Digital Transformation at the United Nations (CXOTalk #764)
One of the key strengths of the United Nations is our ability to convene, the convening power. You can't transfer all the legal instruments that are applicable to the physical existence and think that there will be efficiency applied in the digital existence. That's Bernardo Mariano, Jr., Chief Information Technology Officer of the United Nations. My role in United Nations revolves around three levers: ensure, to enable, and to secure. To ensure that digital technologies, information communication technologies supports the mandate of the United Nations. The digital technologies
enable innovations to really create efficiency and make sure that we advance and accelerate the achievement of sustainable-driven goals as well as our common agenda, which is (what in the private sector would be the equivalent of a strategy) the next five-year strategy. But as well as to make sure that our data and digital assets are secure because the cyber-attacks, we're not excluded from that. I would say, 40 years ago, a flag of the United Nations was enough for everyone to say, "Okay, let's not do anything. Let's respect the blue helmets." Today, in the cyberspace, even in the physical space, the United Nations flag is not enough. So, we're not immune to attacks. Securing the UN data and digital assets is one of the core areas of that of my mandate. I think people don't realize that the
United Nations has a very sophisticated and elaborate broadcasting capability because we all want to watch those meetings. Your organization is responsible for that as well. Yes, indeed. If you watch the security council, if you watch the deliberations of the general assembly, if you are able to follow those discussions, behind that it's a great team from my office that makes it possible. Together with the other colleagues from the general assembly meeting and secretaries, we make it possible to make sure that these discussions and the interventions of the heads of states that you hear reach everyone in this world. Indeed, there's a great team behind it, but also to make sure that we protect it from any malicious attack that would try to interfere in those proceedings. Before the UN, you were the CIO at the World Health Organization. I just have to ask you what was that like to be in the middle of
WHO during the pandemic. It was intense, the first pandemic in the digital era where, in addition to what the virus was creating and was creating in the physical system, the whole misinformation and the whole digital issues that we had to deal with, to the point that actually the term "infodemic" was started and emerged. Yes, I had an intense period. But I want to thank the collaboration of the private sector
of somewhere around 60 companies that gave a lot of pro bono support, tech companies, gave pro bono supports to the World Health Organization, but also a number of universities and civil society. While it was intense from the perspective of the number of hours dedicated to address the challenge that we had every day, but it also was rewarding from the perspective of seeing nontraditional partnerships emerge, especially between private-public sector, to really, together, work towards supporting to address and better manage the pandemic. That was the rewarding part, and it was great to be there. It was great to be able to witness that common work and
collaboration with a number of sectors that normally we don't work together in partnership. Your work at the United Nations, tell us more about that and where you're focused. Then let's dive into digital transformation at the UN. Just set the stage for us.
The strategy centered around three areas: digital transformation, innovation, and cyber security. Those are the three areas that the strategy of the UN is centered. That digital transformation, the strategy speaks to the secretary general's common agenda. And within the common agenda, there are 12 commitments. Out of these 12 commitments, there is a commitment number 8 which says, "Upgrade the United Nations." Within that, "Upgrade United Nations," there is one of the targets, which is "Quintet of Change" that addresses data and then digital, addresses analytics, addresses innovation, addresses strategic foresight, performance indicators, so addresses a number of areas where information technology is not just an enabler. It's actually a precondition to achieve the UN,
the upgrade of the UN, or the UN 2.0. That's where the center of the strategy is to really take an upgrade to the United Nations to make sure that all the great work that we do in the physical ecosystem, all the deliverables help support all the work on peace and security that we do in the physical ecosystem. There is some sort of, I call it – I don't want to call it a mirror, but perhaps a twin of that work in the digital existence. How do we ensure that the upgraded UN
operates better or as well as it operates in the physical system in this emerging digital ecosystem? It's interesting you used the term digital twin. It sounds like you are trying to replicate the activities of the UN in the digital sphere, but in some cases even do it better – from what you're saying. Yes, indeed. The question that I ask when I interact with my colleagues – the United Nations secretary, heads of somewhere around the 60 entities, and those 60 entities deliver different parts of the mandates, let alone the agencies, funds, and programs that we have in the United Nations, so it can add up to somewhere around 100 entities across the system delivering all the 17 targets of sustainable development goal. Now, we have been operating in this physical
