Reflections on what might have been
What do you consider yourself to be? Please insert the word “digital” in front of each of the following:
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.
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.