Data Strategy

Podcast: data and inclusive technology, with Isabelle Mauro

Digital inclusivity is vital in creating a fairer world. But how do you find a way to connect billions of people? 

16 minutes to read

Isabelle Mauro, former Head of Information, Communications and Technology Industries at the World Economic Forum, has spent her career in telecommunications building relationships between sectors to help marginalised communities come online and grow.  

In this episode of the Data Today Podcast with Dan Klein, we discuss Isabelle’s formative experience connecting women in Bangladesh through SMS, why it’s so important that we promote digital inclusivity as part of ESG metrics, and how we can incentivise businesses to do more for those in need. 

Podcast transcript

Dan Klein: 

Hello and welcome to Data Today, brought to you by Zühlke. I'm your host, Dan Klein, and I look after everything data and AI at Zühlke. We're living in a world of opportunities, but to fully realize them, we have to reshape the way we innovate. We need to stop siloing data, ringfencing knowledge, and looking at traditional value chains. And that's what this podcast is about. We're taking a look at data outside the box, to see how amazing individuals from disparate fields and industries are transforming the way they work with data, the challenges they are overcoming, and what we can all learn from them. 

It's easy to assume that in the 21st century we are all connected in some way through the digital world, but for many millions of people, that's a pipe dream. In rural or impoverished communities around the world, there are people who simply do not have access to the opportunities for learning and economic independence that digital inclusivity brings. So, what can be done? There's often little incentive for businesses to get involved. After all, the financial return on helping the world's poorest is, to be blunt, minimal. On the other hand, governments have their own priorities and those most in need often have the quietest voices and end up falling through the cracks. 

Today's guest is Isabelle Mauro, an expert in public-private partnership, who has spent her career bringing together different bodies to bring connectivity to the world's poorest, from major satellite internet projects to simply connecting villages via SMS in Bangladesh. So, how did Isabelle get here? Her career has taken some incredible twists and turns. 

You've been a wonderful advocate over the years for bridging the gap between the tech world, if you like, and society. Whether it's the GSMA or whether it's the World Economic Forum. What's the thing that's driving it? What's the passion here, that's driving your desire to advocate for this so strongly? 

 

Isabelle Mauro: 

When I joined the GSMA, it's not that I was passionate about tech or mobile industry, I just landed there. It was a job. It was interesting. It was a sector that was booming. But I am not an engineer. I have a master's in political science, so that was not really what I expected I would be landing in. 

In probably the first couple of years that I was at the GSMA, we did a trip to Bangladesh and at the time, Telenor, the mobile operator there, were having these villages with ladies, basically what they were doing, they were giving phones. And imagine the little flip phones at the time, they really were far from the iPhone and the smartphones. And in each of these villages, these ladies, maybe two or three of them had a phone and they used it as a business. So, basically they were renting the phone. People could use the phone by paying a service. At the time, SMSs were already used, so people could already start checking crops, checking what was happening through the SMS. 

And to me, it was really one of these bold moments where what I thought was a sector that was very dry, very technical, made me discover the human side of what impact actually that little phone could have on the life of the villagers, but also on the life of these women who became businesswomen. And all these women in these villages became businesswomen. 

We heard the story. I remember of one of them telling us that with the money she made, she was able to send one of her daughters to university. And for me, it was really the moment where I thought, "Okay, so what I'm doing is not just tech and it's not just about this sector booming and making more money. We are actually really impacting positively, people, but in particular women as well." And I saw that as a chance of doing more of that and it's really been the starting point that has pushed me to see another side of the coin of the industry I was working in. 

 

Dan Klein: 

That's when you were at the GSMA. You must have taken that passion with you into the World Economic Forum. How have you maintained that passion and maintained being able to help in that space? 

 

Isabelle Mauro: 

We have many initiatives on gender and bridging the gender gap, so that fills in as well. I think the digital gender gap is very big, and so, I've really wanted to make sure that we could do something in the sector. The forum, I'm the head of the ICT industry, so I have been having that platform, if you want, as a platform to advocate for not only more women in tech, because I think there are two sides of the story here. Right? There is the, how do you make sure that we have more women working in the tech sector? Because we have an appalling track record at the senior level. 

And the other side is, how do you empower more women through tech? How do you give the tech tools, how do you skill them digitally, so that they become more empowered? And I think those two have been really two sides of the gender gap and of the digital gender gap that I've been very passionate about. And it has been easy, in a way, to do it at the forum through diverse initiatives that we've had. One of the most recent that we launched during the pandemic was the EDISON Alliance. And there it's really our goal is to connect, or at least to improve the lives of 1 billion people by 2025, through digital services in healthcare, education, and financial services. And big part of that objective is also to empower women to use those skills. And I think that's something I'll bring anywhere I go. 

 

Dan Klein: 

The inclusion on diversity debate obviously isn't just gender, it's also marginalized sections of society more broadly, marginalized sections of the planet more broadly, even. How does what you do crossover into that? 