ecosystem, and the question I ask and how I start to trigger the conversation about the digital transformation, it is about what are we doing as United Nations in the digital ecosystem. What are the services that we have available in the physical ecosystem that we want to see then in the digital ecosystem? And how are we either doing advocacy or actually run operations in that digital ecosystem? Basically, what is the UN--? If I take the example of, for instance, gaming, so a gamer is operating in that digital ecosystem, where does he find United Nations when he or she is actually inside the game operating in that particular ecosystem, let alone in other ecosystems? This conversation started because, when I visited the tech sector in San Francisco (when I was at the World Health Organization) that was the conversation I was having with Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple about the presence or absence of United Nations in the digital ecosystem. Please subscribe to our newsletter and subscribe to our YouTube channel, so you can stay up to date on our amazing live shows. You began with the examination of the role of the UN and then the digital aspect followed from that. Traditionally, depending on the generation. My generation, perhaps I would say the Web was a great thing. Today's generation, the Web is
actually pretty old. So, there is the metaverse that is starting to emerge, but there is the old social media, there is old platforms. If you take, for instance, Google, or take Facebook, and today everybody, before they go to a doctor or do something, they Google. Based on that, they are informed in that space. If the United Nations is not present in those platforms and ecosystems, the answers we want to give to the world (be it government, be it individuals) will also be absent. If there is absence of United Nations' perspective,
then that void, that vacuum will be filled in and can be potentially filled in by either inaccurate information or misinformation that then takes its own life. Therefore, the role is to really make sure that what we do in the physical ecosystem, we create those capacity capability information and access in these digital existence. Of course, we have to remember that a little bit more than half of the world is connected, so there is the other part that's not connected. So, we need to operate in this hybrid world in those two ecosystems. Talk to us more about this ecosystem concept that you've described a few times – that you've mentioned a few times. I think it starts with what piece of
information you have or what impact you want to make in the world. Based on that, it goes to how do you want to reach your audience, be it individuals or government. Think about this analog perspective where, for instance, you use the radio to pass a message or to inform about anything you're doing. Then you actually forget about the Internet. You forget about social media. If we operate in one channel, then basically we have part of the world listening to us. Therefore, the work of the United Nations, the services that United Nations provide, the capacity that United Nations brings to government, people, and societies needs to be delivered in those multiple channels. Those channels, I divide those into the two ecosystems. One is the physical ecosystem where actually somebody from United Nations
goes to a beneficiary and delivers the aid (if it's humanitarian) or speaks with a government or two governments to discuss about peace and security. Or the other ecosystem where perhaps two governments are starting to attack each other in the digital ecosystem, so it could be actually a precondition of a war where it starts in that digital ecosystem where then if we are able to intervene earlier, so we are able to, of course, avoid impact on the physical ecosystem. We have an interesting question from Twitter. This is from Arsalan Khan. He's a regular
listener and always asks such good questions. He says, "How do you develop a five-year strategic plan with input from 190 members" – I'm not sure if I have that number correct – "given the fact that they will not all be at the same stage of digital transformation? How do you create a common understanding from these member states when you're trying to develop a common single plan?" Think about 193 member states, and you wanted to say that, okay, perhaps the outcome of a strategy will be an average strategy, meaning that the strategy will not be excellent or will not be so bad. But the way we operate in this is that basically, first of all, we engage with the private sector to support us in that movement of the strategy. We engage with some experts that the country sent to work with us to really fine-tune that strategy and the member states approve. But like any role for any CIO, there are two elements that the CIO's responsibility is important and cannot be underestimated. One is of course to share the vision, so the way forward.
But the other one is to actually educate your own audience about the importance of that particular vision. Meaning that if a country maturity on digital or on technology is low, it is my responsibility to actually create, raise the awareness of that particular member state to help them understand the importance of that particular vision in the strategy. That's how I address the different levels of maturity across countries on technology.
