In 2020, APEC will be charting its priorities for the coming decades. Since 1994, APEC’s primary goal was to achieve free and open trade and investment in the region. A post-2020 vision will necessarily consider the many changes the global community has undergone over the past 30 years, such as the emergence of digital technology as a driver of economic and social change.

As the host of APEC 2020, Malaysia organized a dialogue among different stakeholders in February, just as COVID-19 started affecting member economies, to discuss the possibilities of a post-2020 Asia-Pacific.

Stakeholders, including those representatives from small-to-medium enterprises, the technology sector, and the multilateral community, offered their perspectives on how to future-proof the region in the digital era, challenges facing member economies, and what governments can do to meet them.

Pay Attention to Stakeholders

According to Ms Faezrah Wahidah Rizalman of Bayu Harvest—a partner in the two-woman team that won the 2019 APEC Digital Prosperity Award for an app that connects small farmers to small businesses—automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will create models for new work, but there are fears that it might replace human capital.

Faezrah says that reskilling will keep people working. To do this, she said, governments have to pay attention and get actively involved with their constituencies.

“What I'd like the governments to start doing, if not continue doing, is to actually reach out to their direct stakeholders,” she said.

“We at APEC are having so many dialogues, which is a good thing,” she said. “But at the same time, we need to make sure that whatever policy that we are going to discuss here will have direct impact to the people.”

Use Technology to help People

While technology may sometimes be negatively associated with job insecurity, the tech industry reminds us that digital advancements have great potential in changing industries and people’s lives for the better – whether it’s facilitating remote work, creating new channels for customers or fighting against worldwide epidemics.

“There are some really interesting applications of AI to things that you wouldn't normally think of is associated with AI,” said Mr Nick Bauer, Head of Public Policy in Malaysia for Google.

“For example, we're partnering with an APEC economy, Thailand, to help them diagnose diabetic retinopathy using artificial intelligence,” he said. “Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes that can cause blindness. And we've helped them develop a machine learning model that can sort through the images and the scans of the retina to more easily detect this disease.”

“The digital economy is bringing so many new opportunities for people to grow their careers and their businesses,” Bauer said. “But we have to acknowledge that some people are being left behind by these new rapid advancements.”

“We're trying to do everything we can to make sure that technology brings economic opportunity for everyone,” he said. He went on to note that Google has organized human resources development initiatives focused on helping workers and smaller businesses through in-person coaching for SMEs, connecting workings with jobs and online reskilling.

Narrow the Gaps

“Digitalization is pervasive, it's everywhere,” said Mr Héctor Tajonar de Lara, Policy Advisor for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which, alongside APEC, takes a multilateral approach to developing better policies for the digital economy.

“Therefore, as a forum for multilateral cooperation, I think there's a lot of work that APEC can do precisely to harness its benefits and to make digitalization more inclusive, improve access and use of digital technologies, and narrow the gaps,” he said.