Achieving Inclusive Growth in the Digital Age: A Global Imperative

All around us, we can see how digital technologies are transforming the economies in which we live, the cities we inhabit, the way we learn, and the lives we lead. Experience shows that growth and change in the digital age are faster and more pervasive than ever before, affecting more people at greater speed than was possible with previous generations of technology.

However, as the global economic recovery continues, a concern has begun to emerge in countries across the world. It's that while growth -- supported by digital technologies -- has returned, many people feel the resulting benefits are passing them by, and failing to directly affect them and their families. The underlying risk is that exclusion from digital advances may extend into exclusion from social and economic opportunities, leaving millions of people effectively locked out of the next phase of global growth and development.

In my view, ensuring that growth in the digital age benefits populations across the world is one of the biggest issues facing mankind today. It's also a challenge that I believe global business and governments have a responsibility to address. Success will demand sustained effort from many parties worldwide, and while we at PwC don't pretend to have all the answers, we're determined to play our part. And our shared goal should be to create a world where everyone has the opportunity to benefit from the digital age on more equal terms.

It's an objective that's easy to state, but whose boundaries are hard to define -- owing to the vast array of elements it involves. From microfinance to mobile communications in emerging countries; from eHealthcare to mobile banking; from smart cities to government services delivered over the web -- all these components will play a role. But arguably the most important factor in creating equal access to digital opportunities is education, a space where technology is opening up new possibilities and capabilities by the day.

This is an area that we at PwC take extremely seriously -- and where we're devoting substantial time and resources worldwide. Take the US, where youth education is a huge issue. In 2012 our US firm launched 'Earn Your Future,' a multi-year US$160 million investment consisting of US$60 million in cash and one million service hours, devoting the time and talents of our 39,000 people across the US to benefit more than 2.5 million students and educators.

This is just one of many educational initiatives that we're undertaking. And a common focus of these efforts is around finding new and better ways to harness, apply and fund digital technologies in education -- and then to carry the benefits forward as students graduate into the workforce. With this latter goal in mind, our global 'Adapt to Survive' project has united the two most comprehensive sources of talent data in the world -- the real-time behaviors drawn from LinkedIn's 277 million members, and employer information from PwC's Saratoga database of people and performance metrics -- to create a 'Talent Adaptability Score' that evaluates a country's ability to match talent with opportunity.

So, what have our efforts to improve access to education and opportunity taught us? I'd like to highlight three insights. The first is that the next step in the evolution of education will be the weaving-in of technology into the social fabric of the educational process, with all stakeholders -- teachers, administration and parents -- fully committed to improving access and outcomes through digital integration. This advance is more imminent in some countries than others, but needs to be pursued everywhere.

The second insight is around the resources needed to enable digital progress. As my ongoing conversations with people across education and technology consistently underline, the full power of digital technology to support learning and equality of opportunity can only be realized if sufficient investment is forthcoming. And this investment requires a clear and robust business case. So an ability to measure the tangible impacts of investments in education -- including the benefits both for business and also for society as a whole -- is critical. Again, this is an area where we're actively developing new tools and approaches.

Third, as digitization continues to advance, the working environment that today's students will join is changing radically and irreversibly -- heralding sweeping change in employment opportunities and major dilemmas for employers. For example, millennial recruits are ambitious, tech-savvy and self-confident, expecting to advance rapidly to senior management positions. But their older colleagues are working longer. So, as companies grow and opportunities emerge, who'll get the top jobs? Organizations need to work out how they'll answer such questions.

As the world faces up to a new era of digitally-enabled growth, it's entering uncharted territory -- and the danger is that the benefits will flow to the few at the expense of the many. In my view, such a world would be neither fair nor sustainable. Across education and a host of other fields, let's work together to ensure that growth in the digital age is inclusive -- for the good of us all.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum to mark the Forum's Annual Meeting 2015 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 21-24). The Forum's Strategic Partner community comprises a select group of leading global companies representing diverse regions and industries that have been selected for their alignment with the Forum's commitment to improving the state of the world. Read all the posts in the series here.