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Which Economies Showed the Most Digital Progress in 2020?

HBR | Bhaskar Chakravorti, Ajay Bhalla, and Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi | Dec 18, 2020

Summary:   Now more than ever, digital capabilities are essential to ensure a country’s growth and economic resilience. But how do different economies compare as far as the current state and ongoing momentum of their digital development? And how have these factors impacted their experiences during the pandemic? The authors share key insights from the latest edition of their Digital Evolution Scorecard (a comprehensive analysis of 90 economies based on 160 key indicators of digital development), in which they segment the world’s economies into four distinct zones: Stand Out, Stall Out, Break Out, and Watch Out.

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Understanding the 2020 Digital Evolution Scorecard in Light of the Pandemic

Of course, an analysis of global technology and economic trends over the past year would be incomplete without an examination of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Most interestingly, while a high Digital Evolution score has generally correlated with greater economic resilience to the disruptions of the pandemic, it hasn’t been a guarantee.

To explore this question, we mapped countries’ Digital Evolution scores against their percentage decrease in GDP growth from Q2 2019 to Q2 2020 (adjusted for inflation). As expected, we found that overall, the level of digital evolution helped explain at least 20% of a country’s economic resilience — or cushioning — against the pandemic’s economic impact.

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That said, this effect was not universal. Vietnam scored low on our digital evolution scorecard, but the impact of the pandemic on its economy has thus far remained smaller than expected. Vietnam is the only South East Asian country on track for economic growth this year, largely because the government was able to keep the virus under control through aggressive preemptive measures. In addition, the recent economic boom from Chinese manufacturing shifting to the more affordable Vietnamese market also helped the country to maintain its economic growth through the crisis.

On the opposite end, we also saw that the UK — a highly digitally-evolved economy — experienced an economic decline on par with India or Rwanda. Not only was the government response to the pandemic less than optimal, the composition of the UK economy also caused it to suffer disproportionately from social distancing and lockdowns: Services (which are are disproportionately reliant on in-person activities) make up around three quarters of the UK economy, and 10.9% of the country’s GDP comes from travel and tourism — all of which were severely curtailed due to social distancing requirements.

Overall, digital evolution is an essential contributor to economic resilience, but it is no panacea. The government’s Covid response, as well as the unique composition of its economy, can make a big difference as well.  Aside from the impact of the pandemic, this analysis also illustrated several more long-term trends around how the most successful countries are pursuing digital evolution:

1. More data privacy, less data protectionism

Economies that provide secure, frictionless digital experiences nurture the most positive, engaged consumers, creating the most active digital ecosystems. These ecosystems then generate more data, which is the lifeblood of a competitive digital economy, enabling a virtuous cycle of growth. Economies such as Singapore, Japan, Canada, and the Netherlands illustrate this approach well, with a combination of open data flows and strong privacy protections.

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Meanwhile, economies such as China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia represent a paradox: While significant state investment and control over their digital ecosystems can lead to higher digital momentum, these economies also impede the free flow of data, resulting in missed opportunities to further boost that momentum through digital products and applications that rely on widely accessible data. The growing popularity of data localization laws (i.e., regulations that limit the transfer of data across international borders) is ultimately making data less accessible, which not only hinders global growth, but often also diminishes countries’ own competitiveness by raising costs for digital businesses, reducing competition, and encouraging rent-seeking behavior among domestic actors.

2. Mobile internet access is necessary — but not sufficient

Mobile internet access has been a strong driver of momentum for Break Out economies, and it is the fastest route to getting the third of the global population that doesn’t yet have internet connectivity online. India is the preeminent example: Its internet connectivity has doubled in the last four years, and the country is on track to add 350 million smartphones by 2023.

The pandemic has illustrated how the quality of both access (i.e., reliable broadband versus sporadic satellite connections) and devices (i.e., laptops and tablets well-suited to learning and working versus low-end mobile phones) is a key component of economic resilience in a time of heavy reliance on digital technologies. For example, when the pandemic shut down in-person schooling in India, many children had to resort to WhatsApp to communicate with their teachers. Although the messaging app was certainly better than nothing, the limited growth of India’s digital ecosystem beyond mobile phones created major inequalities in access to essential education.

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3. The innovation-inclusion tradeoff

Once economies reach a higher level of digital evolution, they often encounter a tradeoff between maintaining their rapid momentum and fostering institutions that prioritize digital inclusion — that is, the equitable distribution of digital development across class, gender, ethnicity, and geography. While smaller economies such as Singapore and Estonia may have an easier time maintaining their innovative edge while still ensuring an inclusive digital environment, larger, more complex economies can struggle to balance innovation with the bureaucracy needed to responsibly regulate that innovation.

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