Huawei: Cover Story Interview-Don’t be averse to the Metaverse

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On 29th Feb 2024, Huawei, one of the world’s largest technologies company published its global thought-leadership magazine Transform, featured myself as CEO of The Metaverse Institute and Prof Jeffrey Sachs, President of the UN Sustainable Development Network as the Cover People on the topic of Digital Equity.

What is the Digital Equity?

The United Nations emphasizes the importance of digital equity, especially for older adults. Here’s a breakdown of their perspective with some facts and figures:

  • Digital Divide: The UN acknowledges the “digital divide,” which refers to the gap between those who have access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) and those who don’t. This can encompass limitations in internet connectivity, digital devices, and essential digital skills.
  • Importance of Digital Inclusion: The UN highlights that meaningful participation in the digital world is crucial for everyone, regardless of age. Technology can be a powerful tool for progress, supporting areas like education, employment, and overall well-being.
  • Focus on Older Adults: The UN’s 2021 International Day of Older Persons specifically addressed “Digital Equity for All Ages”. This focus highlights the concern that rapid digitalization might leave older adults behind.
  • Synergy with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): The UN sees bridging the digital divide as essential for achieving the SDGs. Increased digital access can empower people, improve access to information and services, and contribute to a more equitable society.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU): globally, about 1/3 of the global population, that is 3.7 billion people remain unconnected to the internet.

The COVID-19 pandemic further exposed the digital divide, as many essential services shifted online. Those lacking digital access faced greater challenges in areas like education, healthcare, and even basic communication.

The UN’s focus on digital equity serves as a call to action for governments, civil society, and the private sector to work together in bridging this gap. By ensuring everyone has the opportunity to participate in the digital world, we can unlock the full potential of technology for a more inclusive and sustainable future.

Gavin Allen, executive editor-in-chief of Huawei

Gavin Allen, executive editor-in-chief of Huawei approached me for the interview. Gavin joined Huawei in 2021, after nearly two decades at the BBC. He was Head of BBC News Programmes leading the global news teams (c 1,200 people) and controlling a news spend of £140m. As part of this role, he lead the Day-to-day strategic, editorial, financial and managerial operation of BBC all global and UK programmes across all platforms including:

  • TV 1, 6 & 10 o’clock news;
  • BBC1 Breakfast show;
  • Radio 4 Today;
  • Radio 4 PM ;
  • Radio 4 1 O’clock News;
  • BBC World & News Channels,
  • The Andrew Marr Show,
  • Radio 5 live,
  • BBC World Service news programmes,
  • BBC News Online etc

I have enjoyed a long history with BBC back to 2008. I was one of British Council International Students of the Year Awards Winners and was interviewed many time by top media, including two interviews by BBC. Then, one of the BBC producers invited me to write for BBC on a regular basis which I did between 2008 and 2010.

(In 2008, I was presented the award by Jimmy Choo OBE, Malaysian fashion designer based in the United Kingdom. He co-founded

It is an honour to be invited by a former senior leader from BBC who has such a distinguished career at one of the most respected media organisations in the world. When Gavin approached me asking for an interview on digital equity which we at The Metaverse Institute have been working on, I said yes immediately.

The Interview

The interview took place in Huawei’s London office. Immediately when Gavin picked me up from the reception, the cameraman already started filming how I entered the building and our informal chat.

We enjoyed a great 45 minutes TV interview discussing our work on how different frontier technologies can be used to address the global digital divide and maximise positive impact to benefit all. To my surprise, we also spend another 30 minutes doing photoshoots. I think we must have taken hundreds of photos of me that day, in all kinds of different poses. I started to joke with the photographer that it must be not easy to be a supermodel because they needed to figure out all kinds of interesting poses and expressions to express themselves in line with different contexts. The final interviews are published in both Transform, Huawei’s global thought-leadership magazine, as well as in Video interview on their website.

I did not know that I would become one of the two cover people in the latest issue of Huawei’s magazine. But it is a great honour to be featured alongside world renowned economist Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, President of the UN Sustainable Development Network and other distinguished world leaders who have been committed to use technologies to make our world a better place for all.

Other Cover People of Huawei Transform Magazine since Inception in Feb 2022 including the following:

  • .

