The Guardian’s Activate series of summits focuses on technology and innovation, and how new developments in the digital arena impact and interact with the wider world. On Friday, January 17, the inaugural South East Asian chapter of the conference, Activate: Singapore 2014, was held at the Marina Bay Sands, Singapore, attracting over 45 C-level industry and research speakers. Besides the main day program that featured presentations and panels covering a variety of topics, the summit encompassed the Tech Talent competition, which saw start-ups from around the world competing for cash prizes and business openings. As much as these forums are invaluable opportunities to share ideas, and discuss and develop new ways to use technology to shape our future, the main driving force for such interaction is financial – what is the next innovation we can exploit to capture the greatest market share?
The panelists and speakers discussed the role of mobile technologies, the digital economies of content creation and management, cloud computing, digitization and entrepreneurship. But what struck me as particularly germane and interesting were the discussions surrounding technology and its role in education and governance. We are all in love with technology to varying degrees, from the teenage girl on her phone constantly refreshing her Facebook feed, the office executive addicted to Candy Crush, the harried professional uploading documents to Dropbox for a client who waits to retrieve it on the other side of the world. Our lives are invested in the next innovation that makes life easier, more connected, or increases the speed and the reach of our digital interactions. But no matter what these improvements and breakthroughs are and how they affect our personal lives and our businesses, the more important and universal question is: how can technology revolutionize what should matter to all of us – the good of humanity? If it can take us in a direction that lowers (or completely decimates) the barriers to receiving quality education that can empower the individual to seek out better livelihoods and improve their lives, or connects governments with their people directly, forcing them to focus on social welfare, not political agendas.
The rise of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has changed the face of education itself, leading traditional institutes like universities to re-define the methods and meaning of learning. Platforms like Coursera offer free or low-cost online courses, working in partnership with established universities to provide the content and instructors. With this model and the basic requirement of an internet connection, tens of thousands of students from around the world can be educated in almost any subject possible at no cost, with no direct profit motive. If a substantial and beneficial education can be imparted on the individual without costly face-to-face instructor-student interaction, then developing and designing the pedagogy for a model of universal education may in fact change the world.
Tay Kheng Tiong, Chief Information Officer at the Nanyang Technological University, opened the discussion on Technology and Education. The university’s new medical school was tasked with designing a program that utilized “blended learning” effectively – that is, an experience that blends online content and interactions with face-to-face contact time with instructors and peers. Avenues like mobile applications and forums allow for much online participation, and even allow students to create and share their own content. While that provides exciting new learning opportunities, ultimately it is the environment of the classroom, and the opportunity to engage directly with teachers and colleagues, that cannot be substituted for.
“Technology and the future: Can the internet educate the entire world?” posed the panel session that followed. Karthikeyan Rajasekharan, Technical Lead, Cloud Computing of Google Asia, moderated the session, which featured Serguei Netessine, Research Director at the INSEAD-Wharton Alliance, Keith Carter, Visiting Senior Fellow at NUS Business School, and Tay Kheng Tiong. Though opinions differed quite widely within the panel, it seemed like the short answer was: “Maybe.” Business schools are gravitating towards incorporating online elements into their programs, and where executive education is administered on such a scale that brings 500 Russian business students together across 11 timezones (supplemented with face-to-face interaction), that is quite an achievement, making a previously inaccessible quality business education suddenly possible. But Mr. Carter was quick to point out that for MOOCs to succeed in educating the world, both internet access and student interest are necessary, and currently only 2 billion of the world’s 6.9 billion population are connected. While it is an exciting development, MOOCs are programs that only the more well-off have access to, so perhaps the people who need education the most will remain unaffected and out of reach. The internet only stretches as far as a country’s development, and there are still many places that lack the required infrastructure.
The panel discussion Tech-led innovation in public services and the future of regional and global governance was moderated by Max Everest-Philips, the Director of UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence, Singapore. It featured Haoliang Xu, the Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, and C.V. Madhukar, the Director of Investments of Omidyar Network. The demands of the millennial generation necessitates the re-examination of public services,and in order to engage said public, governments will need to have services and information available online. Governments are beginning to open up to this idea of large-scale population engagement that takes advantage of technology – for instance in Delhi, the government opened up an anti-corruption line that received 40,000 calls in 36 hours. But the test of technology-led public involvement goes beyond starting a channel. It requires commitment and action on the government’s part. In the aftermath of the typhoon in the Philippines, the UN partnered with the local government to inform citizens of bank account payments by SMS. Technology also enables governments to be more efficient by providing registration numbers for citizens, digitizing land records, and serve their people better. What is pivotal is building the capacity of government institutions, and, especially in reference to developing countries, obtaining government commitment to embark on such projects. And this is where the disconnect between the ideal and the reality occurs – in developing countries with significant corruption problems, real government commitment in the interest of servicing the people can be quite hard to come by.
Activate: Singapore 2014 was graced by his excellency Antony Philipson, the British High Commissioner to Singapore, who gave a closing address announcing the UK government’s commitment to using tech-led innovations to provide for the public. When used well, tech-led innovation spells better service and engagement for citizens, and a lower-cost, more efficient government. Surely this trend, for governments, is a step in the right direction. Beyond the profit-driven, economic opportunities that advancements in technology afford us, there is a greater good that calls out for attention, and in organizing events like these, discussing and promoting innovation, the Activate summit is very much a call to arms; a reminder that technology can and should be used to do more for the greater good.
At the end of the day, the reason we are so obsessed with technology is a matter of cost – time cost, financial cost, social cost. But what motivates us to move forward is how much we can exploit our society’s desire to consume more, and how much businesses can sell an idea or an innovation for. How do we make more people pay for our products? How should we shift supply and demand to capture optimal revenue? How do we take all the progress we have made in science and turn it into a bottom line that can make us odiously rich? The progress we make is quantified in terms of monetary potential. We obsess over sustainable business models and the next area of growth, but only in so far as it benefits us privately. The social cost (or benefit) is merely a footnote to a firstly financial question, as noble as the cause may sound, seeking out invention and enterprise.
Were we to prioritize and push projects and innovations that benefit society forward before considering if they can be economically exploited, and discuss technology and development seriously, then perhaps we could finally activate the potential that resides in each and every one of us.
Report prepared by Janice Liu