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Commentary: Want smart Asian countries? Get governments to be digital ready first

Smart investments in technology will transform the region’s greatest resource - its people, says Go-Jek founder and Global CEO Nadiem Makarim.

JAKARTA: People across the developing world live longer, healthier lives than they once did, and benefit from more education than even a few decades ago.

But there’s still a large health and education gap between many developing countries and richer nations.

And without healthy, highly skilled people, countries stagnate economically, meaning less money for investment in functioning health and education services.


Technology has often been seen as the mechanism for breaking this cycle. But it’s a solution which has had mixed results, with some investments having no impact or, at worst, proving to be costly endeavours that only intensify failings in existing systems.

Often the mistake has been to start with the tech, rather than focusing on the issue which needs to be addressed.

It’s easy to be dazzled by a flashy new device which promises to be a quick fix, but nothing will be achieved if a new technology doesn’t address the specific problem that’s causing a health or education service to fail.

This is one of the findings of a new report from the Pathways for Prosperity Commission on Technology and Inclusive Development on which I am a commissioner.

READ: What a tech education today for a digital workforce tomorrow looks like, a commentary

(Photo: Unsplash/Warren Wong) READ: The common, rare and weird reasons why people install smart home technology, a commentary The report found that the digital future that many envisage - where children are better educated, and patients have better health prospects because services are fixed with the clever use of technology - is by no means guaranteed.

Simply arming patients and pupils with tablets and smartphones will not revolutionise medical care and schooling if this hardware isn’t targeting a specific area of weakness and isn’t integrated into a broader system.

However, the report also finds that, when implemented thoughtfully and with a clear understanding of the issues to be addressed and the wider operating environment, digital technologies hold tremendous promise for health and education systems.

In a country as vast as Indonesia for instance, with its 17,508 islands, lack of access can mean that the quality of healthcare and education can vary greatly.


Indonesian healthtech platform Halodoc is addressing this problem by connecting patients with doctors, insurance, labs, and pharmacies in one simple mobile application.

With 20,000 doctors and 1,000 pharmacies in its partner network, Halodoc currently has about 2 million users, and works with us to leverage Go-Jek’s 2-million strong Go-Ride fleet to connect patients with health professionals.

In education, Mindspark, an online tutoring software in India, uses adaptive learning to target areas in which children are struggling.

(Photo: AFP/GOH Chai Hin) Motorbike on-demand service Go-Jek secured $1.2 billion from Chinese tech giants and Tencent Holdings in May, according to data from Crunchbase. AFP/GOH Chai Hin

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It has been found to generate improvements of up to 38 per cent in mathematics assessment scores, dramatically reducing the learning gaps among children.

Another advantage is that digital learning tools like these can be rolled out at scale at the cost of only a fraction of current per-pupil spend in schools.

What examples like these have in common is that they target a specific issue, whether it’s lack of teacher capacity to give individualised teaching or challenges of access.

Additionally, they are interconnected with public clinics and schools, and the services they provide complement and enhance those provided by the state.


This is only the start. There’s a real potential for a future where virtual systems enable the breakdown of walls of clinics and classrooms, facilitating remote diagnosis via telehealth technologies, and reaching students in the most far-flung areas with quality education through videoconferencing and e-learning.

In the future, real-time content could be matched to individual students’ proficiency levels, and the automation of routine tasks could give teachers and nurses more quality time with their pupils and patients.

But for this vision to become a reality, governments will need to become “digital ready” themselves. They must start by ensuring that the right digital foundations and infrastructure are in place – even the simplest digital services require access to electricity, the internet, and digitally competent operators.

And they will need to create a favourable business environment, which embraces technological change and has the right regulations and digital infrastructure to allow innovation to flourish.

A man shows an example of an iBook textbook on an iPad after a news conference introducing a digital textbook service in New York January 19, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/Files)

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New rules and regulations will need to be established to guard against privacy violations, data misuse and algorithmic bias. Data standardisation will also be key to break down silos between programmes and ensure information can be shared and compared across regions and between organisations.

Finally, governments must be open to innovation in the public sector, as well as create opportunities for the private sector to work together with them.

READ: Countries are not responding well to automation, a commentary

In Indonesia, software development for healthcare and education is already attracting interest and funding from investors, but to realise technology’s fullest potential, close collaboration between the government and the private sector is needed.

Countries that get this right will enable digital disruptions to be truly game changing for everyone. They will successfully transform health and education services, creating healthy and digitally-savvy workforces across Asia.

Nadiem Makarim is the Global CEO and Founder of GOJEK, Indonesia’s first tech unicorn now operating in 5 countries in Southeast Asia, and a Commissioner for the Pathways for Prosperity Commission for Technology and Inclusive Development. 

Source: CNA/nr


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