Expert views

Small and medium-sized enterprises: engines of the digital revolution

3 June 2019
Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General, International Telecommunication Union

Creating jobs and driving technological development are keys to growth

New technologies – from the Internet of Things to artificial intelligence (AI) to 5G communications – hold great potential for human progress.

They are already enabling innovations in health, financial services, energy, transportation and smart communities. They will be essential for the realization of every single one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This digital revolution cannot happen without small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Along with micro and local businesses, start-ups and entrepreneurs, SMEs are crucial to ensuring economic growth in a sustainable and inclusive manner across developed and emerging economies alike. Businesseswill increasingly be a key driver of the development of the information and communication technologies (ICTs) that power today’s digital economy, helping to ensure local needs for new digital services are met in all corners of the world.


ICT startups and entrepreneurs – and the solutions, applications and innovations they develop – are a fundamental source of new jobs, with tremendous potential to boost global, regional and national economies. Flexible, adaptable, scalable and responsive, they can operate and innovate anywhere there is connectivity, making a long-lasting impact on our societies and markets.

SMEs and entrepreneurs face very specific challenges, in particular an urgent need to develop local skilled talent; access to new markets and sectors; and investment.
Funding, whether from government, corporate or non-governmental (NGO) sectors, is critical to take ideas to scale and gain critical mass. However, it is always in short supply and often extremely difficult to locate and secure. Regulatory barriers can also be intimidating for SMEs, particularly in converged markets where rules and approaches can be unclear or outdated.

The potential to change those conditions is in place. Many government initiatives aimed at supporting digital entrepreneurship already exist, from national programmes seeking to foster innovation to technology parks and hubs; business incubators; accelerators; and supportive regulatory regimes.

Still, there is a pressing need for a wider platform to share good practices, to bring together ideas and initiatives that have proved successful, to facilitate connections between innovators, investors, industry and governments. A neutral, international platform to promote global collaboration and foster SMEs in the ICT sector for economic growth and social good is required to help SMEs reach their full potential.

This is where the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the specialized United Nations agency for ICTs – with its established role as a central meeting place for public and private sectors from emerging and developed economies across the ICT ecosystem – has a vital role to play.

ITU has the connections, experience and expertise to serve the interests of small and micro businesses, innovators and entrepreneurs – and the socio-economic development they can deliver.

Our organization has been based on public-private partnership since almost its inception 154 years ago. Today, some 600 private companies and 160 academic institutions take part in our activities. We are working hard to support and foster the growth of small and innovative players in the sector to help them take the industry forward.

ITU member states recently agreed to allow SMEs to reap the rewards of ITU membership at reduced fees. We provide remote participation to many of our meetings to avoid travel and accommodation costs.


ITU has also increasingly focused our flagship event, ITU Telecom World, on fostering the success of SMEs.

ITU Telecom World 2019 in September will attract participants from governments, businesses and SMEs from around the world to showcase their innovations, share knowledge, make new connections and explore new partnerships.

The event will include a special programme of activities and exhibition for young people, entrepreneurs and innovators. It will take place at a time when more than half the world’s population is using the internet for the first time in history.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last year described ITU Telecom World as ‘a guide to the future [where] we are able not only to anticipate technological change, but also to harness it for the advancement of humanity.’

The central theme of ITU Telecom World 2019 is ‘Innovating together: connectivity that matters.’ We will address key issues such as developing 5G through new partnerships, expanding connectivity through innovative funding and infrastructure, collaborating for safe global cyberspace, optimizing the use of AI for good – and much more.

Consider joining us in Budapest, Hungary from 9-12 September as we explore how to support the critical work of SMEs to drive our shared digital economy forward.