Good people + good questions spark lively on Digital Inclusion

Ok, I said I was going to post this yesterday after attending the TCI’s Global Competitiveness Conference, but my schedule didn’t allow me to bang out the thing, so please forgive that I didn’t do what I said I’d do. That said, yesterday’s conference was a lively mix of networking opportunities, idea sharing and some tough questions about addressing the digital divide, or, as we like to call it here at Intel “digital inclusion.” Opinions among my fellow panelists were not as diverse as I first expected ….but on second thought, that shouldn’t have surprised me. By now, the issue is mature enough that we can agree on its constituent parts

In this post I’m going to go on about the interesting guys I had the pleasure of serving with during the panel and the lively dialogue we shared with those who attended.

For readers who didn’t catch my last post, TCI invited Intel to participate on a panel discussion on the Digital Divide. We were asked to talk about how we’re addressing the issue, the projects we have underway and the challenges we face in implementation. The conference theme was “collaboration, innovation and sustainability,” buzzwords en vogue across the planet, but critical concepts in connecting those in the middle and at the bottom of the pyramid. I may write in more depth about that later.

Fellow panelists: bright people, interesting lives

As I mentioned in my previous post, accompanying me was Tim Dubel (Doo-BELL), a senior member of Microsoft’s community relations team, Bill Gillis, founder of Washington State University Extension’s Center for Bridging the Digital Divide, and Rey Ramsay, “very old friend” (as he describes us) and founder and CEO of the very successful NGO, Once Economy. Before going on about the panel session, I want to write a bit about my fellow panelists because it’s not often you get to meet more interesting and likable fellows.

Tim and I met face-to-face for the first time for breakfast before the conference. We had been talking back and forth on the phone in an effort to connect me with Microsoft’s elusive Humanitarian Group, which I still haven’t been able to reach for no one else’s fault but my own. A charming guy, Tim, like me, came to the high tech sector after a long stint in the federal government. A long time community development advocate, Tim developed his skills working for the USAID in Washington DC and then in Europe. Coming to Microsoft was like coming full circle for Tim he said, because he began his career working in community development and, after working in corporate finance at Microsoft for some time, he parlayed his skills and experience into a position in the Corporate Affairs in his current spot where he works in community development but with the resources of a huge company behind him. Good for him.

Bill is in love with his iPhone. I am too. I mean, I’m in love with his iPhone as I don’t have one and struggle with the idea of getting one because it is incompatible with the Rhapsody music service, which I also love very much. The iPhone is a marvel, Bill says as he whips it out to demonstrate it for me. Combined with Google applications, Bill is able to be completely mobile and still connected. He has his three email accounts which he uses constantly – his work, personal and start-up email account – forwarded to his Google Mail account and he can access all that on the iPhone, which is constantly connected via his mobile service. That’s pretty cool. Bill is an older guy, calmly confident and soft spoken, which belies a passion for innovation and self-described intrapreneurership, a word I had not heard used outside my MBA program. Since founding his organization, Bill has collected a lot of research and can talk eloquently about the digital divide and its details as if the research is right before him. In his spare time, he’s nurturing a start-up that uses ethnographic methods to help businesses create futures for themselves that present for them the best promise for success. It’s pretty interesting stuff he’s working on I really don’t understand it. Bill, if you’re reading this, I hope I described your start-up adequately.

Rey, as I wrote about earlier, heads an enormously successful non-profit and of the three of us, he probably travels the most. Poor guy. Nevertheless, he was affable and in good spirits, as he always is. We joked about his hectic schedule and the realities such a schedule creates.

Small attendance = opportunity

So, when we gathered at the start of our panel, we anticipated light attendance. After all, this was the last session in the afternoon of the third day of a three-day conference. What do you expect? Gradually, the crowd of less than 15 people filed in, mostly on time. So attendance was small, but it presented a great opportunity for interaction.

We launched the panel by defining the digital divide and clarifying whether such a divide still exists. A few years back, Rey said, a prominent US leader claimed there was no digital divide, but according to Bill’s research such a divide still exists and persists today although the nature of the divide is more complicated than a technology gulf between rich and poor people, he said. Tim and I agreed that the issue persists, but the concept of a “divide” per se didn’t fit our corporate paradigms because it focused too much on the problem. We both believe the phenomena is more about an opportunity – to include all people on the planet in the information age. We choose to characterize it as Digital Inclusion to emphasize that perspective. Indeed Microsoft’s “Unlimited Potential” initiative and our own “World Ahead” and “Community Solutions” initiatives developed from this perspective of empowering people with Digital Inclusion rather than helping solve a Digital Divide.

Does government play a role?

Turning from definition to key players, Rey asked us to opine on government’s role, if there is one, in such initiatives. Each of us agreed that government has a major role to play: without government, the job is much harder, especially when it comes to scaling connectivity solutions (WiFi, WiMax) and integrating ICT in education.

We also agreed in concept that four key elements are critical to achieving success here: relevant content, education that enables people with ICT-based skills, connectivity – technologies that bring the internet to the doorstep, and access – the actual hardware and software components themselves. These four elements just happen to also be the four pillars of Intel’s World Ahead program.

The audience gets its chance

Then Rey opened the floor to the audience to participate. The questions were deep and provocative. One speculated that our technology and software solutions were irrelevant with the proliferation of cell technology coupled with SMS text communications software. The audience member speculated that these technologies, since they’re so ubiquitous especially in emerging markets, should be exploited. Another questioner argued that the high tech sector should harness the power of gaming to enable learning rather than teaching men to “kill vast hordes of men in mock combat scenarios” – a very good point. The audience member also lamented the apparent lack of female representation among ICT users and argued that high tech companies – particularly game makers – should target women more.

Speaking of government, another audience memeber noted that in Sweden, the government set up a program to enable everyone to get a computer at a subsidy, then nixed the program when the leadership changed, then reinstituted the initiative but only to help employed people, leaving unemployed and retirees out of the picture. No one said government was perfect in its role of course…..

But the stumper question of the day came from a guy from Scotland, who wondered aloud about the impact these modern, cutting edge technologies have on emerging and pre-emerging market cultures. It sparked a good dialogue about the merits and risks of introducing indigenous cultures to ICT. Ever present to handle the tough questions, Rey said addressing and including the culture was the most important part of any effort to address the issue no matter how you framed it.

We capped our panel discussion by speculating whether the digital divide will still exist five years from now: a blink of an eye in the ICT world. No one thought significant progress would be made in that time. Some saw hope in 10 years, others think the digital divide issue will be with us for some time still.

Though the session was lightly attended, that fact provided an opportunity for everyone – audience included – to share our views, air frustration and poke at concepts that may have needed some poking….All in all it was a great opportunity to share with interested parties two major IT players’ efforts to bring opportunity to the next one billion ICT users.

Finally, let me address another promise I made that I’m going to have to renege on. I said I was going to take some pictures. And I did….actually, I had a member of the audience take them while I was on stage. These pictures turned out really badly. Here’s an example. IMG_01842.JPG

Rey’s at the podium, then there’s me striking a sit-down Kung Fu defense pose, That’s Tim next to me looking like something from The Omega Man, and Bill’s on the far right, looking like we’re boring him to death, but he really was wide awake. See how badly the photo is? The others were worse.

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