Investing in innovation: Georgia’s digital development journey

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ITU News recently connected with Natela Turnava, Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia, to learn how she and her government are stepping up broadband development and innovation both nationally and internationally.

1. How do digital technologies and connectivity enable sustainable development, economic growth, and innovation in Georgia?

The right to Internet access is entrenched in the constitution, which recognizes this as one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century to facilitate active citizen participation in a democratic society. Modern technologies and services have become an integral part of the daily life for entrepreneurs and the community.

In recent years, Georgia took steps to grow its digital economy.

The “National Broadband Development Strategy (NBDS) 2020-2025”, adopted last year, sets ambitious goals for the information and communication technology (ICT) sector.

To implement the NBDS, we’ve started the Log-in Georgia Project, which aims to increase high-speed broadband coverage in rural areas. The project includes training and capacity building programmes and will further strengthen community networks and 5G technology roll-out.

We are exploring how to attract investment in digital corridors and data centres, which could make Georgia the South Caucasus regional digital hub and a gateway between the European Union and Asia.

2. What is the status of your country’s innovation ecosystem?

Our innovation ecosystem originated in 2014 with a clear mandate to aim for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This meant stimulating technological innovation and research; supporting commercialization and usage; nurturing competitive start-ups; and facilitating cooperation between scientists and businesses.

Successful reforms include government support for innovation and knowledge-based economic development. We see innovation and entrepreneurship as fundamental to ensure long-term competitiveness.

Also, the use of modern technologies is a precondition for economic growth and job creation.

Georgia now follows a path of sustainable development, with the adoption of new ideas, technologies, and products serving to strengthen knowledge diffusion across sectors, helps start-ups achieve scale internationally, and cultivate human capital. Taken together, this will give our country the edge it needs to transform into a modern knowledge-based economy.

3. What is being done specifically to boost innovation, adoption and use of digital technologies?

By fine-tuning regulatory frameworks, we aim to simplify innovation, nurture start-ups, enhance digital skills, and promote future professions in ICT and entrepreneurial education.

Access to finance is crucial, especially for high-risk businesses like start-ups. Recent reforms integrate in-state programmes with matching grants that promote venture capital development. Moreover, the systems are being put in place to convert R&D (research and development) into active commercialization and tech-transfer, putting applied science, intellectual capital, and technology into business.

So far, the government has directly invested more than 15 million lari (GEL – about USD 4.7 million) in more than 200 globally scalable start-ups spanning fintech, AI, virtual reality, ed tech, agri-tech, and biotech.

Together, these start-ups have raised more than GEL 200 million (USD 63 million) from private local and international investors.

Accelerator and incubation platforms also help. A top accelerator, 500 Global, entered the market with a regional accelerator programme in [the Georgian capital] Tbilisi. Together with the Georgian private sector, more than GEL 5 million has been invested, with 30 Georgian start-ups being accelerated regionally and globally.

4. What is the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in Georgia’s economy and society? What’s the outlook for the coming years?

AI products and services are already in use, and we believe they can bring significant changes in all our lives.

But if we adopt AI too late, the best opportunities will have already been captured by front-runners.

This may widen gaps between countries, deepen the current digital divide, and exacerbate shortages of workers with specific skills. At this stage, we are conducting studies and piloting AI technologies in certain sectors. We intend to maintain a dialogue to promote AI adoption in the private sector.

Strategic vision and implementation plans are crucial. Our national AI strategy will incorporate input on how to drive economic development and improve the well-being of citizens.

5. How can international cooperation, including – the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – help advance regional and national digital development priorities, particularly in the context of the UN Digital Cooperation Roadmap?

Today’s digital age requires affordable high-speed broadband connections. Yet just over half the world’s population uses the Internet, with most of the rest still lacking access.

Overcoming the global digital divide, developing digital skills and usage, strengthening trust and security, providing e-services, building digital capacity, and ensuring digital inclusion are strategic priorities for Georgia.

Digital transformation is impossible without strong international cooperation. ITU’s role is essential in gathering 193 countries and over 900 organizations to focus on digital development. ITU’s regional projects and initiatives are also important for its member states and the ICT sector, especially as we align with the UN Digital Cooperation Roadmap.

Georgia received valuable technical assistance for a national online safety assessment and advice on promoting ICT-centric innovation to accelerate digital transformation.

Image credit: Clive Kim via Pexels