ICT as an enabler of growth and development

The Point Is...

Julian Robinson

Sunday, June 09, 2013

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ABOUT two weeks ago, I delivered my contribution to the Sectoral Debate in Parliament. It was my second such presentation as minister of state in the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy, and Mining, at which time, I presented Jamaica's first National Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Roadmap.


Created from a year of consultation with industry specialists and stakeholders, policymakers, academics and a wide range of other contributors, I believe many of the details deserve further explanation, as this plan that will drive this all-important sector.


I am convinced that, as Vision 2030 Jamaica National Development Plan says, in the next two decades, it is the ICT sector that will play the leading role in transforming our country's economy and putting our nation on the path to developed country status. Globally, ICTs have served as engines for social and economic growth.


That's because recent advances in technology have "levelled the playing field", making it possible for small developing countries like Jamaica to play a part in the emerging knowledge-based global society.


The appropriate utilisation of ICTs can improve the lives of all Jamaicans, but we will need to grow and nurture the industry. This involves the application of ICT in all sectors and at all levels of our economy and society.


Fortuitously, our Government realised the potential of ICTs for growth early, and in the 1990s outlined a vision for the sector, and laid the groundwork for where we are today. Today, we have world class ICT infrastructure, which has allowed us to attract and retain ICT-related business. Now, we are at a point where we need to move to the next level, which is to nurture the innovative spirit and arouse the creative energy required to induce ICT-supported transformation.


As distinct from the broader statements of intent relating to ICT in Vision 2030, the ICT Roadmap is an action-oriented portfolio of initiatives, formulated over three distinct time horizons: five years for our long-term objectives, three years for the medium-term and 18 months to address short-term priorities.


Each initiative is situated in one of four major areas: strategy, policy and legislation; infrastructure development; ICT-enabled public sector modernisation; and ICT sector capacity building.


We've already started work on initiatives in the first three areas, but I'm really excited about the possibilities and processes involved in building capacity for the sector: creating policies and programmes that will stimulate new business opportunities, innovation and entrepreneurship in the local ICT sector.


I'm particularly interested in enabling the process of innovation: getting high school and university graduates to tap into their creativity and to channel that into creating businesses. One of the problems Jamaica faces now is youth unemployment, because there are lots and lots of young people with great ideas who are unable to convert those into sustainable income-generating operations.


But it is our young people who will provide the path out of our economic problem.


I remember years ago when I was working at JAMPRO to attract the investment to establish the ICT industry locally. What made Jamaica special then is what makes us special now: and that is the quality of our labour force. Take the example of Vistaprint.


In 2003, I worked with the principals of Vistaprint, a company that focusses on producing low-cost business marketing materials (websites, business cards, etc) with a model that requires them to have operations globally, to bring their business to Jamaica. When the company started its Jamaican operations in 2003 with just 23 employees, almost all of them were employed as e-mail customer service agents.


Ten years later, Vistaprint has grown both globally and here in Jamaica, serving some 50 million micro businesses, earning over US$2 billion in sales. In 2008, Vistaprint first outsourced graphic design function to Jamaica, the first time such tasks were sent outside the United States. Today, the designs created by the Jamaican team are among the top sellers for the company, and last year, Vitaprint opened its global customer service headquarters: a US$25-million investment, right here in Jamaica.


Today, the range of jobs this company offers spans the gamut of careers in the ICT and BPO industry: from customer service to graphic design, and, of course, management and administration.


In short, our raw talent attracts investors to Jamaica, but we must look at these investors not as "suitcase merchants" but rather as building blocks for our own future. Jobs in this industry give our young people exposure to work in a global environment and once they have this exposure, with their talent, they can do anything.


It's then up to us as Government to make sure that if they choose to start their own businesses, they have the appropriate support, because many of these youth are talented but lack hard business skills. We want to provide someone to sit with them and guide them through the process from creating a business plan, to doing their own accounts and everything in-between.


That support also includes financing, because we all know that without funds it's difficult to convert ideas into action.


Ultimately, if the GOJ assisted in creating and exploiting opportunities for the ICT sector, the commercial incentive can lead to much-needed capacity building, the development of the IT skills of local developers and designers, and the emergence of new business models and entrepreneurial opportunities.


We've started this process already. This Friday in Montego Bay, ministers Thwaites and Paulwell will sign an MOU with HEART and the Business Process Industry Association, intended to allow for greater and more specific on-the-job training and certification for the industry.


Later this month, we will host the Kingston Animation Festival, a two-day forum intended to raise awareness about the emerging opportunities in the animation industry, and to give visibility to the pool of Jamaican and regional artists who may be working on a freelance basis or have raw talent that can be crafted into a professional career.


Animation is a major growth industry in the global ICT sector, a US$222-billion labour and creativity intensive area that I know our people have what it takes to succeed in.


But perhaps the most significant initiative along the Roadmap is Start Up Jamaica, a public-private partnership to help Jamaican innovators and entrepreneurs grow from idea to market. The idea behind Start Up Jamaica is to provide a physical space, managed by a private sector operator, in which entrepreneurs and innovators can network and participate in professional development activities conducted by mentors and coaches from our universities and the business community.


The idea is to get tech entrepreneurs prepared to successfully pitch their innovations to potential investors. This will take time to co-ordinate and begin, but I intend to have this initiative up and running by the first quarter of 2014, and I encourage the business community to get on board here.


It bears repetition that the GOJ can and must be an enabler, and in many respects, the catalyst for ICT-induced development. But there is also a concomitant responsibility of businesses, SMEs, the ICT sector, educators, and students to be bold and creative and to position themselves to grasp the abundant opportunities in the ICT environment.


These are the things we must do if we are to become net producers of ICT innovations, rather than mere consumers of technology; if indeed Jamaica is to harness the transformational power of ICT.


I entered politics so that I could make a contribution to Jamaica's future. I believe that in this area, I can and will make a difference, and I look forward to the challenges ahead.




jrobinson@mstem.gov.jm



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