But also, the same is applicable even internally within the different entities that we have. There's a different level of maturity in terms of technology that my role is for those who are early adopters, they are advanced in that maturity level. So, of course, they quickly understand that vision. For those who are not, then it's my responsibility to actually bring, raise that
level by creating that enabling environment for them to understand the importance of that vision. Your vision is very, very forward-thinking, the idea of replicating the physical ecosystem into the digital world, anticipating relationships, digital relationships that may not be happening yet. Are there challenges getting so many diverse points of view on board with this or does everybody sort of get it? I mean there are challenges (based on what I just described) in terms of understanding. But also, there are challenges around the risk appetite of different member states vis-à-vis those frontier technologies and solutions. But also, there are challenges related to different interests of the different member states that are members of the United Nations. Those challenges are there, and if I take that and bring it within a company, we also have similar challenges meaning that there are some people, some entities will say, "Let's do it." Some others will say,
"No, let's not do it," because of the different levels of risk appetite for each one of them. One of the key strengths of the United Nations is our ability to convene, the convening power. We mastered that ability to convene and try to find consensus, start to find understanding, and trying to chart a common agenda, a common strategy. But, yeah, behind the scenes, it is not as smooth as I am describing because it requires a lot of negotiations, a lot of interactions, a lot of informal interactions (in addition to the formal interactions) to make sure that everyone is on the same page. We have a really interesting question that's just come in from LinkedIn. This is from Suman Kumar Chandra,
who says this – and he's talking about this ecosystem and getting everybody on the same page – "After you share the vision with all of the entities and the countries, how do you measure the success of digital transformation when all of these countries are at different levels of maturity?" He wonders if you can give some examples. The basic question is, how do you measure the success of digital transformation in such a very diverse environment in which you are operating? My office, in this case, we support the secretariat. I mentioned the UN 2.0. But also, we support entities that support countries, so we work in partnership in those instances. But then, within the countries, if I give an example of counterterrorism, we work with the United Nations Office of Counterterrorism, supporting a number of countries to develop the capacity to address this problem in two areas. One is basically on the travel area, so counterterrorism travel, and the other one is counterterrorism financing. Within that, we do have, for instance,
countries such as Norway that are very advanced. They already created, for instance, a passenger information unit that really is able to work within the country, within the national setting, to track this issue. But remember, counterterrorism is not national, it's transnational, so any country alone cannot solve that problem.
Together with United Nations Office of Counterterrorism, we promoted the establishment of a personal information, passenger information unit in countries in such a way that they can share practices and all the rest. From the technology standpoint, my team supports that with the technologies. Now, within that technology, we do have a situation where, for instance, in Norway, they have already some systems. We need just
to integrate the system we developed with them in countries such as my own country. I can use Mozambique because I am from Mozambique. Then I will not offend anyone. Perhaps the level of maturity – not perhaps. For sure, the level of maturity is low in the technology front, so then we support the establishment of a system almost end-to-end to address end-to-end processes. On one end, we have an end-to-end process. On the other end, we have perhaps an application program
interface that interfaces with an existing system that just adds that component of counterterrorism. That's how we address the different maturity, and both from a technology perspective but also from financial support that some countries will not require that. The other countries will require that. Some countries will not require a lot of training, some will, so that's how we address it. That's one of the challenges of the UN across all services we provide because we have countries with a different level of maturity on pretty much everything. You have a common mandate but then you work individually with each country based on where they are at the particular moment in time and what they need. Then you help supply
the capabilities based on those particular needs. Yes, and then the performance indicator is not a cross-cutting performance indicator that says, "Okay, every country should be here," but it's a performance indicator that says this is the baseline and that's the progress we want to see. Actually, this is an excellent question in terms of the performance indicator of digital transformation. Being the chief information technology officer, I would say the most senior technologist in the United Nations, I also chair a group that brings all the CIOs and CTOs of United Nations. In our next meeting in Geneva, in Switzerland, next month, this is one topic that the group is bringing to the table to find a common ground.
We are bringing some private sector companies to actually also support us in addressing the measures or the elements that will allow us to bring, within the system, the performance indicators to measure the progress of digital transformation in the United Nations. The example I gave to you was related to countries, so how we support countries. But certainly, the key performance indicators to measure digital transformation is what we need to make sure that we can either decide that we are static, regressing, or progressing in that transformation. On this note, Arsalan Khan comes back, and he says, "How do you gain consensus with such a large group, 193 member countries?" The strategy, for instance, if I take the strategy as an example, it goes to a group of experts that we have. It's a smaller group of 30+ members that then they are the ones who actually provide the
recommendation of whether what we wrote in the strategy is in line with the other strategic elements of the targets of United Nations. That group of experts provide the recommendations to the 193 member states who then, in the general assembly, they meet and they look at those recommendations from the experts. They look at what we provide. They look at the answers we provided to all the questions from this group of experts. Then they make a decision based on that.
Let's talk about data. Can you describe or tell us about the role of data in your digital transformation efforts? If you actually look at the top ten largest companies or richest companies in the world, you will see at least three of them that leverage on data: Amazon, Alphabet, Google, Apple – to name a few – even Facebook. So, the largest— Data is a new, I would say, valuable asset. But to leverage on that, on data, there are a number of capabilities that we need to develop. As part of the secretary general data strategy,
we need to, first of all, attract more professions on data science. But also, we need to leverage on the diverse data sets that we have, and we need to develop capacities and democratize data analytics, which we are doing. But also, making sure that data privacy is an increasing part because we talk about human rights in the physical ecosystem. Human rights in the digital ecosystem requires data privacy. Those are the kinds of work that we're doing,
the type of work we're doing within the United Nations secretariat, but also across the United Nations systems to make sure that the asset that today is very valuable, which is data, it's preserved, it's nurtured, and it's used for the benefit of all and to really advance the goals, and especially the sustainable development goals, that we have agreed with the countries, the 17 goals, in addition to the 12 commitments of the United Nations secretary general common agenda. That is the work that we do on data. I'm assuming that your organization, your team, is also responsible on a technology level for ensuring that there is some (to the extent possible) consistency on the kinds of data that's being collected and providing the infrastructure for that. Or is that left just to the individual countries? How does that work?