Other leaders who are interviewed on their work on digital equity including the following:

  1. Prof Jeffrey Sachs, President of the UN Sustainable Development Digital bridge or digital wedge? – Huawei
  2. Julian May Center of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), UNESCO Chair in Science and Education for African Food Systems. “Twenty years of almost nothing going wrong”: What the poor need, in order to get rich – Huawei
  3. Doreen Bogdan-Martin Secretary-General, ITU Thriving with tech – Huawei
  4. Vijaya Kumar Ivaturi CTO of Crayon Data a big data and AI start-up based in Singapore Access, energy, literacy: overcoming the three stumbling blocks to connectivity – Huawei
  5. Patricia Chin-Sweeney, a Venture Partner at Beyond Capital Ventures a US-based VC with offices in Nairobi and a team in Delhi and Bangalore Four starts-ups and a VC – Huawei
  6. Paul Finnis FRSA Founder of the Digital Poverty Alliance “Three billion people feels like a market to me” – Huawei
  7. Bjorn-Soren Gigler, PhD an Adjunct Professor for Political Economy at Georgetown University. Towards a new social contract for the digital economy – Huawei
  8. Bianca C. Reisdorf, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Dept. of Communication at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, “Underconnected:” an expert explains why mobile is not enough – Huawei
  9. Jim Knight Chairman of CENTURY Tech an EdTech organization, Digital poverty is a dead weight on society – Huawei
  10. Elizabeth Rossiello CEO of AZA Finance a pan-African fintech headquartered in London. Show me the money – Huawei
  11. Otaviano Canuto Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution To solve extreme poverty, give people money – Huawei
  12. Andrew Williamson VP Global Government Affairs at Huawei Technologies Why is the internet so stubbornly expensive? – Huawei
  13. Frank Leyhausen CEO of Reifegrad4, an organization that helps to test the demographic resilience of concepts and new business ideas. They not old, they’re “digital immigrants” – Huawei
  14. Tariq Dawood Al Balushi – Founder, Knowledge Oman Digital inclusion drives sustainable development – Huawei
  15. Josephine Karianjahi Co-Founder, Africa Podfest Power to the Podcast – Huawei
  16. Marcos Gutiérrez Fernández Associate Professor, Department of Economics, University of Cantabria, Spain ICT and public services: critical issues for addressing the digital divides – Huawei
  17. Dr. Eleni Laitsou University of Thessaly in Greece. Dr. Apostolos Xenakis an Assistant Professor in the Department of Digital Systems at the University of Thessaly in Greece. Studies show more tech means better life quality – Huawei

Other prominent leaders featured by Huawei including Irena Bokava, the first female Secretary General of UNESCO.

The full interview

When it comes to the world’s biggest digital twin, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Dr. Christina Yan Zhang, CEO of the Metaverse Institute, explains.

Q: What is the Metaverse?

A: The metaverse has increasingly become a convergence of a whole range of technologies, coming together to form the next generation of the internet: more immersive, interactive and intuitive. The most important use case of the metaverse is for simulating and optimizing real-world construction and development projects that are too expensive to fail, so must be got right the first time. The US$500billion mega-smart city in Saudi Arabia, known as Neom, is a good example. Metaverse technologies can be used in a similar way for dangerous operations, such as complicated or experimental  surgery. In the future, large-scale digital twin simulations could also be used to model the behavior of large numbers of people in virtual environments –  to understand, for instance, how they would evacuate a stadium in the event of a fire, or what would happen if there was an earthquake in a city.

Q: How do you make sure that technological advances and the metaverse benefit everyone?

A: That’s a major issue. I’m vice-chair of an International Telecommunication Union (UN ITU) working group that produced the first UN survey looking at how to develop guidance on “how to build a metaverse for all” and address the global digital divide. There are currently about 2.6 billion people – a third of the global population – who don’t have access to the internet. Today, 1.2bn people, mostly in Africa and some parts of Asia, don’t even have stable access to electricity. So, a top issue is energy poverty. That needs massive intergovernmental collaboration, with private investment coming in to support public-private partnerships, to put more infrastructure in place. Because when you don’t even have the energy to cook your daily meals, you’re not going to talk about anything fancy on technology. You’re only thinking about your own survival. So, we need to address that fundamental issue.

Q: As people increasingly move to urban areas, what are the implications for technological advancement and inclusivity for poorer communities?

A: That’s a great question. Today, 55% of the global population live in cities, and by 2050 it’s going to be 80%. I also co-chair the UN ITU task group on pre-standardization for the “CitiVerse.” That term is a combination of “citizen” and “metaverse.” So, we’re looking at how we can develop future cities where we put the needs of the citizens at the center. In the past, smart city developments haven’t always achieved the best outcomes, even though they used some of the most advanced technology available at the time. Sometimes there is a focus on technology for its own sake, rather than on how technology can be used to improve the lives of people. This has led to some smart city projects being expensive, inefficient, and even harmful.

The problem is adoption. Innovation moves so fast, it is not always easy for people to catch up. If people don’t understand how best to utilize the technology for their own benefit, then the technology can’t maximize its positive impact. So, instead of just chasing the latest techno-hype, which moves too fast for most municipal governments to follow in any case, let’s go back to basics and ask what are the key issues all our diverse citizens care about.

