The importance of Geneva for digital technologies and pertinent policymaking shone through on the Digital Cooperation Day. Distinguished guests and panellists convened to speak of critical policy challenges and opportunities that the upcoming UNSG Tech Envoy must address.
In recent years, the transformative forces of digital technologies in economies, societies, and politics are not to be missed. However, there are negative consequences we must mitigate and positive outcomes we must maximise. Ms Doreen Bogdan-Martin (Director, Development Bureau, International Telecommunication Union (ITU)) highlighted the role of ITU in setting goals for digital policies and global agendas. The years of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated to us the tremendous disadvantage of not being digitally connected. Ms Bogdan-Martin claimed that it is high time to aim for ‘zero tolerance in digital exclusion.’ The 2022 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (ITU-PP) in Bucharest declared two key goals: advancing universal connectivity that is secure and affordable to all and promoting sustainable digital transformation that is equitable. Together with the UNSG Tech Envoy, ITU has launched UN targets to prioritise interventions and actively evaluate policy effectiveness. Complementary to the goal of advancing digital policy discussions, Ms Katharina Frey (Deputy Head of the Digitalization Division, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) of Switzerland) underlined the ever more critical need for ‘bridge builders’ in the highly fragmented digital world at such precarious times. Ms Frey also spoke of the influential role Geneva has to play in building bridges. Indeed, ‘Geneva is the birthplace of the World Wide Web (WWW),’ said Ms Nathalie Fontanet (State Councillor in charge of the Department of Finance and Human Resources, Republic and Canton of Geneva), ‘the very technology that makes the Internet possible.’ Ms Fontanet mentioned several ways in which Geneva is critical for the protection of such a technology, including the Swiss Digital Initiative that aims to integrate ethical principles in technology, the Trust Valley that brings forth trustworthy technology and cybersecurity, and the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) that congregates communities to discover advancements for a sustainable future.
With these keynote messages in mind, panellists and the audience explored deeper into what digital cooperation truly signifies.
Mapping & findings on Geneva’s digital landscape
The Geneva Internet Platform (GIP), the host of the event, began with a mapping of Geneva’s overall digital landscape. Mr Marco Lotti (External Relations & Partnerships Manager, DiploFoundation) stated that the main contribution of the GIP to the diplomatic environment in Geneva and the overall discussion on the Global Digital Compact (GDC) has been the comprehensive tracking and analysis of the digital policymaking scene. The Geneva Digital Atlas 2.0, whose official launch is scheduled for 8 November 2022 during the Diplo Week in Geneva, aims to substantiate the claim that Geneva is the main digital policy hub on the multilateral level by evaluating three layers of contributions born in this city. First, the actor layer looks at the activities of those who have traditional mandates centred on digital issues and others that have been undergoing de facto digitalisation. Second, the process layer monitors the ongoing discussions in Geneva, especially in the field of Unmanned Automatic Vehicles (UAVs) and Legal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS). Third, the just-in-time (JIT) layer investigates how the Geneva ecosystem reacts to and innovates solutions for new developments in technology, policy, and more. The Geneva Digital Atlas 2.0 would become the prime resource for anyone entering the Geneva digital landscape.
Beyond the focus on Geneva, another parallel effort is the Digital Watch Observatory of the DiploFoundation, which follows digital policy trends in the entire world. Ms Sorina Teleanu (Knowledge Director, DiploFoundation) guided the audience through the Digital Watch Observatory’s approach to tracking processes on ongoing discussions at the UN, the EU or other important global platforms, issue topics consisting of both traditional diplomatic subjects and emerging technologies, and trends on cutting-edge technological fronts and its policy implications. On today’s topic, Ms Teleanu showed the page on the GDC and the timeline of events that lead us to today’s digital policy landscape.
Setting the stage by the UNSG’s envoy on technology: priorities for GDC
Amb. Amandeep Gill (UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology) stated that we have moved into a paradigm of ‘digital cooperation’ where the term was both a challenge and a solution. To successfully foster digital cooperation across geographic borders and sectoral boundaries, ‘we need to move beyond the slogans’ and transition from contemplating the ‘what’ and ‘why’ to focusing on ‘how’. Necessary actions include substantiating concrete steps toward the goal of digital cooperation and incorporating the voices of youths, the marginalised, and all those who are not already enjoying the digital ecosystem. Taking these priorities into consideration, the forthcoming GDC would become important input for the ministerial and UNGA meetings in 2023 and the Summit of the Future in 2024.