One of the areas on data is the development of interoperability capabilities within, across, because the United Nations is like a large, multilateral, federal system of many, many entities. Then, of course, there are data sets and siloed data across. Similar, if you take a government at the national level, you also have silos of data. We look at what the private sector has done to leverage on data, how interoperability was a key component to make sure that one version of the truth is there and not two versions, but also to make sure that duplication does not exist in terms of data, in terms of how we leverage on that data. Basically, with that in mind, and with that goal in mind, we address it in two prongs. One is,
of course, internal work. But the other one is how do we bring the private sector to collaborate. We have great work. Even when I was at the World Health Organization, we had great work with a number of private sectors to create, for instance, the World Health Data Hub. Some countries, plus private sector, came together to create that. The World Health Data Hub is not about a data warehouse, like bring all the data together into one system, because that's an old concept.
It's about how do you leverage on the data that exists in those siloed systems that create that interoperability framework. The same thing that we promote countries to do, the same thing that we work with the United Nations Tech Envoy to really establish that digital cooperation. There is a digital cooperation report from secretary general that addresses that to make sure that countries leverage on those platforms of interoperability, be it open-source or not, to actually being able to better use the data assets that they have.
Arsalan Khan comes back again. Arsalan is on a roll today. He says, "How do you ensure that there are checks and balances that the data is being used properly, that there's no data manipulation of other members? How do you ensure that?" Cybersecurity is a key component. But as I said before, data protection and privacy is key. First, from the policy perspective. You do have countries that don't have that, updated data protection and privacy. But we look at it from, one, the policy itself. Second, the capability to protect against
any malicious attempt to either manipulate, change, or access (or access and sell, perhaps). We work in those two fronts, from the policy perspective and operational perspective, to make sure that the data is protected. There are United Nations agencies that work with beneficiaries, so we do have data protection and privacy enforced to ensure that the data is not misused. At the national level, of course, we promote and encourage countries. If they don't have instruments to then look at the international instruments (from the policy perspective) to protect the data of their citizens. Chris Petersen comes back, and he says,
"Does the UN take a position on the rollout of global technology services (such as Starlink, for example) and the power to turn that off or turn it on at will by private entities?" It's a little bit more into the policy side. I'm not sure if you're comfortable taking a stab at that one. I think the question is what role of private sector have in delivering services such as Internet like Starlink. But also, you can talk about Facebook. You can talk about even Twitter, right? I think that's where I say, in that digital transformation, the new partnerships between public and private sector needs to be strengthened. But not only that. The legal frameworks that we have in the physical ecosystem needs to be changed to in the digital ecosystem because you can't transfer all the legal instruments that are applicable to the physical ecosystem and think that they will be efficiently applied in the digital ecosystem. We encourage countries, through the different mechanisms that we have in the convening power of United Nations, to raise that awareness, to make sure that countries look into those areas to ensure that as the new business models emerge, the protection that is required and the security that is required is preserved.
I can give you an example from that (that I give normally when I speak about those things). Think about Amazon and the bookstore. The bookstore used to exist selling books in many countries. Today, the bookstore perhaps doesn't exist anymore because people just order from Amazon. But Amazon does not have a shop in that country. It's a global company. The rules of even taxation need to change because suddenly the bookstore that was registered in a specific country was paying local taxes and whatnot. It doesn't exist anymore. Think about Uber. There is a change in this digital transformation of different sectors.
