AI, Future of Work, Data Privacy and Digitalization Top the Agenda

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum will deepen its engagement with the private sector as it recommits to its role as a policy incubator for digital transformation across the Asia-Pacific. That was the clear message from Heads of State and thought leaders spanning numerous Asia-Pacific economies at the annual APEC “Leaders Week” meetings, which were hosted virtually from November 19-20 by the Malaysian government.

Nearly every participant in the APEC CEO Dialogues touched on the role of digitalization, as well as innovative policymaking to sustain a robust digital economy, in supporting post-COVID-19 economic recovery in this dynamic region. These high-level discussions – featuring prominent CEOs alongside national leaders – reflected APEC’s unique mandate for collaborative economic policymaking between industry, government, and other stakeholders.

In his opening remarks, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin spoke of an “APEC reimagined” that would advance its reputation as an incubator for ideas and collaboration among the public and private sectors. He underscored that digitalization not only allowed us to protect the health of our communities, but could also reinvigorate global economies.

Consequently, APEC Leaders issued a consensus statement of principles – labeled the “APEC Putrajaya Vision 2040” – to guide the organization towards achieving “an open, dynamic resilient and peaceful Asia-Pacific community by 2040, for the prosperity of all our people and future generations.” Innovation and Digitalisation was one of three core pillars of Vision 2040, with APEC Leaders committing to a market-driven, enabling environment to support an interconnected, increasingly digital global economy. To achieve this goal, the Leaders pledged that APEC’s work will continue to promote economic policies to “strengthen digital infrastructure, accelerate digital transformation, narrow the digital divide, as well as cooperate on facilitating the flow of data and strengthening consumer and business trust in digital transactions.”

APEC economies have been tasked by the Leaders to develop in the coming year a comprehensive plan for implementation of the Putrajaya Vision 2040.

Emerging technologies and future-of-work policies were also highlighted during the CEO Dialogues. A session on the APEC agenda for Artificial Intelligence (AI) discussed the need for supportive regulatory frameworks and to improve international collaboration between APEC economies on AI-related issues. The APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) has similarly pledged to elevate AI adoption in its yearly workplan, and launched the report, “Artificial Intelligence in APEC – Overview of the State of AI in APEC Economies and the Enabling Initiatives that will Drive Further Adoption” in conjunction with the APEC CEO Dialogues. The report highlights challenges as well as opportunities for collaboration across APEC and offers recommendations to support widespread AI adoption. Another consistent theme of the discussions was the need to upskill national workforces to prepare for the continued digitalization of industries. These efforts have been advanced through initiatives such as the APEC Closing the Digital Skills Gap forum, which recently finalized a roadmap with industry-driven recommendations to scale upskilling and reskilling efforts across APEC economies.

To oversee much of the forum’s digital agenda and ensure implementation of its activities, APEC launched the newly-reconstituted Digital Economy Steering Group, or DESG, in 2019. Early initiatives span a range of issues and industries, focusing on how digital solutions can help chart the path toward a global recovery from the pandemic. Projects range from telemedicine to implementing digital technologies for pandemic response, to efforts to digitalize government processes for permits and licensing, so that shovel-ready infrastructure projects can efficiently support a post-COVID-19 economic rebound. These efforts are complemented by cross-sectoral policy efforts, such as on privacy and data protection issues; data flows and digital trade provisions; an industry-driven cybersecurity standards program; and an increasing focus on public-private partnerships to promote digital skills for citizens in the APEC region.

The time is right for private sector engagement in APEC, particularly from data-driven companies that will shape the future of Asia’s digital economy. The digital agenda in APEC has intensified in recent years, and the high-level commitments from Heads of State underscore the political buy-in and sense of urgency for this work. In her closing remarks of the CEO Dialogues, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pledged that incoming APEC host New Zealand would push the forum to continue its work to “foster prosperity and well-being that is sustainable, inclusive and digitally enabled” during its 2021 host year.

C&M International works at the forefront of many APEC working groups, including those related to the digital economy, data privacy, and emerging technologies. We work to foster unique collaboration and initiatives between industry, government, and other stakeholders to promote smart policymaking and to advance an innovation-friendly regulatory environment across the Asia-Pacific.