One noticeable challenge, according to Amb. Gill, was the lack of interlinkages among important digital policy stakeholders in Geneva. As shown from the study by the GIP, international actors only infrequently reference each other in the digital space. This puts into question whether there exist missed opportunities for collaborations and whether these digital policy actors could think creatively about potential partners in dealing with cross-cutting digital issues. Dr Jovan Kurbalija (Director, DiploFoundation; Head, Geneva Internet Platform (GIP)) asked how Amb. Gill imagined the input from panellists today could be beneficial and informative for his work. Amb. Gill suggested thinking ahead about what steps to take after the GDC comes about and how to ‘walk the walk’.
The following two panels invited experts, academics and practitioners alike to elaborate on the messages they have for Amb. Gill in relation to his work as the UNSG Tech Envoy.
Panel 1: ‘International Geneva’s contributions to the GDC: Key questions and priorities’
Ahead of each panellist’s remarks, Dr Kurbalija directed everyone’s attention to an empty chair on which a card read ‘Future Generations.’ The idea behind this empty chair was to connote that the decisions made in the present will have substantial impacts on the future. Hence, it is paramount that current digital policymakers keep in mind the benefits for generations to come. Dr Kurbalija encouraged participants to begin including this symbolic empty chair to signify the future generations in important meetings.
Dr Kurbalija first turned to Mr Antonio Gambardella (Director, Geneva Foundation for Technology Innovation (FONGIT)) for his background in the innovation community. Mr Gambardella spoke of the potential role of innovation in advancing the GDC. The International Geneva harboured a huge community of innovators and entrepreneurs coming from university centres, international organisations, and other sectors. From his organisation’s experience in helping transform these individuals’ and groups’ ideas into sustainable business models, Mr Gambardella believed that there were two key takeaways for Amb. Gill. First and foremost, money and clients are the two elements that form the foundation for business support, and policies defined today must reflect them so as to ensure an innovative environment for future generations. Second, the role of states could go beyond being the investors of entrepreneurs and innovators to being their clients. By looking at entrepreneurs and innovators through the eye of a client, states could create meaningful demands that encourage an innovative ecosystem. Amb. Amandeep concurred that fruitful engagements of private stakeholders should extend from the big techs to also the small entrepreneurs, who are more in touch with rapid development on the ground and more willing to solve societal or SDG-related challenges.
Turning to the diplomatic realm, Dr Kurbalija asked Amb. Umej Bhatia (Permanent Mission of Singapore to the United Nations in Geneva) about how the diplomatic community could contribute to the UNSG Tech Envoy’s work. Amb. Bhatia brought in the perspectives of small states (by population) and suggested how digital transformation might mean different things to them. Singapore chairs the informal and voluntary Forum of Small States (FOSS) where members coordinate and aggregate their takes on global issues. In the waves of digital transformation that heavily rely on data, Amb. Bhatia stated that small states inherently have smaller datasets as compared to others with a greater population. It is imperative for these smaller states that take up the majority of the UN to establish common perspectives and languages to voice out their needs. As Singapore celebrates the 30th year anniversary of FOSS, Amb. Bhatia envisioned the establishment of a digital forum to crystalise efforts in this regard and contribute to the GDC.
Dr Kurbalija invited Mr Marc Limon (Executive Director, Universal Rights Group) to introduce the voices of civil society. Through the lens of a human rights think tank, Mr Limon witnessed the two-way interaction between digital technologies and international human rights obligations. For example, in the realm of freedom of speech, technologies brought social media platforms that expanded citizens’ means of expression; however, human rights obligated technological designs to tackle hate speech and disinformation. Mr Limon believed that there is a growing understanding of the interlinkages between human rights and digital issues in Geneva, which is a place known for facilitating expertise exchanges. While the human rights community and tech companies were both evolving to address this interlinkage, Mr Limon observed the disconnection between the two sides. His final recommendation to Amb. Gill was, therefore, a platform where tech companies and the constituencies of the International Geneva could congregate and regularise exchanges.
