Do Urban-Poor Communities have the necessary skills to sustain themselves in the Information Economy?

Associate Professor Dr Santha Vaithilingam - School of Business

Recently, a study was conducted by the United Nations division of population which revealed that the urban population in Malaysia was on the rise. From 62% in the year 2000, the urban population in the country is expected to escalate to 82% in the year 2030. One of the reasons for the rapid boom in urban population is the migration from rural areas.

“The increasing migration of people from rural areas without skills equipping them for a knowledge economy has led to an increasing dislocated population caught in the clutches of poverty in urban localities,” said Associate Professor Dr Santha Vaithilingam, Head of the Econometrics and Business Statistics Department at Monash University Malaysia. She said that “the knowledge economy is powered by the information and communication technology (ICT) revolution and communities that are not well versed in the use of ICT will not be able to be competitive”.

“This prompted us to focus our research on the urban-poor community and their perception towards ICT usage. Over the last two decades, The Malaysian government has put in place several ICT initiatives to connect the poor to the information highway.” These initiatives have improved the access to ICT, but some communities are still left behind in the transition,” she said the question our research team were interested in was how effective have these policies been in assisting urban-poor communities in moving up the innovation value chain and enhancing their socioeconomic wellbeing?” She argued that “if we don’t help this segment of the population migrate to the information economy, many of them will not be able to find high income jobs in the new economy and this will lead to an explosion of social problems and crime.”

Dr Santha’s research sets out to try and determine the reasons why the urban-poor community are not making full use of the ICT infrastructure and facilities that have been set up by the government, to better their quality of life.

“ICT is an important development tool to address poverty and has the potential to improve the wellbeing of individuals and society. Studies have been done on adoption of ICT but we want to see what the actual usage here is. Why these segments of society who have adopted ICT have not optimally used this technology for higher order use and also the reasons for those not adopting the technology. It is important to harness the potential of ICT in contributing to socioeconomic development,” she said.

Dr Santha’s team of researchers are also looking into how ICT can improve business development for small entrepreneurs who have access to financing provided by microfinance institutions to bring them out of poverty.

“Again, we are looking at what is the enabling environment that will enable marginalised communities to enhance their competitiveness and improve their socioeconomic wellbeing. This includes studying how these communities access resources such as microfinance and other training skills to improve their entrepreneurial acumen.

Finally, her research team is also looking into using ICT, specifically social network technologies, for creative learning ecosystems that foster creativity and innovation. She also state that social networks are increasingly opening new channels for developing countries and marginalised communities to access global knowledge networks that will enable them to leap-frog to a high income economy.

“The findings from this research will inform policy-makers the type of policies that will enhance take-up of ICT among the poor and how these new technologies will enable them to tap into the ‘network-brain’, leading to access to information and knowledge that value-add to their day to day activities.

She contends that one of the exciting part of being at Monash is that opportunities are provided to academics to explore their own areas of research interest and a number of multidisciplinary research platforms have been established to enable researchers to work with challenges encountered by various segments of the population and stakeholders in Malaysia and the region. And, in most instances these challenges require knowledge from multiple areas and expertise. The incentives provided by the platforms and cutting-edge research facilities such as the Neurobusiness lab and other behavioural research facilities enable Monash researchers to undertake high impact research that contribute to nation building in the region.

She states that her research training in statistics and econometrics has assisted her in undertaking this project and other similar policy modelling initiatives for government and community organisations. She encourages students in the business area to get sound training in statistics and econometrics, as these skills provide them evidence-based tools for decision-making. She states the econometrics students that are trained at Monash are highly sought by industry and research institutions.