Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Last week, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published their annual Global Information Technology Report which measures the extent to which various nations are developing their Information and Communications Technology (ICT) capacity and its impact on competitiveness, as well as economic and social capacity.

It does this by examining a number of factors including the friendliness of a country’s market and regulatory framework in supporting high levels of uptake, and the degree of a society’s preparation to make good use of an affordable ICT infrastructure. 

It also looks at the efforts of individuals, business and government to increase their capacity to use ICT and the broad economic and social impacts accruing from this. As with all detailed reports from the WEF, there are some mouth-watering statistics for those looking to see where the next growth areas are going to develop.

For example, the study finds that mobile broadband is currently generating a tremendous $1.3trillion in annual revenues. More importantly, more than 80 per cent of broadband connections by 2016 will be mobile, with the major growth over the next five years occurring in emerging countries.

But what is of real interest are the national comparisons, which rank different countries across a range of variables. According to the study, those that are most successful in the World at leveraging ICT are all small nations, and Sweden, Singapore, Finland and Denmark have all fully integrated ICT in their competitiveness strategies to boost innovation within their economies. In fact, Sweden’s performance is rated as “remarkable” by the authors, ranking first in four key areas namely infrastructure and digital content, individual usage, business usage, and economic impacts. In addition, Singapore leads the in terms of political and regulatory environment for ICT as well as the business and innovation environment.

Whilst ranked 10th in the World, the UK continues to improve its performance across the board as compared to previous studies, with sophisticated and innovative businesses that are highly adept at harnessing the latest technologies for productivity improvements.

However, given the fact that there are regional disparities across the UK in the provision and access to ICT, it may be a worthwhile exercise for the Welsh Government to benchmark our nation using the methodology adopted for the Global Information Technology Report, especially given the relative success of other smaller economies.

One of the major conclusion from the report is that it recognises that there will be increasing challenges for economies around the World as smart devices continue to become a greater part of everyone’s lives. Indeed, policymakers will need to consider an environment in which the internet can be accessed immediately, people and organisations can contact each other instantly and, as a result of new developments such as social media, fundamental transformations in all areas of society will take place.

As discussed, the fact that the management of information (commonly known as ‘big data’) will be an integral part of these changes, the team behind the new £40 million supercomputer known as HPC Wales may need to reconsider its use in the future as a tool for assisting business to manage these trends rather than just being a tool for academic research, and how ICT can be leveraged to create competitive advantages for the economy as well as increasing social well-being.

Indeed, the report presents an insightful case study how the exponential growth in big data could lead a transformation of both the public and private sectors. With the right approach, Government can utilise this information to target policy, strategy, and investment so as to reduce costs and improve impact measurement. Businesses can also analyse the vast amount of data it gathers to respond to key influencers, manage risks, strengthen brands and increase customer knowledge.

But to do this properly, we need to carefully examine how we are developing and training the workforce of the future. Eric Schmidt, the head of Google, recently expressed his surprise in a recent article that computer science wasn't being taught as standard in British schools. In fact, he simply couldn’t understand why the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) curriculum was teaching children how to use software products such as word processors and spreadsheets but providing little insight into how that software was created.

And this lack of focus on developing skills within schools for what is undoubtedly the key industry of the future having an effect on university entry into the subject. For example, data from the Welsh Government shows that whilst the overall number of Welsh domiciled students has increased by 1 per cent between 2003 and 2011, the numbers studying computer science has fallen by 25 per cent.  In fact, there were only 350 Welsh students studying computer science at a postgraduate level in 2011.

Given this, how are we going to create a strong industrial cluster in this area, as is the aim of the Welsh Government, if the number of students being trained to develop the software and hardware has fallen by a quarter and shows no sign of recovery?

Therefore, the one question for politicians and policymakers in Wales that has still to be answered properly is how ICT can be fully integrated into an economic strategy so that organisations and businesses can capitalise on the new opportunities emerging in this area. Certainly, we cannot as a nation afford to be left behind in this area, especially as it offers a means by which we can reduce the prosperity gap with other parts of the UK.