Not all smart city technologies have effectively addressed the issue of rising property prices in many capitals, or address the issue of providing better support to their ageing populations. According to the latest figures from the World Bank, the digital divide (access to the internet) is not only between low-income households (64%) and high-income households (92%). It is also between men (82%) and women (64%), and between different locations: urban areas (88%) vs rural ones (73%). There is also a digital divide between younger people, aged 15-24 (94%) and our ageing parents and grandparents who are 65+ years old (74%). It’s between people who have additional special needs (56%) and people who don’t (76%). There are lots of things we need to break down into more detail to provide the additional support required by our diverse communities.

Q: So, if you’re poor in the real world, how do you ensure you’re not equally poor in the digital world?

A: The first thing we need to realize is that we all have to live in the physical world for most of our lives. People are not going to spend 100% of their time in a virtual-reality metaverse; that is a science-fiction dystopia, and it’s not going to happen. The way to bring the greatest value to the metaverse is to always link it to the physical world, to do experiments in the virtual environment which are too costly or too dangerous to realize in the real world. So, the most important thing we need to do is figure out how we can help people in the real world to receive the right kind of training to allow them to figure out how to use these new technologies to bring value to their existing life and work.

Everyone’s worried about their jobs now as a result of AI, but as President Franklin Roosevelt said during the Great Depression (1929–1939), when 24.9% of the total work force in the US (nearly 13 million people) were out of work: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” If we put our fear aside, look at what are the biggest challenges, and break them down into smaller, more manageable tasks, then we can really support people from diverse backgrounds with diverse needs, using new technologies within the wider metaverse ecosystem. And we’re doing that analysis now at the UN ITU working group.

Q: What are the changes that are required to ensure the technology benefits everyone?

A: Training is clearly a very important area, but so is confidence. Every one of us needs to have the confidence to believe in ourselves first before we can help other people to flourish. We human beings, as a species, are extremely adaptable. Also, in the UN ITU task group on the CitiVerse we are proposing a new type of partnership, which we call a public-private-people-planet partnership. Any kind of digital future we are planning and implementing has to ensure that the needs of our diverse people will be at the center. And to make sure everything is sustainable in the longer term, and not at the cost of our planet. We are working in collaboration with many different member states of the UN ITU to look at how we use all kinds of frontier technologies to support people-centered future cities. What will be the roadmap that cities of different sizes, focus, cultures and histories can benefit from? Should we develop a more regional focus? For example, the CitiVerse developed for Europe will be very different from the CitiVerse developed for Africa.

Q: How does technology help achieve that greater equality and greater inclusivity?

A: Everything needs to be more tailored: personalized, regionalized, to cater to the needs of different countries and different industries. I don’t believe that the best metaverse strategy is one-size-fits-all. Instead, there needs to be a metaverse strategy fit for tourism, a metaverse strategy fit for healthcare, another for arts and design, or for the entertainment industry, or for a smart factory, and so on. Rather than trying to build everything from scratch, we need to look at what’s already available out there in the existing system. For any kind of IT implementation or adoption, we can’t just get rid of the existing system, which has been running for decades. Innovation needs to be incremental to be incorporated properly into existing systems.

Q: It’s an evolution, but with people and the planet at the heart of the plan?

A: Absolutely. I would say it will always be people-centered and we need to be very balanced.

Q: You seem very optimistic that there’s a good future ahead for all of us?

A: I’m optimistic because we’ve already tried to map out all the challenges and prepared for the worst scenarios, and therefore we do not have any room left to fear anything. Our focus is to identify the most effective and pragmatic solutions to address any challenges experienced in the process. Data storage, for instance. The European Commission has given €2 million of funding to the ASCEND initiative, part of the Horizon Europe program, to put data centers in Earth orbit, thus minimizing the environmental impacts. And frontier tech companies are looking at putting data storage in the form of synthetic DNA. Like the dinosaur in amber in the film Jurassic Park, DNA is an extremely stable form of data storage. It lasts a very long time — up to 1.5 million years — while the most commonly-used medium for long-term storage, magnetic tape, has to be replaced every 10 years. The storage density potential of DNA is 10 million times that of traditional media such as hard disks and tapes, and it’s carbon emission free, too. Mark Bathe, PhD, an MIT professor of biological engineering, said that if we want to store the whole world’s data in DNA, we could fit all of it inside coffee mug.

Q: Returning to your FDR quote about fear: do we just need to stop worrying and calmly accept that this is where technology is going?

A: Yes. Life is short, and you can choose to live it in a really happy and optimistic way, or a miserable and pessimistic way. Why don’t we focus all our energy on things we can control, and on things we can do to help each other flourish, rather than fighting each other. It doesn’t make sense. Steve Jobs once said, we are here to make a dent in the universe. I think we are here to make a dent in the metaverse!

We look forward to working UN, governments, investors, corporates and institutions to use all kinds of different frontier technologies to maximise positive impact for all to flourish.

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