Digital Agenda Assembly 2012 – a UK delegate perspective.

What do you consider yourself to be? Please insert the word “digital” in front of each of the following:

  • discoverer,
  • adventurer,
  • missionary,
  • doer,
  • manager,
  • strategist

It is highly likely that you can think of others; evangelist for example but, like me, I have no doubt you have been at least more than one; sometimes all on the same day.

I took delivery of a Commodore Vic 20 in 1980 but, not counting mechanical calculating machines, I experienced my first computer when I had just turned 15. In 1967 we had access to a teletype which produced a punched tape and in the absence of a data line we posted the tape to the local university to have a print out returned a week later. When the print out contained a result and not the words “error line 5” there was palpable excitement.  Almost 45 years later I was invited to attend the High Speed Connections strand of the Digital Agenda Assembly 2012 and to contribute in a very small way to the review of the progress towards the targets for 2020.

There is a digital divide in Europe; if you thought the problem was solved you are wrong; 1 in 4 adults have never accessed the Internet (in the UK the figure is 20% or 1 in 5. I have recently taken to (mis) quoting Douglas Adams when talking about digital inclusion:

“Digital Inclusion is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to digital inclusion.”

I do this because of the experience of listening to people who are engaged in the digital agenda but who only see their part of it; more often than not, their part of it is the answer. I’m sure that you will hear things all the time: “If only we can give people access”, “If only we can give people the skills”, “If only we can give people cheaper equipment”. Governments, experts and activists everybody has a view on how to resolve the digital divide. Yes, we do have a digital divide and although the number of people online is falling for those that remain the divide is getting narrower but deeper. The long tail of exclusion is a reflection of the law of diminishing returns.

Look at this visualization which tries to show the scale of the digital inclusion agenda. Where would you put your approach? Invariably for most people the approach often sits in the bottom left hand area of the diagram. While all of this “is” important what we should be experiencing is a move towards empowering individuals and “that” was the message that I was hearing at the Digital Agenda Assembly.

Arc of Engagement

The Digital Agenda for Europe sets out to cover the “mind-bogglingly big” nature of the digital environment and recognises that this isn’t just a local journey to a metaphorical shop; it’s a ten year journey towards a single digital market via interoperability and trust and security through very fast internet with e-skills and ICT for social challenges.

Investment and Innovation are missing from this visualization. Ben Verwaayen described Europe as a “digital desert” and said it was destined to stay that way unless the conditions for investment were improved. The conditions for investment are reduced risk and guaranteed levels of minimal regulation. Not everybody agreed that Europe was a digital desert but Mr Verwaayen made his point; without investment there will be no innovation and without innovation there will be no new digital industries without which there will be no growth and no jobs. Where do we put innovation and investment? One of the best descriptions of the innovation environment for me is that of Loet Leydesdorff and that’s probably because of my Systems background. I Like Leydesdorff’s Triple Helix Perspective because he looks further than the traditional virtuous circle that we’re often presented with as a model and he considers a range of influences. We saw some exceptional examples of digital innovation at DA12 and the winner of the “Tech All Starts” prize was CogniCor Technologies from the Wayra accelerator in Spain. Does this suggest that we need more accelerators like Wayra? Possibly but we also need the people to go in them. The oft repeated question at DA12 was “Why don’t we innovate?” As Leydesdorff shows, it’s partly because we don’t fully consider the complexities of innovation. Isn’t it also that we don’t engender that confidence that allows people to take leaps of creativity and to develop their ideas without fear of failure. We need to move our efforts into the upper right quadrant of the visualization; the golden quadrant.

This is not to say that the rest of the picture isn’t important, there’s nothing pejorative about where things are placed but we need to listen to the message from DA12 and understand the wider importance of empowering individuals for they are the innovators not the institutions.

The UK was notable at DA12 for its lack of presence. If there was anybody there from UK government or from Ofcom they kept a very low profile. There was a vocal, enthusiastic, well informed group of activists and experts who made positive contributions to the debate and we should acknowledge that contribution. I must specifically mention Chris Conder from B4RN who spoke with Neelie Kroes and was invited to attend the Digital Champions event on the following Monday. However, I find the lack of official engagement appalling. Here on our little island on the other side of the channel we seem to be losing our way. The world is becoming more connected. There will be 500 connected devices per sq kilometre by 2020 and it is predicted that 10 years later there will be 30,000. At the end of June we had the news that the UK is not signing up to superfast broadband and the government doesn’t appear to have plans to bridge the gap between the EU’s Digital Agenda ambitions and our own. Talking to representatives from the Commission I was met with a certain amount of incredulity that rural areas are being disadvantaged in favour of city regions and being left to do things for themselves. There was similar surprise at the plans to invest £35 billion in a railway line that only stops at Birmingham and has no proven business case. Set this against the paltry £500 million being invested in superfast broadband when ICTs, even at the current rate of development, contributed £121 billion to the British economy in 2010. Building railways is something that the Victorians did because railways were the super fast networks of their day. It’s time we stopped being Victorian in our thinking. Today, 26th June, Martha Lane-Fox has made a call for us to put Europe at the forefront of digital development.  While I don’t agree with everything the digital champion says or does I do think that this is a statement to which the UK should listen.


