Building The Elusive Information Society

Interview with Bevil Wooding, Programme Director for the Caribbean ICT RoadshowPART II of a series

Bevil Wooding, Chief Knowledge Officer, Congress WBN

Over the past several years there has been a lot of talk, in the region and around the world, about the need to build the “information society” and to develop “knowledge-based societies”. However, many still struggle with what these concepts actually mean and how to actually bring it to pass. According to Caribbean-based technology expert, Bevil Wooding, the answers may be closer to home than we think.

It’s a subject that has come up many times on the agenda of the Caribbean ICT Roadshow. The initiative, spearheaded by the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU), was designed specifically to raise awareness at every level of Caribbean society as to the multifaceted approaches necessary to realize the potential of Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

The Caribbean ICT Roadshow, which has already touched over 10 countries in the region, will be coming to Trinidad and Tobago in November and according to Ms Bernadette Lewis, Secretary General of the CTU, the initiative will be taking its message of “ICTs are for everyone” out to the rural communities as well as to our major cities. The Trinidad and Tobago edition of the Roadshow will take place at the Cascadia Hotel from the 7th to 9th November 2010. But, in order to engage citizens across the country, Lewis stated that the event will include a series of community visits to Sangre Grande, Siparia, Moruga, Couva, Scarborough and San Fernando between the 8th October and 5th November 2010.

Wooding, who serves as Program Director for the initiative, shared that the Community Outreach sessions are designed provide community members with the opportunity to learn and discuss how ICT can enhance their lives. He said, “Participants have the opportunity to seek answers for ICT-related questions in an informal setting. All members of the community, of any age, are invited to attend as there will be something of interest for everyone.”

I asked Wooding, the Chief Knowledge Officer of the international nonprofit Congress WBN, and one of the feature speakers on the Roadshow to share some more insight on a topic he presented on at the recent Caribbean Internet Governance Forum held in St Maarten last August—The Elusive Information Society.

GB: A lot has been said about “The Information Society”, but is it all just the latest buzz? Why does it matter?

BW: We live in an age of unprecedented scientific discovery and technological innovation. It is believed that there have been more scientific discoveries in the last 10 years than in the previous 600 years of human history. This pace of technological advance is radically transforming the way in which nations are conceiving and pursuing their development. The advent of Information Communications Technology (ICT) and its incorporation as the backbone of economic growth and progress, have ushered global society into what is called the Information Age, an age which social scientists believe is already more revolutionary and far-reaching in its implications than the Industrial Age that defined our lives in the 20th century.

The ICT revolution has also brought about the ‘death’ of distance. A fact hailed by The Economist magazine as an event that “may well prove the most significant economic force shaping the next half century,” and whose “effects will be as pervasive as those of the discovery of electricity.”

This revolution has also yielded increased productive output by simplifying and rationalising productive processes, enabling massive production capability by nations and corporations. ICTs have also enhanced economic efficiency, as the power of productivity systems built upon the new rules of the virtual world has allowed businesses to overcome traditional barriers to productivity, such as 8-hour work days, and inadequate local resources, by easily moving around their productive centres to other locations. And of course, the reality of increased global interconnectedness, which gave birth to transformational and empowering concepts such as ‘e-leadership’, a ‘global village’ and ‘the world market’, is also indebted to the revolution in ICT.

GB: Let’s bring it home. Here in the Caribbean, you are part of the CTU’s Caribbean ICT Roadshow that has been promoting innovation as the engine for ICT-enabled development. I understand that your organization, Congress WBN, recently hosted a Nations Development forum in Zimbabwe that focused on the link between ICT and leadership. Most developing countries would say they are more than interested in building information societies and harnessing the power of ICTs. How do you think the issue of e-leadership is applicable in making this happen where economies may still be on the fringes of stability?

BW: In his keynote address at the recent Forum for Nations Development in Zimbabwe, Dr. Noel Woodroffe shared an ancient Chinese proverb: “A crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind.” I believe this aptly describes the situation before most developing states. That fact that many countries find their economies precariously poised is itself an indication of the tremendous potential waiting to be leveraged through the innovative use of ICTs. A common theme in the C-WBN Forum in Harare was the role to be played by leadership in defining the environment and context within which that potential can be fully leveraged.

Throughout the Forum we defined ‘e-leadership’ broadly to include all persons in spheres of influence who have the capacity to bring about change and transformation for the national good. In this context, “e” was defined as “ethical” leadership; “exemplary” leadership; and “enlightened” leadership. The key point to note is that it is the responsibility of leaders at every level of society - be it Government, Private Enterprise, Academia, Civil Society, or in the home, to play a part in articulating the vision and instilling the values and mindsets necessary to re-define our societies and seize the opportunities available to foster innovation in the application of ICT to indigenous challenges in government, the private sector and civil society; to build awareness at every level of the new economic possibiities made available through ICT; to accelerate the appropriate use of ICT by in the delivery of public services and transparent governance; and to encourage greater collaboration in the development of ICT solutions relevant to indigenous needs.

The reality is appropriate use of available ICT tools can take advantage of existing infrastructure to create opportunities and create more transparent governance. For this to happen, enlightened leadership must provide the vision and the enabling environment to allow the powerful creative potential of our peoples to be fully unleashed. Remember, in the knowledge-based economy human capital is the most important asset.

