainable, inclusive, and people-centred – whilst the potential of data-driven precision agriculture can improve food security in a context of limited land and natural resources. These tools also extend beyond borders. As SIDS transition to a digital economy, a number of countries have begun to prepare their economies for participation in international and regional markets. To promote simpler and more secure payment mechanisms, the Republic of Palau is proactively pursuing a central bank digital currency by establishing a national 'stablecoin' programme. Meanwhile, Cabo Verde sees digital remittances and related financial services as a pathway to important growth. Digital skills and governance are also essential components, with a well-functioning digital economy requiring strong human capital. A blended learning course on the legal implications of e-commerce for SIDS was designed as part of a 2023 distance learning initiative. These skills are particular priorities in relation to leveraging data, as discussed further in the next section of this Bulletin.
SIDS also need to put the next generation at the centre of their digital efforts. As highlighted in the forthcoming analysis of a UNDP survey of 4,000 young people across SIDS, this important segment of the population sees digital as a key driver of national development. They are building digital businesses, leveraging digital for communication and connection, and developing skills and knowledge about digital – and through using digital tools. The youth of SIDS have proven that they have a crucial perspective and enthusiasm that must also be nurtured through learning programs like the Samoa-Knowledge Society – but also by providing young people with the platforms and support to drive digital development within their societies and economies. Collaboration between SIDS in sharing youth-led innovations is essential for addressing the geographical dispersion and lack of access to youth funding, such as regional networks like the SIDS Youth AIMS Hub. Ultimately, the greatest resource in SIDS is human capital, within a people who hold immense creative and entrepreneurial spirit alongside the ancestral knowledge of oceans. Throughout 2023, digital will continue to unlock this potential for SIDS to develop their own solutions to their greatest challenges.
Read the full 2023 and Beyond SIDS Bulletin.