In the same vein, Dr Kurbalija asked Ms Shamika Sirimanne about how to connect the dots between different issue areas, groups and the Global North and the Global South. Ms Sirimanne quoted the key findings from the UNCTAD Digital Economy Report 2021 and pictured a fragmented data governance space. As the private economic and public social values of data become obvious, actors all seek to capitalise on it. The US and China, harbouring massive digital platforms and data centres, emerged to dominate the market. Ms Sirimanne proposed that we build bridges across different models of data governance and embraced a more balanced approach where the UN could best engage all actors instead of just the big players. As UNCTAD works to ensure that data could flow as freely as possible, Ms Sirimanne advised Amb. Gill on the necessity of a more collaborative International Geneva and the key position for the UN to build trust among all stakeholders.
Panel 2: ‘Global Digital Compact: Practical answers from Geneva’
The second panel discussion of the day examined the rich repertoire of resources within the International Geneva, where collaborative research hubs focus on multiple aspects of digital technologies. Amb. Thomas Schneider (Head, International Affairs Division, Swiss Federal Office of Communications (OFCOM)) first invited Dr Mehdi Snène (CEO of I-DAIR Research (Data and AI for the SDGs)) to discuss the intersection of health and AI technologies, and how such an intersection poses cross-cutting policy issues for the GDC to address. Dr Snène noted the increasing advocacy for data freeflow, which allows data to be shared as unobstructedly as possible, but pointed out the more pressing demand to share the outcomes derived from those data as well. In the field of health where medical patients share ample personal data, the analyses and insights based on these data are often kept in the hands of a few. Dr Snène articulated the need to move from data sharing to output sharing and ensure that health systems across the world communicate with each other. The Global North-South divide is not to be omitted, as the Global South partners often lack the capacity to gather much-needed data for medical research, such as in genome sequencing studies. Even when they are able to collect certain data, Dr Snène cautioned against the shade of data colonialism, which entails that data from the Global South are transferred to the North to train algorithms whose outputs are not shared back to the South. As these challenges stand against more equitable sharing of outputs, the GDC must take them into account.
Mr Enrico Formica (Senior Mediation Officer, Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG)) shed light on the well-known peace mediation community in Geneva and the increasing adoption of digital technologies within this community. Mr Formica saw a turn in mediators’ perceptions of the use of digital technologies in their work after the pandemic. The CyberMediation Network, led by the DPPA, has been fostering collaborations within the community to build a trustworthy environment for innovative mediation practices, such as designing online platforms to enhance inclusivity and utilising social media as a communication tool. Mr Formica also warned against the threat of cyberattacks and the growing demand for widespread internet infrastructures. He stressed the necessity to involve new actors such as tech companies and rising digital activists in conversations. One final takeaway message for the GDC will be the urgency to ensure international laws or soft laws in this space of operation.
Ms Melanie Kolbe (Project Manager, Center for Digital Trust (C4DT), EPFL) shared about the academic approach to infuse trustworthiness features in digital technologies. The C4DT contends that when citizens evaluate whether to place confidence and trust that citizens place in digital technologies, they often look at both the design of the technological products but also the regulatory environment in which these products are made. Ms Kolbe believed it important to link research expertise on trustworthy techs to concrete applications for the public to view and experience. The C4DT operates through three pillars. First, it confers knowledge and supports tech companies in building trustworthy technology while building an open-source library for the public to peruse. Second, it relays expertise to governments and civil society discussions on certain public applications, such as digital proof in identity technology, encryption technology, and COVID-19 tracking apps. Third, it acts as a matchmaker that links NGOs to research labs. An example could be strengthening the cybersecurity of investigative journalism organisations to fend off potential attacks.
