Information and communication technologies (ICT) are making our cities, towns and villages smarter. They are already empowering billions of individuals — by providing access to education, health care, e-government services and mobile banking among many key services.

They are the backbone of today’s global economy — and emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G hold great potential to improve our lives at a pace and scale not yet seen. However, we must work together in this time of rapid technological change to ensure these new tech developments are safe, reliable and interoperable so that everyone, everywhere benefits.

That is why it is crucial, now more than ever, to ensure sound international coordination and harmonisation of ICTs across borders. This has been the mission of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations’ specialised agency for ICTs. And this is why delegates from around the world are meeting in Dubai from October 29 to November 16 for the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2018 — the top policy-making body of the ITU.

Held every four years, this conference helps build consensus on key international ICT issues, elects leaders for the union’s top posts and decides on a road map for the ITU’s work in the next four-year period, including strategic and financial plans.

It is fitting that this Plenipotentiary Conference is held in Dubai, given that the UAE has transformed itself into a regional and global business hub, which has played a massive role in the deployment and adoption of new ICTs. The UAE has one of the highest smartphone ownership rates and among the highest rates of social media use. Initiatives like ‘Smart Dubai’ show that when governments innovate, they set an example for society to innovate.

These are good examples for economies worldwide, and we have seen tremendous gains in connecting the world to ICTs, which is vital in driving progress towards achieving each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

However, about half the world’s population is still unconnected. Most of these people live in remote, rural or isolated communities. Connectivity is difficult in these areas due to terrain and their isolation, and the return on investment is poor compared to urban areas.

But connectivity does not mean people will connect. People need to be made aware of the benefits, so the content must be relevant and in the local language, and people must be given the necessary digital skills to take advantage.

The ITU is assisting countries to raise awareness and develop their policies, regulations and business practices to promote innovative, affordable and relevant services and content, encourage investment, develop public-private partnerships and promote digital inclusion. At the same time, the ITU is boosting trust in the technology through its work on security, standards, and helping develop digital skills, through capacity building at the local level.

New innovative solutions to connect the unconnected are in sight with several projects underway, such as low-earth orbiting satellites and high-altitude platforms. These will need to be coordinated by the ITU to ensure international interoperability and interconnection so that services and products can enter a global market, and everyone can benefit from the resulting economies of scale.

This will be on the agenda of the ITU’s next big conference, the World Radiocommunication Conference in Egypt next year.

At the ITU, all our activities contribute to and are vital for the achievement of the SDGs, and the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in Dubai will advance our road map and build the international consensus and framework that will lead us to success. Only by collaborating, coordinating and cooperating together will we move forward — from vision to action — and transform the digital revolution into a development revolution.

Malcolm Johnson is deputy secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).