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Interview: ‘Using digital technology to benefit the whole of society’

Digitalisation poses complex challenges for international cooperation. Dirk Aßmann, Director General of GIZ’s Sectoral Department, talks in this interview about the related challenges, opportunities and solutions.

Digitalisation brings many challenges for international cooperation, including inadequate infrastructure, a skills shortage and problems with IT security, but also many opportunities. The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH uses digitalisation in projects across the company and around the world to improve people’s lives and promote long-term development. It makes use of digital technologies to focus more effectively on people’s needs, helps shape the policy framework and promotes responsible use of data.

Mr Aßmann, ‘digital transformation’ is an abstract concept and covers a broad range of issues. Could you tell us what the role of digitalisation is in international cooperation?

Of course. We understand digital transformation as an ongoing process of change based on technology that has an impact right across society. In the initial decades of internet use, the focus was on its potential to create an open and democratic world. Today, we are more likely to be seeing state surveillance, fake news and hate speech. Digital technologies still have enormous potential, but they can also be misused.

And, of course, this affects development cooperation as much as any other sector. Our partners want and need to be part of the digital transformation. Many countries have already embarked on the process, but they face the challenge of finding their way in a highly competitive and global digital world, and of making decisions about technology to ensure they are not left behind. We see GIZ playing an important role in equipping our partners to decide for themselves the direction their digital transformation will take.

And what does digitalisation mean for GIZ in its own day-to-day work?

Fortunately, we devised a strategic framework for digital change back in 2015. Our ‘digital by default’ approach means that as part of every project audit, we assume that there are digital approaches that will help the project’s success. It is crucial that digital solutions must be oriented to the needs of individuals as ‘principals for digital development’. If not, then these digital solutions are no solutions at all. GIZ has implemented hundreds of projects on behalf of the German Government that make extensive use of the scope offered by digitalisation, ranging from tackling fake news and the creation of 32 African Digital Transformation Centers to the use of blockchain and artificial intelligence.

Data is another important aspect of making best use of the opportunities that digitalisation offers. What is GIZ doing here to help people?

Data is often described as the 21st century’s oil. When data is properly collected, securely stored and intelligently analysed, it can create significant added value – and that applies both to developing countries and to industrialised nations. However, developing countries in particular often lack access to data or the expertise to create the framework within which data can create added value for society.

One example is anonymised data on people’s movements. We have been able to use data from ride-hailing services in cities including Bangkok to reach a better understanding of patterns of movement. In the Thai capital, these services and Thailand’s Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning are now using the findings for planning purposes. They are better able to manage traffic flows, reducing emissions and getting travellers to their destination more quickly. There is also huge potential in the use of satellite data, to which many of our partner countries do not have good access. For example, data from the Copernicus European Earth observation programme has been used to survey ground subsidence in Viet Nam’s Mekong Delta. This is significantly improving the planning of wastewater systems in cities in the Delta.

So you work with partners around the world to shape the digital transformation fairly and responsibly. But how is GIZ as a company tackling these challenges and opportunities?

We need a solid foundation to underpin the use digital opportunities as part of our work. GIZ has been investing heavily in this area for years. We are completely overhauling our technological basis, digitalising processes in stages and introducing data protection and IT security management.

As a service provider for international cooperation, it is essential that all our staff have digital literacy. So we are investing on an ongoing basis in our employees’ skills to ensure they are equipped for permanent change – and can help shape that change. We have also been working for years with specialists from the digital and IT sectors who bring a lot of key know-how to the table. Finally, technological partnerships also increasingly important. And as I said at the outset, the digital transformation is a wide-ranging change process, both for individual societies and for GIZ as a company.

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