Mr Alex Wong (Chief, Special Initiatives, International Telecommunication Union (ITU)) eventually spoke of the work of Giga, a joint ITU-UNICEF initiative that aims to connect every school in the world to the Internet, and expressed to Amb. Gill its goodwill of becoming partners for the UNSG Tech Envoy. Rooted in Geneva, Giga’s headquarters have been immersed in an environment where Switzerland's strong ecosystem of digital and innovative development finance will be leveraged. Mr Wong presented the ambition to create a new Giga centre for connectivity and innovative financing to help achieve Giga’s objective. Mr Wong offered to Amb. Gill Giga and the ITU as both partners and the discussion space for universal connectivity issues as per the Global Digital Compact.
Takeaways from the discussion and next steps
For the final remarks, Amb. Jürg Lauber (Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations in Geneva) stated that the Geneva ecosystem brings two important pillars to the digital policymaking landscape, which are inclusivity and impact. He noted that there is great complementarity between Geneva and New York in the field of digital cooperation. In this context, Geneva brings additional inclusivity and impact to the game thanks to its agencies and actors through norm-setting.
Recognising the difficulty in breaking silos and bringing people from various sectors together, Amb. Lauber suggested a more ad-hoc approach to facilitating partnerships as opposed to one that is institutional and more complicated. This final message sent to Amb. Gill and the audience concluded the celebration of Digital Cooperation Day.
by Yung-Hsuan Wu
Digital cooperation dynamics will pivot around the Global Digital Compact (GDC), which was introduced by the UN Secretary-General as part of the UN Pact for the Future. The GDC intends to cover a broad range of digital issues in a wider context, including data, AI, inclusion, the integrity of public information, internet fragmentation, and online human rights.
On the Digital Cooperation Day, the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP) will present the findings of the second edition of the Geneva Digital Atlas which maps overall digital developments in International Geneva. Based on this mapping, the discussion will be conducted with the UN Secretary-General’s envoy on technology (a key catalyst of the process towards the GDC) on priority policy questions for actors in Geneva. The discussion will include answers that the vibrant Geneva scene can provide to the global community.
This event is organised by the GIP, the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations Office in Geneva, and the Federal Office of Communications (OFCOM). We welcome you to join us on 25 October 2022 from 14:00 to 17:30 (CET) at the International Conference Center Geneva (CICG), room EF, 3rd floor.
14:00–14:15 | Keynote messages
- Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director, Development Bureau, International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
- Katharina Frey Bossoni, Deputy Head of the Digitalization Division, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) of Switzerland
Nathalie Fontanet, State Councillor in charge of the Department of Finance and Human Resources, Republic and Canton of Geneva.
14:15–14:45 | Mapping & findings on Geneva’s digital landscape
The GIP team will present the main findings from the Geneva Digital Atlas 2.0:
- Data analysis
- Key trends
- Major challenges
The discussion about the GDC will be based on the Geneva digital landscape (actors and processes, as well as instruments).
14:45–15:00 | Short Break
15:00–15:15 | Setting the stage by the UNSG’s envoy on technology: Priorities for GDC
- Amb. Amandeep Gill, UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology
- Jovan Kurbalija, Director of DiploFoundation and Head of the Geneva Internet Platform
15:15–16:00 | Panel 1: ‘International Geneva’s contributions to the GDC: Key questions and priorities’
- Antonio Gambardella, Director, Geneva Foundation for Innovation (FONGIT)
- Amb. Umej Bahtia, Permanent Mission of Singapore to the United Nations in Geneva
- Shamika Sirimanne, Director of the Division on Technology and Logistics, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)
- Marc Limon, Executive Director, Universal Rights Group
Moderated by Jovan Kurbalija (Director, DiploFoundation; Head, Geneva Internet Platform (GIP))
16:00–16:30 | Break
16:30–17:15 | Panel 2: ‘Global Digital Compact: Practical answers from Geneva?’
- Mehdi Snène, CEO of I-DAIR Research (Data and AI for the SDGs)
- Melanie Kolbe, Project Manager, Center for Digital Trust, EPFL
- Enrico Formica, Senior Mediation Officer, Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG)
- Alex Wong, Chief, Special Initiatives, International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
Moderated by Amb. Thomas Schneider (Head, International Affairs Division, Swiss Federal Office of Communications (OFCOM))
17:15–17:30 | Takeaways from the discussion and next steps
- Amb. Amandeep Gill, UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology
- Amb. Jürg Lauber, Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations in Geneva