 

Isabelle Mauro: 

Well, I think the crossover is one that happens naturally. I mean, for me, I'm very passionate about connecting women, but I'm very passionate about connecting the 2.9 billion people that are not connected yet to the internet. I think it goes par in par. There is the broader challenge, which is connecting that third nearly, of the population, that is still not online. And a big part of that is women and girls. 

So, I think it goes hand-in-hand, it's not that you advocate from one and not the other, but I think what is important to understand is that in general, men are 21% more likely to have access to the internet than women at a global level. And that figure goes up to 52% in the world's least developed countries. So, when you look at bridging that digital divide and that inclusion, it's important, of course, it's important that we think broadly of all the marginalized, whether it's rural versus urban, whether it's least developed economies versus the Western world. It's important to think in terms of all communities. But when you look at that figure, I think we understand why women in particular are really more affected than male. 

 

Dan Klein: 

If you had a magic wand and there were three things you wanted to wish for to solve some of this, where would your magic wand be? 

 

Isabelle Mauro: 

I think my magic wand would be on finding a business model that works for everybody. There is no mystery. There is a reason why those 2.9 billion people are not connected. And the reason is because in many places there is not a business case for the industry to make returns on their investment in some areas. 

So, I think my magic wand would be to really find these partnerships. Increasingly, we see different models that could work through either terrestrial, mobile, or satellites. There is a combination of technologies that can really bring access to everybody around the planet. So, I think for me, the magic wand would be to make sure that those different sector, segments of industry come together to work together to figure out the business models that are going to make sense for everybody and connect everybody. 

 

Dan Klein: 

For the democratization of the economy to work, adjacent sectors need to be in lockstep with technology and digital. Even digital access in marginalized communities relies on government and private sector access points to make it happen. Isabelle has attempted to make these connections throughout her career. It's clear that tech and technological inclusion cannot exist in a vacuum. 

 

Isabelle Mauro: 

Every sector of the economy is getting digitalized. So, it's not just the energy. You look at healthcare, you look at consumers, you look at financial sector. And that's something that at the forum we've been working with all sectors. I sit on the ICT industry and we are literally horizontally involved with every other sector at the Forum, because everybody is digitalizing. 

I think as we move forward, as we look at digital transformation of all the other sectors, that's somewhere where again, we were talking of business models. We have to, and we will have to increasingly to work together across sectors in finding business models that are going to be, again, viable for everybody. That when you think of your smart meter, when you think of your pipe for the energy, you cannot think about that anymore without thinking of the pipe that is the copper, that is transporting the internet neither. No industry can work in isolation. 

It's a challenge. I'm not going to say it's easy. You will find that a lot of industries, the automotive industry, for instance, or the mobility sector, a lot of industry still see the tech sector as just the pipe that is going to transport their content. And therefore, all they want is like, "Well, give us the capacity that we need and that's it. We don't really have to work with you. We just want the capacity and that's all what we want." But models are changing because in order to give the capacity that all these industries will need, requires further investment, requires CapEx, OpEx. And so, evolving, we really need to work more and more hand-in-hand to understand what the demand is from those sectors. 

 

Dan Klein: 

It's interesting you talk about this public-private partnership, but who's going to land up needing to prime the pump on this, given that it's so cross-cutting? 

 

Isabelle Mauro: 

Well, I think first of all, governments already need to start the same exercise working cross departments because whatever legislation is passed in, let's say in the ICT sector of the part of the government, will have an impact on healthcare, for digital healthcare services. It will have an impact on smart meters. It will have an impact on e-payment, mobile payments. 

Vice versa, any piece of legislation in healthcare that is not thought thoughtfully with the ICT part of the government or the government that is dealing with digitalization, may be a barrier to that digitalization of healthcare services. So, when you look at GDPR, data protection, et cetera, those have affected all the sectors of the economy, because everything now transports data, no matter what sector you're in. 

 

Dan Klein: 

Yeah. So, I'm interested actually, you mentioned GDPR, of course, there's a carve out legally in the GDPR regulations for pandemics. So, you can actually do things with data in a pandemic that you can't do normally. So, I'm interested, how do you think COVID and the last couple of years has impacted inclusion? 

 

Isabelle Mauro: 

Well, I think what we saw is the official figure pretty much is that there was a digital transformation, went sevenfold, grew sevenfold during the pandemic. So, clearly a lot of the measures, and you were talking of governments, we worked with governments, we did an action plan already back in March when COVID exploded, to ask for emergency measures during COVID. So, free more spectrum. There were measures around that neutrality and priority of traffic. Things that as you were saying, you would've never seen outside of a pandemic, were seen as emergency measures that we needed. And that truly enabled this acceleration of digitalization. Then, we went back to what the rules were, where it was necessary. 

