Information And Communications Technology

September 26th, 2021


TT Information and Communications Technology Outlook

Necessity has led leaders and business owners to the path of pandemic-accelerated digital transformation projects and investments.

Bevil Wooding
Bevil M. Wooding
Executive Director, Caribbean Agency for Justice Solutions, APEX

It has been a long, trying and turbulent time since the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. However, information and communications technologies have played a vital; role in helping Trinidad and Tobago, and indeed the world, navigate the pandemic’s disruptive impact.

The public health and safety responses to COVID-19 have had a devastating effect on livelihoods, education, employment, and investor confidence. The combination of border closures, curfews and social-distancing mandates, left businesses, government agencies and the self-employed scrambling to find ways to keep their operations going. Sadly, not all have been successful.

However, necessity, ever the mother of invention, has led leaders and business owners to the path of pandemic-accelerated digital transformation projects and investments. Digital innovations in service delivery, production, sales and distribution that would have otherwise taken years, if not decades, have be implemented and embraced in weeks and months.

Digitalisation has resulted in many in-person activities, and manual or paper-based processes evolving to online delivery modes. Virtual work-from-home to distance learning, online shopping and delivery, tele-health, e-government services, online court hearings, and even virtual physical activities, are now part of the new digital-services normal. In the process, individuals and institutions that may have otherwise been resistant to such disruptive change, have had no choice but to accept and embrace the process as a matter of survival. 

The advantages of the pandemic–accelerated introduction of technology into our lives and businesses have not, however, been sufficient to overcome all challenges. The process has exposed long-standing gaps in critical infrastructure, public policy, investment facilitation, and strategic human resource development.

Enabling the local digital economy

Government agencies, businesses and consumers that were able to ‘go digital’ have helped mitigate the social and economic hardships caused by the pandemic. But they have also had to negotiate all too familiar roadblocks – scarcity of software programmers; slow, expensive or unreliable connectivity, un- or under-developed logistics systems; inefficient public services; indifferent or reluctant or unhelpful financial institutions. Undaunted, some enterprising businesses turned to overseas providers for services such as merchant accounts, credit card processing, software engineering and application-hosting. On the surface, these workarounds to local obstacles seem positive as they enabled businesses to shift to online service delivery, but there’s a catch. Too many businesses and consumers are being left behind.

To realise the true economic benefits of the digital economy, local internet users must be able to find and support local businesses anchored in the local economy. That’s why economic benefits of internet commerce are most strongly experienced in the jurisdictions where the underlying internet infrastructure resides.  Therefore, to fully enable the local digital economy, we must actively seek to ensure that local  businesses are incentivised to run their digital services on local networks, conduct their electronic transactions with local financial institutions, be supported by local human resource capacity and subject to local laws. 

Public policy and investment facilitation

There is nothing predetermined or guaranteed about the massive digital transformation that has taken place over the past year. And it would be reckless and irresponsible to consider the role technology plays in helping mitigate the impact of the pandemic without also considering our attendant responsibility to build the domestic digital economy beyond the pandemic.

Any structured plan to support business in this way and incentivise the production of more local digital content and services, will require coordination, effective public policies and increased local investment.  According to the World Bank, global foreign direct investment (FDI) flows are predicted to decline by more than 40% this year. The Bank’s Global Investment Competitiveness Report finds that more predictable trade and investment policies could help emerging market governments attract more investment flows needed to support financial stability and economic recovery. This is where public policy and regulatory frameworks can play a facilitating role in supporting increased local and regional investment in technological transformation. 

Public and private sector attitudes toward the value of local intellectual property and local capability may not change overnight. But the pandemic and closed borders have highlighted the importance of a having and properly supporting a robust local value chain for digital goods and services. For local businesses with promising ideas and innovations to go meaningfully beyond ideation and prototyping solutions, new funding and support models have to be made available. For example, a change in procurement policies to favour local vendors and enhance their opportunity to design, implement and maintain local solutions, can help strengthen the local technology services sector and open doors to significant global opportunities in the future.

Peering into the future

Our country, region and the world have hit an economic and social inflection point. Yet, in the challenges ahead lie the seeds of new opportunities. The promise of technology-enabled development is achievable but cannot be divorced from issues of leadership, vision, or values.

Our entrepreneurs and innovators have already shown that they are brimming with ideas about how technology can be used to tackle old challenges and create new business, services and value. Our opportunity now is to take its many lessons the pandemic has brought and use them to better prepare as a society for the inevitable crises ahead. 

While vaccines have presented a ray of hope, it is already clear that the impact of COVID-19 will be with us for some time to come. And, as we peer into the uncertain future, we can see that technology will continue to be an essential enabler in the post-pandemic recovery process – but only if it is thoughtfully and relevantly harnessed.

The promise of technology-enabled development is achievable but cannot be divorced from issues of leadership, vision, or values.

People-driven transformation

Ultimately, digital transformation is driven and sustained not by technology, but by people. For our digital innovators, entrepreneurs and creators to take advantage of technology and the new modalities of work, business and life that have emerged in the pandemic, there will have to be deliberate, strategic investment in their success. 

This mission can be entrusted to any one individual, business, government or agency. It is a collective responsibility. Every sector has a role to play. Like the internet itself, our digital-revolution cannot and must not be centralised.

Government

Stakeholders can be engaged in myriad ways.

  • Articulate overarching national development goals 
  • Lay the policy tracks and accelerate necessary legislative changes
  • Lead by example – support local digital innovators and businesses

Academic institutions 

  • Lay the education pipelines in collaboration with industry
  • Innovate in the delivery of courses and training programmes to accelerate the development of human capacity in targeted skills and competencies

Private sector

  • Invest funding to foster relevant people skills; and automate and optimise local and regional value chains
  • Support production of local digital goods and services

Klaus Schwab, the World Economic Forum’s Founder and Executive Chairman, writes in the Global Technology Governance Report, “We have to make sure that the new technologies in the digital, biological and physical world remain human-centered and serve society as a whole, providing everyone with fair access.

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