Don’t let the European Union and all of its troubles fool you. At least one regional integration has a lot to celebrate: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) turns 50 this year.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore founded the association in 1967 to facilitate economic and political collaboration among its members and to accelerate economic growth and social progress. Five more countries joined ASEAN in the 1980s and 1990s, helping to make it an economic powerhouse with a combined GDP of US$2.5 trillion. (If it were a single country, ASEAN would be the seventh-largest economy in the world.)
But ASEAN is in the middle of the same digital revolution as the rest of the world. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, and nanotechnology, along with accelerating progress in genetics, automation, and materials science, are shaking up the planet’s economies.
ASEAN taking over as the world’s factory
We are at “an inflection point in the history of our economies and societies because of digitization,” according to economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their latest book, The Second Machine Age. “It’s an inflection point in the right direction – bounty instead of scarcity, freedom instead of constraint – but one that will bring with it some difficult challenges and choices … The choices we make from now on will determine what kind of world that is.”
Brynjolfsson and McAfee are optimistic about the future, but they argue that technology may “leave a lot of people, organizations, and institutions behind.” They point out that especially workers with only “ordinary skills and abilities to offer” will suffer since “computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate.”
The low cost of labor in Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam is a competitive advantage for multinational firms – and for ASEAN. Experts from ANZ Bank believe “Southeast Asia will take up China’s mantle of the world’s factory over the next 10 to 15 years.”
Preparing the next generation
Much of what lies ahead for ASEAN will depend on how the younger generations will handle digitalization – and the challenges described in the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Almost half of the region’s population will be younger than 30 by 2020. It will be a young, diverse, and digitally savvy population – so ASEAN could be in a good position to benefit from the digital transformation.
But getting into that good position will not be easy. Youths need to be prepared for the digital economy and be sensitized for what’s needed to ensure prosperity in a sustainable way. The challenges ahead are so fundamental that ASEAN will need help from all its stakeholders: public and private sectors, academia, and civil society.
Global partnership for sustainable development
The ASEAN Foundation is rolling out three initiatives in 2017 to address ASEAN’s economic, environmental, and societal issues. The projects are based on three focus areas:
- Education: The data analytics competition “ASEAN Data Science Explorers“ (ADSE) is already underway. University students across all 10 ASEAN member states from any discipline are invited to deliver data-driven insights for ASEAN across six U.N. Sustainable Development Goals cloud-based analytics.
- Volunteerism: In collaboration with the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, ASEAN Secretariat, ASEAN Foundation, SAP, and other partners have launched the Youth Volunteering Innovation Challenge (YVIC) in ASEAN. Under the theme “Impact ASEAN,” the initiative supports young volunteers throughout the ASEAN countries in their journey to catalyze youth-led innovation for social impact and sustainable development.
- Entrepreneurship: Through social sabbatical programs, employees from companies such as SAP are supporting social impact intermediaries through mentoring and pro-bono consulting. The program, in association with several partners, will impact close to 20 social enterprises across Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam in 2017.
These and other collaborative efforts will help many of ASEAN’s young people excel alongside Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s “computers, robots, and other digital technologies.” Beyond justifying the two economists’ optimism, these efforts will help equip youth in the 10 ASEAN countries with the skills they need to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – and to thrive in the digital economy.
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