Beaufort Today -

Want to make progress? Focus on technology

For hundreds of years, we in Western society have thought about things with a lineal and incremental mindset. Progress was believed to happen sequentially, usually slowly.

This mindset is embedded in how we think about things and express ourselves: “Steady as she goes,” “One step at a time, “The tortoise wins the race.”

There have always been breakthroughs that brought big change, but they were rare and usually took years to have a widespread impact. But digital innovation has changed everything.

A few examples:

• Adoption: When electricity was first harnessed in 1873, it took 46 years to reach 25 percent of the U.S. population. The first television was invented in 1926 and it more than 26 years to reach the 25-percent mark. The first mobile phones hit the market in 1983 and 13 years later 25 percent of us had one. Invented in 1991, it took the internet only eight years to reach 25 percent of the population.

• Nature of business: The largest transportation company in the world, Uber, has no cars or trucks. The largest accommodations company in the world, Airbnb, owns no hotels or motels. The largest photography company, Instagram, sells no cameras or related products. The largest U.S. retailer, Amazon, has no stores. The largest media content company in the world, Facebook, produces no content.

• Growth: Uber started in 2009 and in five years its valuation of $66 billion was greater than General Motors, Ford or Honda. Airbnb started in 2008 and has a $31 billion valuation, greater than Hyatt or Inter-Continental Hotels. Instagram, started in 2010, has a $37 billion valuation and Kodak is now bankrupt. Amazon, started in 1994, is worth $959 billion and Walmart’s valuation is $78 billion.

OK, but what do all these numbers have to do with us in South Carolina? The answer is a lot.

Just as a society can make leapfrog jumps in its adoption of technology and digital companies can make leapfrog jumps in terms of size and value, so too can a country or state by focusing on digital technology.

One example: Estonia.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, this tiny country of 1.3 million people in northeast Europe had a backwater economy in shambles and a very bleak future. But Estonia was different from its neighbors. It had innovative, committed leadership that convinced the people to focus relentlessly on digital technology.

Toomas Ilves was a young man working as the Estonian language news reader for Radio Free Europe in Munich. When the Wall came down, he moved Estonia and quickly jumped into politics. In no time, he was ambassador to the U.S. and European Union, foreign minister, and from 2006 to 2016 he was president.

I first met Ilves in the late 1990s when he was leader of a struggling little political party and I was running a struggling little internet company. We have worked together on several projects over the years. I am huge fan and I don’t pretend to be objective about him or the wonderful things his county has achieved.

Ilves convinced a small group of young politicians from across the spectrum to focus on promoting the internet and new technology in every part of their economy and society. They bet the farm and it paid off.

The whole country is totally wired with super high-speed access; you can even connect in the middle of the forest. Cellphone penetration is 120 percent and the monthly cost of unlimited data access for an iPad is about $10.

Schools, teachers and parents are constantly linked online so that teaching is a true partnership, with each child’s progress measured and fostered in real time.

Virtually every government service you can imagine is “e-enabled” to empower citizens to become active participants. Governments at all levels provide services faster, more efficiently and at less cost.

More than 95 percent of people file their taxes online and the average time to complete the whole process is about five minutes. In the last national election, more than 25 percent voted online.

Electronic ID cards with digital signatures enable transactions at lightning speed and entrepreneurs can register a new business online in fewer than 20 minutes.

Their crown jewel, so far, is Skype. Started in 2003 by a handful of smart Swedish and Estonian kids, nine years later it sold to eBay for $2.6 billion and in 2011 was bought by Microsoft for $8.5 billion.

In 2007, Russia launched a cyber-attack and was beaten back so completely that NATO turned over huge portions of its cyber security to Estonia.

Today, their economic growth rate is among the highest in the European Union, the unemployment rate among the lowest and personal income growth is soaring.

Why should South Carolina care? The parallels are obvious.

We are both relatively small, have been comparatively poor and have suffered from political leadership that has failed our people. But while Estonia has made leapfrog jumps, South Carolina has made only incremental progress.

The keys to success are obvious: a laser-like focus on technology beginning with schools, an unfaltering belief that our future can be better and new leadership that inspires citizens to dream big and take chances.

We have it within us to do this, too. We really can.

The question is, will we?

Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston and writes a weekly column for the S.C. Press Association. Contact him at phil@philnoble.com.

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