Global Forum: Innovation creates opportunity, causes disruption

Speakers predict continued upheaval through 3D printing, drones and driverless cars.

Geneva, Switzerland - The 23rd Global Forum, an annual policy and strategy conference for technology leaders, was held last week in the shadow of the International Telecommunications Union's (ITU) modernist tower.

The conference theme was "opportunities and disruptions in a time of transition" and presenters repeatedly stressed that what's occurring in the world today is a mixed bag of unprecedented technical advance amid serious social disruption.

The Global Forum often forecasts world trends in the information and communication industries. Delegates came by invitation-only from 35 countries and multiple international organizations, with representatives also from vendors, service providers, academia and government agencies.

Switzerland was an apt venue for the tech forum. The country's official communications policy guarantees broadband to every permanent residence nationwide, at 2MB downstream and 200KB upstream. The price is capped at 55 Swiss francs ($57) per month. More than 99% of Swiss Internet users have a broadband connection today.

Global Forum's innovation panel was moderated by Gary Shapiro, who leads the Consumer Electronics Association and its annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

Shapiro said that today there are essentially two methods of product delivery: bricks-and-mortar retail and online retail. He predicted that in the 2020-2030 timeframe we will see three additional methods: driverless cars that will "fundamentally change the economy," drones or unmanned aerial vehicles, and 3D printing, where consumers make their own products.

The European Commission's Bror Salmelin said that innovation is moving out of the lab, as we transition from Closed Innovation (centralized, inward looking), through Open Innovation (externally focused, collaborative), to Innovation Networks (ecosystem centric, cross-organizational).

Salmelin said innovation will be driven by two kinds of new professions: "Curators and Bridgers."

Curators are those who find, collect, and present information the way an art curator assembles artifacts and creates a way to experience them together.

Bridgers are the kind of people who are curious about everything and make connections among and between whatever they discover.

These two types, working professionally, will be catalysts for innovation worldwide. Salmelin had this advice for R&D managers and technology leaders: innovation is about "orchestration rather than control."

Among the technologies discussed, wireless innovator Willie Lu spoke of a third-generation "Internet of aircraft." He said Air China is experimenting with on-board, high-speed Internet of 30MB per passenger, with Alibaba providing online shopping in the sky.

Homo digitalis: The State of the Digital Citizen

Global Forum's emphasis on technology policy sparked an intense interchange. An energetic keynote session encouraged conference delegates to analyze "The Situation of the Digital Citizen Now." Delegate Richard Hill argued for a focus on "Homo digitalis," whose well being needs to be more fully addressed.

Professor Gérard Pogorel of Télécom ParisTech said that the new digital age is not as rosy as many enthusiasts may claim. Of the impact of digitalization, he said bluntly:

  • Productivity at the micro level translates into little or no growth at the macro level
  • Democracy has not been affected in places where it already exists, and digitalization has not expanded it elsewhere
  • "Education remains unscathed," it's just as authoritarian and un-experimental as ever
  • Development in emerging economies has been driven by catch-up processes and commodity-transfer
  • Income distribution continues to be hollowed out by a disappearing middle-class in the European Union and the United States, despite the emergence of a marginal middle-class in Asia

Some of Pogorel's recommendations were to redesign business processes to make productivity happen; to reorient economic systems toward production and downsize the financial industry; and to fix social and economic distribution.

Alcatel-Lucent's Gabrielle Gauthey added, "We are not done with the network--we have never needed more investment." Equipment providers by necessity are constantly reinventing themselves and "we can no longer afford the dogma of infrastructure competition," she said.

Gauthey challenged the delegates and policy-makers: "How can governments ensure new investments in networks?"

One solution is under way: Next year the International Telecommunications Union will hold the quadrennial World Radiocommunication Conference 2015 (WRC-15) to harmonize "frequency plans for mobile broadband (Digital Dividend in 700 and 800 MHz), to be used by IMT mobile networks, specially for rural broadband."

The ITU estimates an impressive 50-percent more bandwidth for mobile may well become available. Still, conference delegates warned even that will not be enough for the era of Internet of Things. Creative efficiencies in devices, processes, and demand-side thinking will be required.

Women's issues also received attention at Global Forum, a trend in recent years. For example, Dr. Véronique Ines Thouvénot, co-founder of the NGO "Zero Mothers Die," said 300,000 women perish annually in maternal deaths from pregnancy and birth complications.

An ICT-enabled solution in developing nations is to provide "the pink phone" -- a free cellphone for pregnant women and a mobile account to connect directly to health workers, and to provide instant consultation as needed. For a donor cost of just $20, 8,000 mobiles are targeted for Ghana, with 5,000 more each for Rwanda, Nigeria, and Ethiopia.

Global Forum 2014 was led by Dr. Sylviane Toporkoff, President of Global Forum, and a Founding Partner of sponsor ITEMS International. The next Global Forum will be held in fall 2015, at a venue to be announced early next year.

Jay Gillette is professor of information and communication sciences at Ball State University, director of its Human Factors Institute, and a senior research fellow and officer at the Digital Policy Institute. He also serves as Fulbright-Nokia Distinguished Chair in Information and Communications Technologies at the University of Oulu, Finland for 2014-2015.

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