Information Society. Digital Economy. Smart Economy. These are some terms we’ve seen used over the past years to describe the aspirations for where our Government in particular suggest that we want Ireland to be. The presumption is that by becoming one of these things we will be a more prosperous and happy society. I happen to believe that there are benefits that can come to society as we strive to be more Internet-enabled. The most important thing however is not a new set of policies or development programmes, but the cultivation of a way of thinking and being – a new national ecosystem that has all the right behaviours and attitudes for the digital age.

Photo courtesy of Ecstaticist (cc)

Photo courtesy of Ecstaticist (cc)

A society that is permeated by the digital world can in many ways be a better place. New technologies tend to feed our insatiable need to do more things evermore quickly. We can run our businesses more efficiently. Consumers are empowered in their purchasing decisions. Greater access to services is made available to those who might otherwise be marginalised. Justice can find a voice where it was previously censored. Education is improved with greater access to information and applications. Socialisation is supported as we can more easily find communities of like-minded individuals. Barriers are broken down as we connect with strangers.

Sound a bit utopian? Perhaps I’m not drawing attention enough to the things that can go wrong. Inaccuracies can flourish and do harm. Harm-doers can have a greater impact. Real human contact can be diminished. Those without access to technologies become even more marginalised. Efficient computer can eliminate the need for employees. Plagiarism and copyright theft mean that people don’t get paid adequately for their work.

So, we need to strike a balance. We need to harness all the good that can happen and manage the ills. Wikipedia describes an ecosystem as “the combined physical and biological components of an environment. Central to the ecosystem concept is the idea that living organisms interact with every other element in their local environment.” A digital ecosystem is therefore a complete system of finely balanced interactions between humans, organisations and digital systems. What is the ideal digital ecosystem that can get the balance right in a society like ours?

I believe that we have a lot of the components of a digital ecosystem already in place and what we now need to do is to identify those components that should be fostered and made more pervasive. We are feeling the growth pains as many who are involved feel the frustration that we are not moving fast enough, but are being held back by some fundamentals such as poor broadband access – see examples of conversations about these frustrations here from Damien Mulley, Adrian Weckler and Evert Bopp.

Infrastructure

There are fundamental structures required in any ecosystem and our broadband infrastructure remains a bugbear for many. In urban centres where broadband is available it is typically more expensive that it should be. In rural areas it is often simply not available or desperately expensive. Many suggest that, like water and electricity, broadband access is a right of every citizen and should be universally available. The governments Metropolitan Area Networks is a solution that has many critics yet all sides are agreed that more needs to be done. Initiatives from large enterprises such as the joint venture between Intel and Google to bring Wi Max to Ireland all indicate that we may eventually get our infrastructure right, even if it not this particular solution.

Education

We have new education needs in a digital ecosystem. Children are not being taught how to use the new tools that are now available to them. Very often this is because their teachers and parents are barely familiar with or are intimidated by them. Internet skills are now core in helping young people in their socialisation, and they are also essential skills for most future careers.

The NCTE is focused on supporting teachers at second level but evangelists such as Bernie Goldbach at the Tipperary Institute are one step ahead when it comes to new approaches to education delivering, for example, courses dedicated to social networking.

Meanwhile the pressure is on for businesses who need to upskill their employees in order to cope with the myriad of new digital tools available to them. Help is at hand as people like Krishna De and Damien Mulley are not only providing high-quality stand-up training but are making their materials available for free online via their blogs and websites.

Openness

A digital ecosystem is characterised by a great amount of openness, transparency and honesty. The types of conversations we previously held only with a few people are now being held in the public domain. This is leading to a huge amount of sharing and straight-talking. The openness is helping to spread ideas and to refine those ideas in what is for the most part a supportive and non-threatening space.

Businesses are learning to respond and have more open, transparent and honest conversations with their customers. Informal formats of communications facilitated by social media such as boards.ie, Twitter, blogs and rating websites such as TripAdvisor and RateMyArea are increasingly being monitored and engaged with by organisations.

Initiatives such as Campbell Scott’s IGOPeople provide a platform for businesses to have these open conversations in one location, and with over 500 businesses signed up within the first few months it would seem that there is certainly and willingness among business to adopt this new type of approach to dealing with customers.

Collaboration

The spirit of openness has led to a culture of collaboration where often competing businesses come together to share and learn from each other. Tools such as LinkedIn and Facebook enable groups to form and organise networking events such as open coffees, connectors, podcamps, barcamps, bizcamps and measurementcamps.

The Social Media Working Group of the IIA, which I had the pleasure to chair for the past year, saw competing organisations gathering round a table to help each other make sense of the fast changing social media landscape. I know that Keith Bohanna’s Infrastrucutre Working Group saw similar collaboration.

The Digital21 initiative sees technology journalists such as John Kennedy at SiliconRepublic pull together the leaders of some of Ireland’s largest enterprises including Intel’s Jim O’Hara, BT’s Chris Clarke and Hewlett-Packard’s Martin Murphy with a view to outlining a digital development plan that has both short and long term objectives.

Another example of this coming together of conflicting parties can be seen in the PR Meet Blogger events that Damien Mulley has run.

Big Thinking

The newly-formed Internet Growth Alliance is an initiative spear-headed by Colm Lyon of Realex, who recently reported that they are processing more than half a billion euro worth of transactions per annum – most of them for foreign organisations. The Alliance group is comprised of Irish business leaders with big ideas, looking to support in practical ways the international growth ambitions of our Internet businesses. The IIA has just launched an International Strategy Working Group with very similar aims. Ireland’s digital ecosystem is outward looking and understands that there is potential for an advanced ecosystem to play and make an impact on the world stage.

Governmental Support

Private individuals and organisations on their own cannot make this work. There needs to be central and local government understanding of what needs to be done. Through my interactions with forward thinking individuals in a number of state agencies, including Enterprise Ireland, various county enterprise boards, Forfás and Fáilte Ireland, I believe that there is potential there for government to play a positive role. We do seem to be lacking a key ingredient which is the leadership drive to ensure that real and achievable targets are implemented.

A digital ecosystem is something we all need to work together to cultivate. The seeds are very much in evidence already. There is leadership certainly in the private sector that is clearly vocal and passionate about bringing this about. Some of what is happening is disjointed and sporadic. It is time now for leaders from both the private and public sectors to come together to map out the next steps that will help this thing grow.