Green and digital transitions
The twin decarbonisation and digitalisation transitions have become priorities for global leaders as we emerge from the pandemic. At least 37% of the EU recovery package will be spent on climate actions, while a minimum of 20% will finance digital investments and reforms. Similarly a priority of President Biden’s American Jobs Plan is to tackle climate change, while $100 billion is earmarked for revitalising America’s digital infrastructure.
In Ireland, the Economic Recovery Plan commits to major increases in investment in areas such as energy efficiency. Such investment will be necessary if the country is to meet its goal of an average 7% reduction per annum in greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade.
Moreover, the pandemic has accelerated the move to online and digital services, remote working and automation. A key focus of the Economic Recovery Plan is on assisting and incentivising small- and medium-sized enterprises to harness digital technologies to transform their business processes and increase competitiveness. The Plan also recognises that remote working arrangements have the potential to increase productivity, as well as providing access to a broader pool of talent and promoting staff retention. It is interesting that in the latest National Remote Working Survey, researchers from the Whitaker Institute at NUI Galway and the Western Development Commission found that, among those who could work remotely, 95% were in favour of working remotely on an on-going basis to some extent.
Income inequality has risen sharply over the past few decades in most advanced economies. The pandemic has worsened this inequality, given its disproportionately large impact on those who work in contact-intensive sectors, in food and accommodation, for example, many of whom are on lower pay and are younger workers. Widening inequality in incomes risks increasingly polarised politics, lack of social cohesion and resort to populist policies. There is an onus on governments, therefore, to ensure that economic recovery is fair and inclusive and that the decarbonisation and digital transitions provide opportunities for all citizens.
Role of universities in building an innovative knowledge economy
Universities have a pivotal role to play in helping societies to address the challenges and seize the opportunities associated with these major trends. Most employment growth over the last decade or so has been in high skilled occupations and knowledge intensive sectors. We know that investing in people to build human capital – the potential of individuals – is the best way to prepare people for the opportunities arising from the green and digital transitions.
Now more than ever, the contribution of our universities through knowledge and skills development, research and innovation will play a decisive role in determining the future prosperity and well-being of all our citizens.