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Which Countries Are Leading Digital

Dr Jim Hamill


Jim Hamill provides a comprehensive insight into the leading digital nations. But where does the UK figure?

The UK likes to think of itself as being a world class digital nation. The preamble to this month’s launch of the UK Government’s Transformation Strategy stated:

“The UK Government is one of the most digitally advanced in the world………We have developed the award-winning and internationally renowned GOV.UK – and have opened its code, which has been reused by governments around the world. The Government Digital Service (GDS) has led the digital transformation of government and is a model that is being copied internationally”.

Are we justified in engaging in such ‘happy back-slapping’? Are we really a world class digital nation? If not, who are the leading digital nations around the world? What progress have different countries made in transforming digitally?

Below, we present a short summary of recent research in this area.

The Most Tech-Savvy Governments

Ben Gummer’s claim, quoted above, is based on a 2016 United Nations E-Government Survey which positioned the UK in pole position in terms of both e-government development and e-participation as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: E-Government Development and E-Participation Index


Source: United Nations 2016

The UN rankings are based on three main criteria ‘that allow people to benefit from online services and information’ – adequacy of telecommunication infrastructure, the ability of human resources to promote and use ICT and the availability of online services and content.

In an era of rapid digital change and digital disruption, with rising citizen expectations, is the provision of online services and information still a useful measure of digital advancement? Surely the availability of services online is a ‘table stake’ keeping us in the game. It is no longer an indicator of digital leadership?

The World Economic Forum

A different picture emerges from the World Economic Forum (WEF) which uses a broader range of factors to rank countries on a Network Readiness Index. Ten key pillars of network readiness are assessed – political and regulatory environment; business and innovation environment; infrastructure and affordability; skills; individual usage; business usage; Government usage; economic impacts; social impacts; and e-participation – see here for a detailed explanation of the criteria used.

The most ‘tech savvy’ government, according to WEF, is Singapore followed by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. When compared with the UN study above, WEF ranks the UK only in tenth position, lower than countries such as Qatar, Malaysia, Estonia and others.

Figure 2: Most Tech-Savvy Governments


With recent announcements in the last few weeks, it is almost certain that Singapore and the UAE will retain their leadership positions for the foreseeable future.

Singapore puts 2017 budget focus on digital transformation – Government sets aside S$2.4 billion over four years to execute a nationwide plan to “transform” the local economy and help enterprises “go digital”.

Sheikh Mohammed directs government departments to place Dubai 10 years ahead of all other cities with launch of the 10X vision. “All Government entities to embrace out-of-the-box, future oriented exponential thinking with the aim of being 10 years ahead of all other cities in embracing disruptive innovation”.

Harnessing Digital

In terms of countries harnessing the potential of digital technologies for increased competitiveness and well-being, Singapore remains in pole position followed by Finland, Sweden, Norway and the US.

Figure 3: Top 10 Countries Harnessing Digital Technology


While the UK sits in 8th place, the main conclusions of the report make for depressing reading.

According to WEF, the seven countries ahead of the UK are leading the field in terms of ICT investment – they are all ‘enthusiastic adopters’ currently deriving a wide ranging economic benefits from being digital.

‘These seven nations are in the strongest position to capitalise on the next wave of digital disruption. The breakaway of these seven economies is significant for other nations given the role that networked readiness is likely to play as the world transitions to the Fourth Industrial Revolution’.

The UK ranks in only 16th position in terms of the ‘Business Usage Index’; 14th in terms of ‘Firm Level ICT Adoption’ (the readiness of businesses to adopt new technology); 18th position in terms of the number of patent applications made per million of population; and in 10th position for ‘Capacity to Innovate’.

For investment in ‘Staff Training’, the UK ranks as 21st in the world. We are ranked in 24th position for ‘Overall Skills Development’; 21st position for the ‘Quality of our Education System’; and in 46th position for the ‘Quality of our Math and Science Education’ – a shocking indictment of our willingness to invest in training and people development.

A World Class Digital Nation and the envy of others? I think not!

Falling Behind

Two other studies provide evidence that the UK is falling behind many of our international competitors in key measures of digital readiness.

The EU 2016 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) ranked the UK above the EU average in key measures such as connectivity, digital skills and the integration of digital technology. However, we are growing more slowly than the average. Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland are leading the way, while Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands, Malta, Austria and Portugal are the fastest growing.

This supports the key findings of a 2015 study published in the Harvard Business Review. The study entitled Where the Digital Economy Is Moving the Fastest evaluated the pace of digital change across countries, perhaps the most important measure in an era of rapid digital disruption.

Four main types of country were identified:

  • Stand Out countries with the high levels of digital development in the past and who continue to remain on an upward trajectory.
  • Stall Out countries who have achieved a high level of evolution in the past but are losing momentum and risk falling behind.
  • Break Out countries with the potential to develop strong digital economies. Though their overall score is still low, they are moving upward and are poised to become Stand Out countries in the future.
  • Watch Out countries who face significant opportunities and challenges, with low scores on both current level and upward motion of their DEI. Some may be able to overcome limitations with clever innovations and stopgap measures, while others seem to be stuck.

As shown in Figure 4 below, the UK is in danger of becoming a ‘Stall Out’ country. This is even before our growing obsession with BITs (Brexit, Immigration, Trump), rather than Bytes, which threatens to Relegate Digital to Side Show Status.

One of the main conclusions of the Harvard paper is highly relevant here:

“Most Western and Northern European countries, Australia, and Japan have been Stalling Out. The only way they can jump-start their recovery is to follow what Stand Out countries do best: redouble on innovation and continue to seek markets beyond domestic borders. Stall Out countries are also aging. Attracting talented, young immigrants can help revive innovation quickly”.

Figure 4: The Digital Evolution Index


As a measure of how well an economy is using information and communications technologies to boost competitiveness and well-being, it will be very interesting to watch the position of the UAE over the next few years. Dubai, in particular, is rapidly emerging as a world class digital nation.

Key milestones over the last five years have included:

  • 2011 – introduction of e-payment cards for government services
  • 2011 – e-voting introduced
  • 2013 – all government services to be available through mobile devices and apps
  • 2013 – Smart Government launched – aim to become the world’s smartest city
  • 2014 – Happiness Index launched to measure the happiness and satisfaction of the public with digital public services – aim to be the world’s happiest city
  • Feb 2016 – 1,000 new digital initiatives launched to embrace the Internet of Things
  • May 2016 – world’s first 3D printed office block opened – vision of being a world leader in 3D printing technology
  • April 2016 – 25% of all transportation in Dubai to be smart and driverless by 2030
  • October 2016 – Dubai mandates Blockchain only Government documents by 2020
  • May 2016 – Dubai government services score 89% on the Happiness Index
  • Nov 2016 – become a world leader in Industry 4.0

We could now add to this list, the 10X initiative mentioned above.

See also – Innovating for a New Future in the United Arab Emirates

Dr Jim Hamill

Director - Future Digital Leaders

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