Fairfax / Newcastle Herald column March, 2016
Recently, I had the opportunity to hear US President Barack Obama speak at the SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas. It was the first time in the 30-year history of SXSW that a sitting president had addressed the event and was a sure sign that the world’s most powerful man recognises the importance of technology in society.
President Obama’s main message was that government, which he acknowledged as slow-moving, and the tech industry needed to work together to solve society’s biggest challenges.
He especially focused on technology’s role in civic life. Calling on government and private companies to work together, Obama said it’s vital to “create systems that make government more responsive and make it work better.”
Noting the USA’s notoriously low voter turnout at election time, he said it was “easier to order a pizza than to vote” and said we need to think about how to “redesign our systems so that we don’t have 50 per cent or 55 per cent voter participation in presidential elections.”
The “digital divide”, an issue we also share in Australia, was a keen topic of discussion for the President who listed a range of government programs including Opportunity Network, which installs WiFi in low-income housing and rural areas; and Open E-books to enable school textbooks for access for all. His administration has a goal to connect 98 per cent of US classrooms to high speed internet by 2018, by working in conjunction with the private sector and training teachers. Just wait until this generation of connected kids hit the workforce.
But Obama’s constant refrain was that solving problems requires co-operation. He said the country needs to re-imagine the relationship between government and the private sector “so that we use technology data, social media in order to join forces around problems.” In the President’s opinion, government initiatives work better if supplemented by the private sector who have access to the brightest minds in tech.
It is a message that has equal relevance in Australia where slow moving government and the private sector should be encouraged to work together more. Agile solutions are the hallmark of the tech industry and such thinking could easily be used to solve daily issues. Everything from parking meter technology to national healthcare could be addressed via better co-operation and greater efficiency.