But of course, it has affected much more the divide. I mean, I live in New York, and in Manhattan you would see that kids needed to go on tablets, on laptops. If you didn't, if you were in a part of the segment of the population that financially could not afford a phone or two phones, you were lagging behind completely. You could not be part of the economy and of the society during COVID, if you didn't have access. 

So, I think connectivity became really the priority for governments in particular during the first year of COVID. And we saw a lot of measures there. You saw a lot of packages in the US, where there was vouchers that were given to people. And we are talking of the US, right? It's not the nanny state as France might be. For the state to intervene in the US, that was very atypical. So, there was really this urgency and it brought that. 

What I think is happening now is that we are running the risk that there is a reverse situation where there is, of course, an energy crisis, there is a geopolitical crisis, there is a war, there is conflict. And connectivity is no longer the priority on the top list of governments at the moment. And so, that is really something where we really need to put back the emphasis on, and that it's crucial, it's essential for growth, it's essential to help sustainability, to help other industry digitalize. So, that's something that we really need to keep in the radar and keep pushing governments to keep it a priority, if we are serious about connecting this 2.9 billion that are still not online. 

 

Dan Klein: 

Do you think the conditions are in place for the institutional investors to now step in and support this sort of things, now that governments are stepping back? Or, is it that actually what happens is we have a vacuum? Well, where does this thesis land up, I suppose? 

 

Isabelle Mauro: 

Well, I think some institutional organization are still have always put in money for, again, around connectivity or to push for connectivity. So, I don't think that has changed in the sense that the money that was available has not been withdrawn. And I'm thinking more of where we need more support, now is the time to not withdraw on that, to provide support to the energy crisis. 

So, I think it's a matter of finding the balance. There is a crisis, the crisis needs to be addressed, but bearing in mind that we cannot fall behind on connectivity. We cannot fall behind on bringing people online. And that needs to continue. 

 

Dan Klein: 

It certainly can be easy to get sidetracked in today's world. Of course, we have to throw funding at huge issues like climate change and geopolitical instability. But do these too large to comprehend crises stop us from seeing other issues? There's been a move towards the measurement of ESG in the private sector recently. How do we balance its focus on climate with the need for inclusivity and diversity? Isabelle has been a strong advocate for women and their inclusion in the technology space. 

 

Isabelle Mauro: 

I think we've pointed out that quite a lot, when I was working on the EDISON Alliance for digital inclusion that really there is this tendency of ESG being very focused on the E, and the social and governance is really left behind and inclusion and everything that is included in that. 

There are things that can be done. So, for instance, we worked on a digital inclusion bond. So, you may know that there are, of course, so many proliferation of green bonds that companies are issuing. And what we were pledging with that guidebook for inclusion bond was really to look at projects to include in those bonds. The issuance of projects that were, where the money would really fund projects that were for inclusion, for digital inclusion. 

And so, we've been working with investors, we had investors such as Vista, Brightstar Capital, that were working with us on this, with Mastercard, to really look at, how can we really ensure that we shift a little bit that attention from the green to inclusion as well and the social aspect, right? Social inclusion, digital inclusion of those bonds. 

So, I hope we can see more of these initiatives from the industry and I think governments in that sense can help as well, right? It's also their role to ensure that, again, digital doesn't fall behind because of climate. Digital for climate is very important, how digitalization, how digital, how technologies, current technologies can really help other industry lower the carbon emissions and the decarbonization. So, that as well, is something that we really need to keep in mind. 

 

Dan Klein: 

Isabelle, I have to ask this, seven years in New York, what's next for you? 

 

Isabelle Mauro: 

So, what's next for me? Next year, beginning of next year, I'll be moving back to Europe and staying in the tech sector, but I will be joining the Global Satellite Operators Association, leading that organization, which until now has been led by a wonderful lady, Aarti. And so for me, it's a very exciting challenge to take on. I think the satellite industry, it's really at a turning point in its history, with new entrants that are bringing really some flavory color to the scene, to the space and landscape and satellite landscape. 

But also, because I really do believe that it's a turning point in partnerships that can be forged with other industries and trying to look at the complementarity of all these industries in trying to achieve this goal of inclusion and bridging the digital gap. I'm really looking forward to the next steps, next challenge, and hoping that it will help as well, bridge the digital divide, the gender digital divide. 

 

Dan Klein: 

Isabelle is someone who has seen how tech can transform lives if only they're given access to it. Her passion is infectious. She also understands the being able to bridge the gap between public and private, tech and non-tech sectors, is essential for driving digital inclusion. In the private sector, it's vital that, yes, ESG tackles the larger problems of climate and geopolitics, but also that it gives space to welcome in diversity and inclusion initiatives. 

Business ecosystems are not new. What is new is that they are becoming increasingly data-empowered. To realize complex opportunities, we need innovation beyond boundaries, democratized information and close collaboration between diverse players. Collaborative, data-empowered, borderless innovation is how we embrace a world of exponential change. And that's what this podcast is about. Thanks for listening to Data Today, brought to you by Zühlke. I've been your host, Dan Klein. 

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