I just gave you an example of a retail sector or books, but also the transport sector as it relates to Uber. But there are many other sectors where then countries' rules, procedures, and legal frameworks needs to be adjusted to make sure that the protection of the consumer is there. From the United Nations, our role, as having a convening power, brings countries together. We bring the private sector in to discuss the rules of engagement as we embark and transform different sectors to make sure that the physical ecosystem and the digital ecosystem coexist in such a way that one doesn't impact negatively on the other. Your view of digital transformation seems extremely broad. It's not just the technology but it's all of the other pieces. How do you translate
the physical world into the digital realm? As you said, it may be technology itself as the enabler, but you've been talking about things like business models and legal frameworks, for example, so you have a very broad view. We have a digital business transformation strategy for peacekeeping, just to give you an example. That's peacekeeping, right? Peacekeeping, what is peacekeeping? Peacekeeping, we go to a country after the security council decides, gives us the mandate, and we establish a peacekeeping operation. The peacekeeping operation normally in those countries means a huge camp, which is a very physical infrastructure that we establish there for a number of years, operating thousands of staff (both civilian and military personnel) that operate in that environment. The digital business transformation for peacekeeping, if I take one example, smart camps means that we need to transform how we manage that camp in the digital ecosystem, meaning we do have a program called Unite Aware that basically we have a reflection of the camp in the digital ecosystem. What are we doing in terms of power generation? How much fuel
consumption we have. Where we have incidents. All that is created in this digital ecosystem. I wouldn't call it a twin, but it's a reflection of what is happening on the ground. For that requires transformation of the business, transformation of processes, a change in capabilities of people to actually create new process procedures. That's where, when I say digital transformation, we should read digital business transformation, where technology is a piece of it but the business is a bigger piece. We have another question from LinkedIn, and we're just about out of time. We have a few more questions. You can see I love
taking questions from the audience. I'll ask you to answer these relatively quickly because we're just going to run out of time, and I try to get everybody's questions in. Okay, this is again from Suman Kumar Chandra, and he says, "Can you give one or two examples of how digital transformation at the UN helps people at the base of the pyramid in a big way?" How does digital transformation help those who are less fortunate? We used to do cash grants. We do cash grants in many agencies. I'm talking
about agency funds and programs in the United Nations, so across the system. Meaning that if there is an earthquake or cyclone, we can have an operation where we give cash grants, so you help with the housing and all the rest. But then we say, "Okay, here is an amount of money for the family to be able to go through that difficulty." We transformed that into digital money where then mobile money becomes a vehicle instead of cash grants. With that, we are able to track whether the expenses of the cash
grant actually is addressing the need of that family. Meaning, if the cash grant was meant— If I give cash, let's say you can say $100 or $300 for a family in cash, I have no way to actually be sure that actually the $300 was used for what was the intended purpose. But with mobile money, then that becomes possible to measure the effectiveness of that cash grant. This is just one example.
We have one more question. Again, I'll ask you to answer this very quickly. Again, from Arsalan Khan, he keeps coming back, and he says, "Does your organization give advice to the member states about the impact of AI on their workforce?" We do have a number of working groups on AI. Even during my time at World Health Organization, we have a working group to deliver the ethical use of AI in the health sector. Yes, we do give advice to countries. Currently,
we do have an interagency group that works on the impact of AI, so yes. The answer is yes, we do provide advice not only on AI, the use of other frontier technologies such as blockchain, and then the elements of protections that countries need to have to make sure that they ripe the benefits of those technologies. But also, we want them to make sure that they minimize the risks that these technologies bring as well.
Now we really are out of time, and so I'm going to ask you one final question of my own. What advice or message do you have to policymakers in government on digital transformation? Digital transformation, as I mentioned before, is not just about introducing a new technology. It's about introducing a new way of business. If I take health as an example, we have the target for health for all, so telemedicine is one way where technology supports. Food security is another one. But all I want to say, first of all, is that countries need to consider the creation of, I would say, entities or assignment of some entities in the government that track digital transformation. I want to commend a number
of countries that already established either ministries or offices that track digital transformation at a national level. But countries that are developing countries, my message is digital transformation can help leapfrog that development gap if it's well used. If countries want to leverage digital transformation, the whole of government approach and the establishment of cross-cutting services across government would help governments to really leverage on digital transformation to achieve the national goals but also sustainable development goals. All I want to say is that it is countries, from a policy perspective but also practice, will need to put attention to it. Of course, from the United Nations perspective (and also, all the multilateral organizations), we are there to help to make sure that countries advance from where they are today to where they should be (with the help of technology). Okay. Again, a very broad view of digital transformation. I want to say a huge thank you to Bernardo Mariano,
Jr. He is the chief information technology officer of the United Nations. Bernardo, thank you for coming back to be a guest on CXOTalk. I hope that you will come back for a third time. A pleasure to be here. Thank you. Thank you to everybody who is watching, especially to those folks who ask such excellent questions. Now, before you go, please subscribe to our newsletter and subscribe to our YouTube channel, so you can stay up to date on our amazing live shows.
Thank you so much, everybody. I hope you have a great day, and we'll see you again soon.