By Anir Chowdhury,Policy Advisor of a2i in ICT Division and Cabinet Division supported by UNDP.
What will Bangladesh look like in 2041? This is the first part of a two-part special that concludes on December 19
Will “digital” be a novelty in 2041, our target year to become a high-income nation? Will the “digital” focus be enough to galvanize collective action to take us past the middle-income trap and be equitably prosperous, leaving no one behind?
On the Digital Bangladesh Day of the Digital Bangladesh Year, we must ask ourselves as we imagine our country in 2041.
Digital Bangladesh held the imagination of the entire country for the last 13 years since our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s clarion call on December 12, 2008 as part of the Awami League’s election manifesto. Starting with utter disbelief and steady ridicule by naysayers, and yet undaunting conviction by a few, Bangladesh, a technologically-backward country, has clearly made a remarkable journey towards mass digitization.
The direct implementation guidance of Digital Bangladesh comes from its architect Sajeeb Wazed, the ICT Advisor to the PM, while the Minister of State for ICT, Zunaid Ahmed Palak, MP, maintains relentless monitoring and sleepless delegation.
There is no doubting the fact that the astounding quadrupling of the country’s GDP per capita and improvement in service delivery (demonstrated by a savings of $11.22 billion and 9.26 billion workdays by citizens) during this time have been greatly facilitated by digital adoption in all departments of the government and almost every sphere of the society.
During Covid-19 lockdowns, Digital Bangladesh played a key role in ensuring service continuity in healthcare and education, commerce and trade, social safety net payments for the new poor, grievance redress and whatever else you can imagine.
Last year, on Digital Bangladesh Day, in a Dhaka Tribune op-ed, I attempted to dispel the myths surrounding the term. I tried to explain what it was, who it was for, and what it would become. I ended by briefly touching upon 2041, the ultimate goal, when Bangladesh intends to become the prosperous, developed, poverty-free, and equitable nation of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s dreams.
Today, much of the promise of Digital Bangladesh is bringing tangible benefits to citizens, especially the underserved, rural poor. This leapfrogging was possible because of the sheer audacity and inspirational leadership demonstrated by our government which invigorated people’s hopes, aspirations, and self-belief, and effectively raised the frontiers of the country’s growth.
Inspired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s bold vision, implemented by all agencies of the government, and participated by the citizens, this leapfrogging phenomenon is not merely a blip on the development path, but rather a sustainable occurrence blazing a new development trajectory for Bangladesh and setting examples for the developing world.
The world in 2041
The world will change in more fundamental ways and more rapidly in the 20 years between 2021 and 2041 than it would in the 13 years between 2009 and 2021 -- the totality of the Digital Bangladesh years. In fact, futurists predict that humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in all of human history.
Consider that to reach 50 million users, the wired phone took 75 years, radio 38 years, TV 13 years, Facebook 3.5 years, and games like Angry Birds 35 days. In fact, the Indian Covid-19 app Arogya Setu reached 50 million users in 13 days.
The Human Genome Project took 10 years and $2.7 billion to complete whereas today, a human gene can be sequenced in a few hours for a thousand dollars. By 2041, this may come down to a few seconds and a few cents.
The road to 2041 will be largely dominated by machines that learn beyond the logic of the software that program them, popularly known as Artificial Intelligence or AI. More progress in AI took place in the last five years than in the previous 50. Siri on iPhones, Google Assistant on Android phones, and Amazon Alexa are all AI assistants helping human beings with daily tasks.
AI will be one of the major drivers in the journey to 2041. Other major drivers include advanced robotics that master the electromechanical space, nanotechnology with materials stronger than steel and thinner than human hair, trillions of sensors attached to practically everything around us (known as Internet of Things or IoT), advanced ways to edit, sequence, and clone genes, organs, and whole animals (notwithstanding the ethical argument around this), among others.
However, the change in the next 20 years will be much more dramatic. Some of it may be seen as science fiction but they will indeed happen. Some phenomena that could not even be imagined are close to reality. Even though most of these occurrences will start in wealthier countries, they will be quickly adopted in Bangladesh, which itself will be a developed country by 2041.
