Published on Digital Development

Accelerating access to digital infrastructure: The time is now

This page in:
An integrated health system
Image © World Bank | Stutterstock

When a group of surgeons gathered to perform a surgical technique for removing kidney stones in November 2020, only one of them — Dr. Gilles Natchagande — was at the patient’s side in Cotonou, Benin. Two other surgeons “scrubbed in” from Britain and the United States, using an augmented reality surgery platform now available to medical professionals. 

This is surgery in the age of hyperconnectivity.

Connected by computers on three continents, the three surgeons jointly viewed live feed of the patient’s kidney, collaborating during a five-hour surgery as if they were in the same room. 

The benefits of using augmented reality platforms during surgery are multiple. Surgeons can trade tips and explore a wider range of interventions than their in-person training would have allowed. 

It’s not just the surgeons who benefit. Patient recovery from a procedure, like the kidney stone technique, is shorter and more comfortable than the traditional surgery it replaces. Shorter procedures and faster recoveries allow the hospital to treat more patients and increases the types of surgery that can be offered at one facility.

Dr. Natchagande chose to use Proximie, a platform which is used in 35 countries to perform about 800 surgeries a month. IFC investee fund, BECO Capital is an investor in Proximie, which is designed to be used in areas where access to expensive tools or a high-speed internet connection is a problem.

Proximie is just one example of the kind of data-reliant product innovation which is upending traditional assumptions about business and communication. Product innovation has become increasingly intertwined with advances in computing power, network speeds and artificial intelligence (AI). 

Most importantly, data-driven product innovation has enormous potential to solve real-world problems, and its applications are not limited to medicine. Innovations being made in AI and other tech products now can reduce pollution, regulate utility demand, and increase the efficiency of farming operations. 

Residential smart meters, for example, when deployed at scale, can have an enormous impact on managing electricity demand. Affordable Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can help to optimize waste management systems and power distribution networks. Agricultural productivity can be increased through tracking farm performance, remote inspections of fish farms and the automated diagnosis of crop diseases. 

Connectivity is essential for innovation

The use of online medical solutions and other online tools has boomed during COVID-19, as the medical community needed to explore digital substitutes for high-risk personal interactions.  

But not all countries have had the same chances to take advantage of frontier innovation. Persistent barriers — such as limited access to capital, software engineers and digital infrastructure — severely limit the capacity of high-tech innovators to develop new products that could serve the needs of emerging market economies.

Indeed, most emerging markets still face a dire lack of consistent electricity supply and reliable internet service. As products become more connected, the digital divide is now surpassing its conventional definition to include product development. By 2025, 23% of mobile subscribers around the world will still be limited to 3G internet or below according to GSMA. Most product innovation over the next decade will require much faster and more reliable internet coverage, as well as substantial access to capital and product development teams.

The timing is urgent: the digital divide is growing. Many industries are in the midst of dramatic disruption brought about by rapid changes in communication technology . The value of many new products and technologies like ride-sharing, connected homes and smart energy grids stems from the ability to compute while connected. But developing products which can compute while connected requires enormous levels of data transfer. 

In recent years, the cost of data transfer has fallen substantially in high-income countries. Frustratingly, the same cannot be said for many emerging markets. In Europe, the cost of running a large server on Amazon Web Services today is four times cheaper than it was in 2008. The cost of sending a terabyte of data from Los Angeles to Sydney has fallen at an average of 17% annually since 2016. 

In many emerging market capitals, the cost of international connectivity remains prohibitively high. 

Remaining competitive in a hyperconnected world requires constant changes in communication infrastructure. Countries that are not able to keep up with the rapid evolution of global communication infrastructure will find their industries at a great competitive disadvantage. 

IFC seeks to ensure that appropriate investment, further integration and mass deployment of connectivity solutions across industries can be made more readily available, solving persistent development challenges in emerging markets around the world. 

This blog is the second in a series of blogs on how digital technologies can transform infrastructure. Visit the IFC infrastructure website and follow the IFC Infrastructure LinkedIn page to keep up with the latest trends and news. 


Joulan Abdul Khalek

Consultant, Telecom Media and Technology at IFC.

Anselm Dannecker

Economist, Thought Leadership, IFC

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000