08 Dec Achieving digital solidarity
We discussed the blending of personal and corporate time — a very un-French concept. We debated the need for infrastructure to support technology entrepreneurship – the lack of which stifles innovation acceleration throughout Europe. We even argued whether technology itself was an undue stressor on various segments of society.
Inevitably, and as you might expect, the panel took up the issue of the digital divide. Technology, some argue, exacerbates the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Here, we could have easily devolved into the usual debate: technology as a bridge or technology as a blockade for less advantaged individuals and communities. Instead, Luc-Marie Constant Gnacadja, Minister of the Environment, Housing and Urban Affairs for the Republic of Benin, shifted the discussion.
“Some people say there is a digital divide. I say we need Digital Solidarity,” he said. (For those of you who, like me, are scratching your heads and trying to remember high school geography, Benin is a small, key-shaped country on the west coast of Africa.)
Benin is poor by European and North American standards. But it is by no means looking to fill its digital divide through philanthropic handouts. Instead, Gnacadja argues that his country is a linchpin in the African economy and that technology companies and developed nations can profit by building business and investing in technology infrastructure in this crossroads country. By creating companies, supporting entrepreneurs, and leveraging technology infrastructure to facilitate business growth, technology companies create new and recurring customers for their goods and services.
It is the technological equivalent of the “teach me to fish” approach to solving hunger. By working together in “Digital Solidarity,” the downtrodden find liberation from their poverty and businesses find new and potentially lucrative markets.
You don’t have to go to a tiny African country the size of Vermont to see Digital Solidarity at work. The City of Philadelphia is now deep into a project to blanket the city in free or low-cost broadband wireless connectivity. It is, according to the city’s Chief Information Officer Dianah Neff, the most ambitious public wireless connectivity project in the country, if not the world. Bound together by our lack of French-language skills, Neff and I talked at length about the public-private partnership that was driving Philadelphia’s wireless project.
Using a combination of Wi-Fi and WiMax technologies to ensure in-building and outdoor connectivity, the city is largely footing the bill for infrastructure, while private, often faith-based organizations are helping to deploy computers and other network access devices to disadvantaged neighborhoods. The project goes beyond hardware, however. The project includes training on the use of computer and the wealth of empowering information available on the Internet. Philadelphia is, in effect, teaching its citizens to fish.
Neff is tremendously optimistic about the project, despite the political and economic stumbling blocks that befall such an ambitious project. “The people of this community get it. They understand that this is an important new infrastructure,” she says. “It’s the local telco operators who just miss the point entirely.”
Despite the reluctance of local carriers, the Philadelphia wireless project is gaining momentum. It is an outstanding demonstration of what can happen when technology providers, government, and NGOs work in “solidarity.” Together, they can create powerful and positive transformations in their community, transformation enabled by technology, but driven by an understanding that new markets develop when technology is applied appropriately to create new opportunity for individuals and communities.
Chris Shipley is the executive producer of NetworkWorld’s DEMO Conferences, Editor of DEMOletter and a technology industry analyst for nearly 20 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Shipley, has covered the personal technology business since 1984 and is regarded as one of the top analysts covering the technology industry today. Shipley has worked as a writer and editor for variety of technology consumer magazines, including PC Week, PC Magazine, PC/Computing, and InfoWorld, US Magazine and Working Woman. She has written two books on communications and Internet technology, has won numerous awards for journalistic excellence, and was named the #1 newsletter editor by Marketing Computers for two years in a row. To subscribe to DEMOletter please visit: http://www.idgexecforums.com/demoletter/index.html.
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