World Economic Forum: Three keys for unlocking economic growth

Transforming enterprises into digital businesses, opening up the world and empowering the young will jump-start progress

In a special contribution, the president of Microsoft International nominates his requirements to feed growth.

Our new global context

As the world’s leaders in politics, business, science and technology convene for this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, the overarching agenda is that of engendering stability amid worldwide uncertainty.

This year’s focus on ‘The New Global Context’ acknowledges the complexity of fluctuating economies across Asia, South America and southern Europe, and a shift away from international partnerships towards increasing nationalism and insularity. It is also set against a background of unparalleled technological change, referred to as the second digital revolution. 

At the national level, the solution to kick-starting economic growth in this complex new world lies in meeting the challenges of youth unemployment, income inequality and the improvement of public services, while fostering international cooperation. On a business level, it means harnessing emerging technologies to achieve more with less, pushing profitability.

Enterprises must transform into digital businesses

In his book The Age of Diminishing Expectations (1994), Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman described a country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time as dependent almost entirely on its ability to raise output per worker.

Technology will always help drive productivity growth, as well as being the catalyst for social change that improves people’s lives, but it must adapt. Harnessing technologies such as mobile and cloud to work for us is key to transforming enterprises into competitive digital businesses and to enabling all of us to achieve more in less time.

Take multinational banking and financial services company Société Genérale. The aim was to empower staff to work more collaboratively, from anywhere, and establish a working environment conducive to cutting costs, developing new services and improving time to market. Crucially, it wanted to create an even more forward-thinking, agile business to woo bright new talent. Moving to the cloud increased productivity and lessened up-front investments but also improved the company’s attractiveness as an employer.

CaixaBank, a leading financial services provider in Spain, is another prime example of successful digital transformation. The bank wanted to reach 200,000 new small businesses, offering them new services to help them grow. To reach these potential customers, they knew that they had to go to them. They embraced mobile technology, unshackling staff from their desks. In branch, employees can now share on-screen forms face to face with customers, updating information in real-time via mobile devices and suggesting bespoke offers. On the road, they can travel to see small business customers whenever suits them. They also established a secure system capable of capturing digital signatures. Customers can now finish a transaction on a mobile device, without the need to sign yet another piece of paper.

Improving access in emerging markets

Elsewhere, adoption of the cloud in Brazil, for example, has transformed the way small business work. During a recent trip to Latin America, small businesses and entrepreneurs made it clear to me that the cloud is the only choice to get business online because of the inherently low upfront cost requirements and huge scalability. Supporting new businesses in this way is essential to economic success the world over.

Technology has also become the defining influence in economies in Africa, where the spread of mobile devices is now credited with bringing financial services in the form of mobile banking to previously hugely underserved areas. It also opens up access to critical educational and medical resources.

Examples abound, such as Benson Maina, an entrepreneur in his 20s, who is working to bring internet access and mobile device charging to his rural community near Nanyuki, Kenya through a solar-powered shipping container. This is the first in what could become a network of containers across rural Kenya, and hopefully Africa, to open up these services to more people.

He describes access to the internet and technology as “life-changing” and a way to alleviate poverty in his country. It is examples like his that inspire our continued commitment to deliver low-cost, high-speed wireless broadband through our TV White Spaces initiative that creates new opportunities for commerce, education, healthcare and the delivery of government services across Africa and elsewhere in the world.

Empowering our youth

Benson’s story is inspirational, and across the globe there are thousands of examples where technology is helping young people achieve success and launch themselves into business. A young group of Romanian students made it to the finals of our 2011 Imagine Cup competition with inspirational physiotherapy software called MIRA, aimed at rehabilitating patients recovering from injury. Through our BizSpark programme, MIRA quickly expanded and is now being used in eight clinics worldwide to help around 90 patients progress faster with their physical therapy exercises through Kinect and video game technology.

I’m passionate in my praise of these young entrepreneurs. We should all take inspiration from young people like them everywhere as they are tomorrow’s leaders and our likely successors at forums such as Davos.

Technology will be their game changer, but only with the support of government and business to push through regulation, provide the infrastructure for progress and deliver more education and training. It's our responsibility to inspire the next generation with the frameworks to enable them to take advantage of current and future technologies.

Their energy will lead tomorrow’s innovation and their spirit will enable us to tackle head on what is holding us back across the world. It’s the key to the future, a future Sir Tim Berners-Lee, famous for inventing the web, rightly describes as “still so much bigger than the past”.