How tech will transform the Middle East

All eyes are on Jordan this month as leaders from government, business and civil society come together at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East And North Africa (MENA) with the common goal of creating peace and prosperity in the region.

This comes at a critical time, when increased geopolitical tensions are creating a sense of urgency. As the world's leaders meet to discuss an actionable framework to solve the region's challenges, strategic investments in technology will be crucial for creating jobs and mapping out a new path for the future.

In Jordan, the government is laying the foundation for a digital transformation with the National Broadband Network project, which will provide high-speed connectivity between public facilities, hospitals, schools and agencies.

With this infrastructure in place, the country will be able to realize the economic and social benefits that come with harnessing the power of the Internet. I believe this next phase, called the "Internet of Everything" – which is the connection of people, process, data and things – will usher in a new era of growth.

The Internet of Everything and digitization are key to solving the country's employment and economic difficulties, and will also serve as a model for the entire region.

Amman
Jordan Pix | Getty Images
Amman

In many ways, Jordan has already become a technology hub. The country is home to 1,500 information and communication technology (ICT)-related companies, employing more than 19,000 people, and this is just the beginning.

Major investments are being made to fuel tech start-ups in Jordan, with companies, including my own, committing to invest millions into bringing about sustainable job creation and economic development. This will create opportunities for young entrepreneurs to compete on the global stage and help solve one of the region's top challenges: youth unemployment.

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The MENA region has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world – at over 27 percent, it's more than double the global average.

While job creation will help lower this rate, it is not enough to solve the problem. There's also a gap between ICT job openings and qualified candidates to fill them. For young unemployed people to find work, the public and private sectors need to come together and create programs that develop foundation skills.

In Jordan, programs like the International Labour Organization's Auto Technology Academy and Cisco's Networking Academy have been very successful in providing training to thousands of students in areas such as maintaining and building computer networks and monitoring cars using electronic devices.

The programs help place the students in related jobs. But with one in four young people still out of work, more needs to be done. To solve the problem, the education system and the private sector must join together to bridge the gap between what's learned in the classroom and what is needed on the job.

Healthcare delivery is equally important to economic development. People in remote and rural areas often can't get the healthcare they need; the distance may be too far, the travel cost too high, or the coordination too complicated. "Telehealth" technology can help fix this problem by enabling rural patients to have face-to-face video consultations with specialists and have their treatment plans monitored from a distance.

Cloud-based platforms also enable access to picture archiving and communication systems and collaboration software "as a service" to help improve the quality of care for patients by having radiology examination read remotely by qualified radiologists.

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Through the Jordan Healthcare Initiative, a partnership between the Jordanian government and Cisco to improve access to quality healthcare services, Jordan has already shown how technology can bridge treatment gaps for underserved communities. To date, over 110,000 patients have benefited from telehealth video consultations or cloud-enabled radiology services. For patients with severe heart conditions or cancer, access to cardiologists and radiologists has been life-changing.

Projects like these are commendable and exemplify what must be done to drive economic growth and prosperity across the region. However, to fully realize the socio-economic benefits of digitization, countries must first build a national broadband infrastructure. The countries that prioritize network readiness, as Jordan is doing with the National Broadband Network project, will be the ones to drive society-changing innovations.

As the MENA region charts the course for its economic transformation, the public and private sectors must now come together to lay the digital foundation for long-term economic development. I believe that the future of the region lies in the ability of its leaders to set a bold technological agenda and take the initiative to bring about meaningful change. The time to act is now.

John Chambers is chairman and chief executive of Cisco