Making Jersey a Global Digital Centre

The following article was written by Jos Creese, a visiting speaker and is a write up on Jersey and the 2015 Techfair:

jos2I’ve just come back to the UK from the annual Jersey Tech Fair held in the capital, St Helier, representing BCS (the Chartered Institute for IT).

The Tech Fair was not like a typical business IT conference. It had the usual tech suppliers, conference pitches of course, but it was also full of children! It made links between education, technology, and the role of industry and government on the Island.

I saw high-tech companies talking about IT in education, explaining their products and services to adults and children alike. There were companies representing recruitment of young IT professionals alongside groups of primary school children and teachers programming Raspberry Pi’s and robots, whilst government IT teams explained their role in creating a digital society in Jersey and new web services.

Logically it shouldn’t have worked, what with all the kids, but it did, and I came away believing that more events like this should be run in the UK. It brought the role of technology alive to see the future generations of IT professionals using technology and connecting with companies that are sponsoring the technologies that they depend on. The free balloons, sweets and other giveaways helped! And it did need to be run over a Friday and Saturday.

At the same time, I was also struck by the fact that Jersey still has much to do to exploit the economic and social value that technology can bring the island; this event seemed well ahead in its thinking and innovative in the country as a whole. Despite being a recognised financial centre and a major tourism destination, with both sectors depending on IT to compete, the national policy focus on IT has not in the main been high or joined up. I confess, not having been to Jersey before, I was surprised by this, expecting to find a land of hi-tech business and eGovernment maturity.

Broadband and mobile coverage is a notable exception, and Jersey boasts coverage better than most parts of the UK, due to foresight and planning which the mainland has lacked in general (we are promised the same level of coverage by 2020). This is a great foundation on which to build and Jersey simply needs to up its game in terms of digital development to build on its strengths.

If it does so, it could become a digital hub – a centre of digital excellence and innovation. It has the resources and the capacity to do this and with the development of ‘Digital Jersey’, I see an appetite for change.

I did sense though, from some discussions I had, an underlying fear that a digital economy could take something away from the traditional values of the island and its historic charm – that ‘digital’ could even lead to less inclusive and cohesive communities if more people do more things online.

But done well, and digital can breathe life into democracy and communities. It can improve community cohesion and collaboration. A digital economy creates jobs and increases equality of opportunity. It can take pressure off stretched resources and infrastructure, such as roads. And it can promote and sustain community values and geographic identity. These are all challenges which Jersey faces, so why wouldn’t it use digital means?

I saw an embryonic and fast growing IT sector in Jersey – small, innovative and enthusiastic technology companies and entrepreneurs. I also saw e-government leaders committed to making a difference in how public services operate and in developing shared services. There is a political will and a recognition of the potential of IT to transform.

The priorities as I see them lie in:

• Strong political leadership to champion digital delivery and design at the heart of all government policy.
• Creating and promoting a vision, including a changing the role of the state in nurturing a fledgling digital economy and digital government – creating a ‘Smart Jersey’ (the marketing teams will love that image!).
• Encouraging and actively promoting technology start-ups and research, collaborating across the Channel Islands and beyond when necessary.
• A national programme to promote digital literacy and skills – at school, at home, in the workforce. This includes nurturing top-flight IT specialists, digital leaders, the next generation of technologists, and skills for citizens. BCS can help with that.
• Marketing a Jersey digital ambition and digital leadership to the world, with some tangible and innovative projects, widely promoted.

What should those projects be? It’s not for me to say, but it would link them to Jersey’s existing reputation as a financial centre – supporting wealth creation which can benefit everyone and taking advantage Jersey’s independent status. Maybe some or the largest cloud service providers could be attracted to locate secure cloud data stores on Jersey, accessible across the world? Maybe Jersey could champion some key priorities affecting society’s use of the Internet, such as the way in which personal data is managed and shared? Or maybe Jersey can become the exemplar for tackling the data and systems integration challenges of health and social care integration?

Jersey has recently made key appointments in national programmes and in government to create the vision for digital opportunity, but there is a big hill to climb just in building the skills and the capacity it needs. Jersey needs strong IT apprenticeship programmes. It needs all employees to be able to access high quality IT learning materials. It needs links between technology companies and universities. And it needs to fund programmes to create capacity and specific IT skills needed by industry.

A relatively large Jersey public sector also needs to refocus, if it is to truly embrace digital change – and the incentives to do so need to be stronger in my view. ‘Digital’ as opposed to ‘more IT’, is not straightforward and requires fundamental change in ‘doing different things and doing them differently’. Successful leadership skills and techniques of the past just won’t work in the future, and that is a painful message for those running our public services in particular, without competition driving change.

In my experience necessity truly is the ‘mother of invention’ in the public sector, and Jersey seems somewhat protected from the need to change. For example, it has so far largely avoided the pain of public sector austerity being felt in the rest of the U.K. A 40% cut in spending does have one positive feature: that it is that it creates a degree of inventiveness and a willingness to change – to reform, to take risks and to try different things.

Moreover, although Jersey is relatively small and it’s almost true to say that everyone knows everyone else, the spirit of collaboration is not mature, at least in digital terms. Why wouldn’t the Channel Islands as a whole work together on sharing infrastructure, skills and on digital programmes such as Health and social care? Why don’t entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, government leaders and industrialist come together to map out a digital future and the part each has to play?

The Tech Fair showed much creative thinking and a start of dialogue, and this needs to quickly move to action. Jersey has the resources to make bold investments in the future, as it has done with telecommunications. It has a geography that makes collaboration easy. It has the resources and scale to make things work well. It just needs the incentives and bold vision.

Jos Creese