Debating the future of a digital economy
For a long time the island has relied heavily on the finance industry with concern that there were too many eggs in a single basket.
Well now business leaders, educators, ministers and regulators have gathered together to see if technology could be that second basket.
The annual IOD debate is the biggest of its kind in Jersey and the 2012 event was held together by ITV news anchor Alistair Stewart who pushed, squeezed and at times hammered an answer out of everyone from the chief minister to the technology officer of a big banking group.
Keynote speaker Peter Cochrane started the debate by pleading with the island not replicate Silicon Valley – he said it would not work and that Jersey should instead try and do something different.
He suggested becoming a leader in green technology and medicine.
The debate then opened to the floor with the panel, including business leaders, technology experts and treasury minister Senator Philip Ozouf starting things off.
They were asking whether digital could become a major business area for Jersey but there were two areas of concern and the biggest seemed to be education.
Assistant Education Minister Deputy Rod Bryan said there had been an after school ICT club running and that it had proved to be a success.
He said: “Things have been moving quickly in the last few months and will be meeting to talk about what to do next.”
Chief Minister Senator Ian Gorst said the Council of Ministers had committed to rolling out the skills the economy required.
He said four of the seven priorities in the strategic plan were about or required technology.
Mark Loane of technology company C5 Alliance saying more needed to be done to turn pupils from technology users to technology creators.
He said: “The really important one for me is that ministers are really zeroing in on this and know what needs to be done.
“The number of head teachers I’ve spoken to absolutely get it and absolutely want change. Plenty of momentum, plenty of opportunity here and I can see things changing really quickly now.”
Grainville head teacher John McGuiness said that for schools to be able to provide the sort of education businesses needed then those businesses needed to get involved in creating the curriculum.
He said: “If you are talking about a modern curriculum it has got to meet the needs of a modern society, to do that you have to have a relationship with the end user – business.
“We need to look at entrepreneurs, business skills and in a close community like Jersey it is even more important that we listen to what business leaders and employers are seeking.
“If we can’t find the future digital entrepreneurs and experts Jersey will have to bring them in or look for them, Jersey will lose business to overseas.”
There was a suggestion that technology available in schools also needed to be improved. Peter Cochrane said the dumbest thing education departments ever did was put computers in schools.
He said the children should be given a tablet or laptop instead.
Treasury Minister Senator Philip Ozouf said the treasury would do all it could to make sure schools had the technology they needed.
He said: “The headmaster of Grainville School can’t wait for a strategy, he wants help now. If he wants infrastructure and he wants money then we will make it available.
“If this is about improving the lot of Grainville students, giving them expertise, a future in ICT then lets give it to them.”
There was an air of optimism in the hall all evening.
The big question was whether a technology industry could rival finance for dominance in Jersey and the answer seemed to be yes.
Economic Development Minister Senator Alan Maclean seemed to be very positive.
He said there was a lot of work to do and they were making more investment available to companies in the island and to try and attract companies here – but things were looking good.
The other big area that it was felt needed work was regulation. Adding regulation – well what is described as enabling regulation – to allow e-money businesses and others to operate.
Peter Cochrane said Jersey was in a very good place with all businesses having access to a high speed network and a strong finance industry.
He said: “If you haven’t got rule of law, ethical operations and legal frame work to bind it all together then you look like a cowboy.”
Alan Maclean said the States was working on getting legislation in place more quickly.
He said: “I think it was very useful to get the feedback both positive and challenging from industry.
“There are things the government needs to do in being more fleet of foot and ensuring regulation is appropriate.
“It was particularly interesting that the panel pointed out we want regulation and good quality regulation but it is important the government is agile and able to move quickly.”
The new head of digital Jersey, the group like Jersey finance setup to promote the islands technology sector, Paul Masterton made a commitment to have a plan in place for growing the technology sector.
He said: “If we don’t have good idea of strategy within four months then we are not matching industry change.”
So the answer to the question – can digital become a pillar of Jersey’s economy seemed to be yes – but only with better technology education, better regulation and if the government keeps to its promises.