Transforming into a Digital Society

Over the last several months, there have been a number of ICT/technology-driven activities, ranging from workshops and seminars, to coding competitions and star-up competitions. In same small way, all of these initiatives aim to increase local ICT innovation, but is there a more comprehensive way in which this could be done?

The ICT youth-driven event, Digital Jam 2.0 – the future of work is online, will be held this week in Jamaica, from 28—30 June, at the Jamaica Conference Centre, Kingston. The event, which comprises a hackathon, apps competition, 2-day seminar and marketplace/expo, will also feature select international companies that will be highlighting online work opportunities and will be looking closely at the Jamaican talent:

  • 500Startups – a seed fund and start-up accelerator
  • Freelancer – an online outsourcing and crowdsourcing marketplace
  • Microworkers – an online outsourcing platform for microwork opportunities
  • Samasource– an online outsourcing platform for microwork opportunities
  • SoundTracker – a free music service that blends Internet radio, social networking and location-awareness
  • Wildfire – a social media management platform.

Digital Jam 2.0 is expected to attract between 3,000 and 5,000 people, who are keen to understand and take advantage of all available opportunities, such as jobs, networking, training, and business development. However, Digital Jam 2.0 is not meant to be a one-off event. Hopefully, it will be the much-needed impetus to chart a decisive path to innovation and wealth creation for Jamaica and Jamaicans in the virtual economy.

Having said this, virtually all countries within the Caribbean have similar aspirations: to transition into knowledge-based economies where their citizens can take full advantage of the opportunities that the Internet affords. In this post, we suggest key steps that could be taken by any grouping – be it community or country – to foster ICT/technology innovation and business development, in order to become a Digital Society.

Support entrepreneurship and business creation

Although many Caribbean countries might be relying on Foreign Direct Investments – foreign companies setting up local businesses – to drive innovation, such an approach would be strengthen if, at the very least, local businesses are also nurtured. At Digital Jam 2.0, select Jamaican ICT and ICT-related businesses will be showcased in the marketplace/expo. However, start-ups and small businesses typically face a number of challenges, which might be even more acute in the Caribbean, as opposed to developed countries:

  • affordable financing
  • affordable office space
  • available and accessible mentors
  • networking opportunities.

These deficiencies highlight a critical need for business incubation initiatives. Some incubation centres already exist, but frequently they are small and over-subscribed. More importantly, start-ups, particularly those owned by youth/young adults, who generally might have an abundance of talent and enthusiasm, but limited business experience, could greatly benefit from a nurturing environment that a business incubator can offer.

Foster innovation

For anyone who has had attended a pitch event, such as Kingston BETA or Caribbean BETA, it becomes quickly apparent that people are brimming with ideas. Sadly, however, there might not necessarily be a reasonable market for the products and services that have been developed. On the other hand, many businesses have identified deficiencies or problems they have been having, for which they could benefit from solutions.

In some measure, connecting problems with persons (or businesses) who might be able to offer solutions is similar, albeit on a considerably smaller scale, to the United States’ support and financing of technology and the electronics industry, from the 1950s to 1980s. This support in turn drove innovation in telecoms, computing and the Internet, and led to the accelerated developments at the mass consumer level, which we began to experience in the early 1990s and from which we are still benefitting today. Hence, encouraging targeted problem solving will not only provide opportunities for much-needed problem solving and innovation, but also viable projects and revenues for those who are engaged.

Build capacity

It almost goes without saying that in our rapidly changing societies, particularly where we must be able to harness ICTs, education is key. Among our children, it is important that competence in basic computing is achieved, but to the extent they are versed in technology, this can create an excellent foundation for creativity in the ICT/technology space in the future.

Additionally, we must also ensure that there are comprehensive capacity buidling schemes that offer more structured training to supplement ad hoc competitions, workshops and meetings thata are held from time to time. Our adult population across all sectors also ought to have access to training in their respective disciplines that help them to integrate technology. The focus of such progarmmes would not be computer literacy, for example, but rather helping people to understand how technology/ICTs can be used to improve or even transform their approach and outputs, while providing them with the requisite skills.

Create an enabling environment

Finally, although the above steps are constituents of this point, they can all be implemented separately and realise some measure of success. However, longer-term success would require a cohesive framework that fosters the move to a Digital Society. Elements in such a framework would include, but would not be limited to:

  • preparing and implementing appropriate policy and legislation that underpin the enabling environment
  • establishing channels to affordable financing and markets
  • creating an attractive environment for local and international investment
  • identifying champions and agencies that facilitate and support the entire initiative

It is highlighted that successful implementation of that framework would not only support realisation of the Digital Society, but would also strengthen a country’s business sector in general. This improvement would contribute to increased international competitiveness, which could encourage further investment and growth.

Image credits; Digital Jam 2.0 website; Light bulb, (Vermin Inc, flickr);