GB: What do you mean by Transparent Governance? Do ICTs really facilitate transparency in Governance? BW: By transparent governance, I refer to the use of ICTs in facilitating greater scrutiny of public sector decisions and actions. When considered from this standpoint “transparent governance” covers a range that can span providing basic information about government up to enabling public to contribute to shaping public sector initiatives. This can bring process benefits (e.g.; anywhere, anytime access to information) as well as governance benefits (e.g. empowering citizens and minimizing opportunity for corruption in the public service).

In developing countries we often see additional benefits, including improving the equality of treatment and participation of all members of the community, and improving the planning and implementation of development projects. In this regard, ICTs can make an important contribution by cutting costs, opening up access to information and automating corruptible processes.

Note, however, that alongside the benefits transparent governance may also come new costs (e.g of technology, of implementation, of staff time, of training, etc.) and that there may be downsides (creation of new types of unethical behaviour). In this regard, the issue of leadership again becomes the pivot point for securing the success of transparent governance.

GB: What makes it elusive?: 

BW: ICT capacities have undoubtedly yielded great benefit and increased possibilities for human civilization. And it promises to do even more than it has already achieved in a relatively short space of time.

Nevertheless, the saying goes, ‘Every new solution arrives with its own set of new problems’. While we celebrate the many important victories that the ICT revolution has brought about we must also acknowledge the new challenges that come with such a new context. The challenge of the 20th century was economic systems growth and development. Massive investment in the creation of new technologies was the solution. Technological innovation and development have re-engineered economic productivity systems and have caused nations to overcome crippling economic barriers. But while technology has crafted new pathways to systemic development, it has also created challenges with respect to human dimension of the development process. It is these very challenges that prompted Albert Einstein to state ominously, “It is appallingly obvious that our technology exceeds our humanity.”

A new form of digital divide is emerging in terms of difference in quality and speed of access to ICT in developing countries. The glaring disparity continues between developed and developing countries. For example, in developed, high-income economies, average cost of broadband connection is significantly less than in developing countries, both in nominal terms and as a percentage of the average monthly income.

A gender gap still persists between developed/developing countries in respect of quality and variety of means of access to Internet and ICTs. Further, in many developing countries, there is inadequate coherence between national ICT policies and national development/poverty reduction strategies.

The limited exchange of information, experiences and best practices at the sub-regional / regional level is still a constraint to facilitating policy debate and strategic action on the use of ICT for development and integration.

Other major challenges include inadequacy of the indigenous indicators needed to measure progress towards achieving the development targets; inadequate legal and commercial frameworks; shortfalls in education and knowledge development; lack of awareness of the fundamentals of ICT-based development strategies among government officials and stakeholders and, as a consequence, limited levels of coordination and coherence of approach to general ICT-based development.

Our technology has certainly come a long way since the days of Einstein. The question remains, has our humanity made the journey with it?

GB: So how do we realize the dream and the promise of the Information Society?

BW: Technology does indeed create the pathway to a viable future but it ultimately will not succeed without a defined under-layer in small developing and increasingly paralyzed states. The description, definition and construction of that “under-layer” is the most critical present demand upon our leaders.

We must recognize that the human resource potential to invent and to innovate exists today. The technology to implement exists today. What we face is more a challenge of paradigm than of technical possibility.

The challenges to human development, which must be the ultimate goal of all technology development and utilization, are not systemic in nature. Rather they are moral and ethical in nature and their very existence brings our entire development process into question.

Many nations have formulated development agendas in pursuit of statistical definitions of ‘First World’ status. These agendas have often failed to deal with issues that affect the ‘real’ people on the ground by sacrificing manifest, actual change in human living conditions for false realities that can be manipulated into an imaginary existence on paper.

Unequal income distribution, entrenched poverty, uneven development among sectors of society, have ensured that nations though having statistically attained developed status, still have the realities of underdevelopment living within their borders. And technology development and innovation outside of a pre-determined moral and ethical framework can potentially cause nations to run the risk of building effective technology infrastructures without achieving human development.

Therefore, an approach to national development does not begin with budgets or strategic plans, or even consideration of human resources, technical capacity or technology. It begins with defining a vision for a preferred future and then building a society with the appropriate mindset and collective faith to bring it to pass.

Ultimately, development that does not alter in positive, real terms the condition of the mass of society, is not development at all.

A new development philosophy must be driven by our collective realization of the impending danger of inaction. We have to guard against a new form of divide that is emerging, not just in terms of the difference in quality and speed of access to ICT, but in terms of the ethical platforms that underpin the ICT development agenda.

Measurable and broad-based human development is the only acceptable marker of true development and should be the primary motivation of the architects and builders of the region’s development thrust. In order to achieve this, we must build a strong ethical base that undergirds the technology development agenda. Therefore, the critical challenge is not only what systems to develop and deploy. Rather, we must broaden the consideration to include how to define and produce real human development.

The ethical challenge to our development process must be confronted by the highest levels of national leadership if we are to truly emerge as model societies.

Originally published: Trinidad and Tobago Review