8 thoughts on “Digital Agenda Assembly 2012 – a UK delegate perspective.

  1. Good summary, and on Monday did ask one large operator about lack of presence, and apparently they did have a couple of people there, but perhaps they were not vocal enough.

    Also have pestered Jeremy Hunt and my own MP over the UK.Gov presence (lack of), have had email acknowledged so waiting to here more.

    One wonders whether some local authorities would have learnt more on broadband roll-outs in those two days, than all the days of consultancy fees, meetings and reports they have had prepared for them.

  2. Agree with Andrew, local authorities should have been there from the UK, and they should have engaged with the forums. I did spot a chap from DCMS at the reception but don’t know if he had been in our workshop.

    It seems to prove that innovation is coming from grassroots, the monkeys at the top of the tree are still not looking down, let alone climbing down to see what is happening on the forest floor.

    I have spent the night dreaming about your graphic Paul, and trying to come up with an explanation of my own. I think you are right, we all have our own agenda to pursue, and only by working together will we all achieve a digital Europe. The problem as I see it is that the lobby for the telcos is far stronger than anyone else’s, and because with their marketing budgets and market power they reside higher up the tree than us, their voice is heard, ours isn’t.

    It was clear from the DA forum (which ran for two months prior to the assembly) that rural areas were key to getting ubiquitous and fit for purpose connectivity for all citizens, yet the panels in the workshops didn’t bring this to the attention of the delegates. We had people of great experience like Peter Cochrane commenting and blowing apart the myth that the future could ever be delivered by phone lines yet this was never picked up on. He should have been a key speaker at the event.

    I think we are getting there, I think it was a very useful exercise, and proves that at least the Digital Assembly people are listening. Now we have to all work on our own governments and get them to see through the canopy and pick up on all the innovative ways the people are thinking of to get every citizen digital.

    It will only work if its ubiquitous, easy, affordable and fun.

    “We notice things that don’t work. We don’t notice things that do”.
    Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001), The Salmon of Doubt, p. 110

    Keep the faith.

  3. Why speak about “investment” when the meaning is “state aid”?

    I don’t believe in the divide and the desert. It is a 15 yro narrative and it is still wrong. Digital eco system “access” is more important than physical infrastructure. Digital infrastructure trickles down as long as the market is forced open.

    1. Challenging Andre – many thanks for this comment. How would you like to put forward a view of your ecosystem? Would be happy to share it as a guest post on Penval.

  4. Rebentisch it is about investing in our future, and if state aid can help then there is more point in doing that than building a fast train for a few. There is a divide, and its growing wider. Many can’t get a decent connection, in areas near me even dial up fails. There will be no eco system until the physical infrastructure can support it. Currently in areas outside cities and towns it can’t. My daughter in Manchester can’t get video to stream despite engineer visits. It isn’t just a rural divide, the whole system is based on old phone lines and is no longer fit for purpose. I agree state aid shouldn’t go into a bottomless copper pot though, it should be used for innovative competitive challenges to the incumbent. Start in the hard to reach areas and market forces will take care of the rest. Is that what you mean by forcing the market open?

  5. Great post – so many valid points.

    I especially agree with Andrew Ferguson’s comment: as an attendee of the Digital Agenda Assembly I could not find one Irish official, let alone one in the ICT arena. I tweeted my former Green Party colleague, until recently the Irish Minister of Communications to find he was elsewhere.

    As an invited guest of the EU Commission I was allocated, the Social Media Group (not my preference) and was aghast to find it hijacked by an American whose contribution I can only describe as ‘woffle’ (personal opinion)

    I whole heartedly concur that what we need is digital infra-structure – and my own hobby horse, top notch engineers > excellence in education and educational incentives; the bit the US has go right….

    1. Many thanks for the comment Sheila I’m glad there is common ground here. Andrew will be posting more on official engagement on his own site. Unless we get genuine understanding of the next generation agenda from decision makers instead of this tick box mentality we are going to be stuck with last century thinking and the economic and social consequences of that for a long time to come.

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