Imagine the globe in 2041 (written in present tense):
No poverty: Extreme poverty by and large does not exist, and poverty exists in the low single digits. However, there is greater inequality because wealth is concentrated in the hands of people owning intellectual and physical capital and not the workers
Robots co-exist with human beings in all service sectors: This is true in restaurants, hotels, stores, pharmacies, etc
Computers with a human brain: Artificial intelligence is quite mature already and a computer is almost as smart as a human being, being able to learn more quickly, process more information, and make decisions more quickly than a human being. The only exception is the realm of human values, judgment, and wisdom which has not been overtaken by machines yet. However, futurists predict that technological “singularity,” a point in time where a machine becomes more intelligent than a human being, happens somewhere around 2045
Quantum computing is a reality: This is key in predicting weather and climate change with high accuracy, financial risks management with more accurate forecasts, establishing strong network security, and accelerating machine learning to produce human-like robots
Cars are self-driven: 25% of the cars fly because they are safer, faster, and affordable. However, most people do not own cars and use ride-sharing which is more economical, manageable, and environmentally-friendly
Most manufacturing is done by robots: 3D printers allow individual manufacturing, fundamentally restructuring the large manufacturing industries
Farming decisions are driven by data: Satellites in the sky and sensors in the field detecting nutrients and water in the soil, and sensors in the body of farm animals detecting their health conditions and nutrition will be in use
Drones in agriculture: Increased use of drones for agricultural fields for delivering fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation because of their cost-effectiveness and precision
Wearable computing: All clothes and eyeglasses are connected to the internet, monitoring the wearer’s vital signs, reporting on them, and getting real-time recommendations from robot doctors
Robot surgeons: Most simple and many critical surgeries will be done by robot surgeons
Printed organs: Human cells and organs are printed by 3D printers
Printed food: A large amount of food is printed at home and restaurants by 3D printers, reducing dependence on agricultural land, livestock, and fisheries
Global access for local producers: Many small producers have unprecedented access to global markets
Anytime, anywhere education: Most physical institutions of education are replaced by anytime, anywhere education using devices, supplemented by the physical education which ensures the social and collaborative aspects of education
Personalized education: Education delivery is personalized based on the exact needs of the learner and based on “multiple intelligences” such as logical-mathematical, linguistic, kinesthetic, visual-spatial, musical, etc
New occupations: 70% of the occupations of 2018 no longer exist, forcing policy makers and employers to rethink the skills mix that is required in the society and the education/training providers to re-equip themselves to cater to the rapidly evolving demand
Personalized service delivery: All government services are personalized and delivered to devices in the palm of the hands or implanted in human bodies. A few physical one-stop service centres run in PPP (private-public partnership) model
Citizens’ networks: Loosely formed citizens’ networks have become part of the governance structure and collaborate seamlessly with the government, strengthening the emotional foundations of AI in governance
New social contract: Participatory democracy, where citizens can vote on any policy issue and the vote is directly seen in real-time by policy makers, top-level bureaucrats, businesses, NGOs. The alternative, dystopian reality is that governments and a few large businesses form the Orwellian “Big Brother” which monitors and controls everything and everybody
Interstellar colonization: Small human colonies exist outside of our planet and different countries are trying to determine the political and governance boundaries
Bangladesh in 2041 compared to Bangladesh in 2021
In the last 13 years, internet penetration in Bangladesh has gone up 100 times. This means that about 100 times more Bangladeshis are able to take advantage of the internet for information, education, recreation, business, and trade.
It was not possible to think that anybody below the middle class could have mobile phones two decades back. Almost everybody has access to mobile phones today, even if they don’t own one. Nobody could have predicted it in 2008/09, but the Digital Bangladesh vision, and the government, private sector, and citizens believing in Digital Bangladesh, transformed this vision into reality today.
The Digital Bangladesh 2021 vision focused on improving service delivery using ICTs, capacity development of the whole society towards a knowledge economy, and the diversification of exports towards knowledge products.
In light of the picture of the globe in 2041, the following table provides an indicative contrast for Bangladesh between the years 2021 and 2041 across a number of areas which are listed in the first column:
Thus, the Bangladesh 2041 vision must be very different in terms of both the structure and the concept compared to the 2021 version because of the following big trends that will inevitably take place and our work will accelerate that transformation.
Full digitization and developed economy
Digital Bangladesh 2021 created the foundation for a digital economy. The government services are digitized, but full institutionalization, and a total change in bureaucratic behaviour in delivering these services using new methods replacing the old anarchic and analog ones, will take a few more years.
Adoption by society will also need some time and there are risks such as cybersecurity threats, privacy issues on citizens’ information, etc. Private sector has been slower than the government in adopting digital technologies to change their business processes.
However, Bangladesh long before 2041 will reap full benefits of digitization because by 2030, non-digital services will be non-existent both for government and private sector service providers.
Bureaucracy going non-colonial
Where the Digital Bangladesh Vision 2021 focuses more on the whole-of-government integration and coordination, the 2041 vision must take that to the whole-of-society level by forming creative partnerships across the government, private sectors, NGOs, academia, media, and individuals where they lead and co-design new services.
Collaboration through crowd-sourcing in designing, implementing, and evaluation of policies with citizens and concerned actors, will make the government less Orwellian and more friendly and open.
Fourth Industrial Revolution influencing everything
Bangladesh Vision 2041 will go way beyond the technological aspects and will have to embrace the massive changes triggered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which is already catalyzing the merger of the physical world with the digital world with the biological world.
This means that the virtual world will feel more like the physical world because they will provide experiences of the five senses. Implants in human bodies will allow greater integration with the digital world, further blurring the lines across the physical, digital, and biological.
Human capital as our biggest asset
Bangladesh was mostly a consumer of technologies and only showed signs of leadership in terms of technology production towards the tail end of realizing its 2021 vision. In terms of reforming its public and private institutions, it is creating a global name for itself. We are already donating digital knowhow and experience to many LDCs such as Cambodia, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen, and to even developing countries such as the Philippines, Maldives and Fiji with per capita income many times that of ours.
For the 2041 journey, Bangladesh will already be a recognized leader among middle-income countries in creating technologies, processing, and institutions to effectively sustain its leapfrogging developing trajectory. We will shift from only a knowledge donor to a financial donor. However, our talent will be our biggest asset.
As such, it needs to make the right investments in human capital. In this regard, it needs to engage its talented diaspora.
This concluding part to this piece continues next week on December 19 with ideas about how to get to the Bangladesh of 2041.