5G, Arctic gold rush excite global tech forum attendees

Oulu, Finland -- The 24th Global Forum, an annual policy and strategy conference for technology leaders, was held this week in Oulu, a Nordic university town and research city about 100 miles from the Arctic Circle.

Opened by Juha Sipilä, Finland’s current prime minister and a telecommunications engineer by training, the conference theme was “Digitalization: From Disruption to Sustainability.”

+ FROM LAST YEAR'S CONFERENCE:Global Forum: Innovation creates opportunity, causes disruption +

Global Forum often forecasts world trends in the information and communication industries. Delegates came by invitation-only from 36 countries and multiple international organizations, with representatives also from vendors, service providers, academia and government agencies.

Host city Oulu has 250,000 residents, including 40,000 students. Of its nearly 60,000-person workforce, a third of them are in information and communication technology (ICT), Cleantech, and Life Sciences.

Oulu is one of the youngest cities in Europe, with a median age of 36.6 years. It boasts 600 kilometers of bike paths, lighted and maintained year round, including winter.

Global Forum used its Finland setting to highlight the booming Arctic frontier, which some speakers called “the new gold rush.” Finland has the most population in the Arctic region of the eight countries of the Arctic Council (USA, Canada, Denmark representing Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia).

Overall, the Nordic area constitutes the 10th biggest economy in the world, with a GDP of 1400 billion euros ($1,570 billion). Estimates of combined investment plans rise to about 200 billion euros ($224 billion) by 2025.

Global Forum’s Arctic Issues panel outlined the problem for ICT developers: “Securing of communication and data transmission, without zero signal zones, on sea, on seabed, underground and in faraway locations.”

Keynote speaker Suvi Lindén highlighted global progress in mobile access and broadband planning. Lindén was Finland’s Communications Minister when in 2010 it became the first nation in the world to make broadband access a legal right.

Lindén said in 2005, there were 2 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide. In 2015, there are 7 billion, but only 40% have broadband capability; most are 2G connections.

In 2005, only 17 countries had a national broadband plan. In 2015 an impressive 148 countries have a national broadband plan. Lindén sees this as encouraging, because where there is a plan, some action can follow.

However, progress is being held back in certain countries, she said, because of high taxes on telecommunications services—in some nations these are among the few places tax revenue can be collected effectively. While their national budgets benefit, the burden on services drags technological deployment and innovation.

Jørgen Abild Andersen, Chairman of the OECD Committee on Digital Economy Policy, said what counts in digitalization is broadband access at 100Mbps per person, and full mobile coverage for the geographic populations involved.

Yet he says that’s too narrow: broadband and mobile coverage are only means to the real goal: social and economic progress against three global challenges: 1) Overall innovation is poor; 2) Worldwide growth is low; 3) International unemployment is high.

ICT can help—they account for half of productivity growth, and one fourth of GDP growth.

Andersen says there are four key pillars for the information economy: e-infrastructure, e-applications, e-security/e-privacy and e-literacy/e-skills.

He called for an “ecosystem of the digital economy,” with a “whole government approach” to address these issues at the macro level.

Global Forum’s panel “Toward Greater Intelligent Infrastructures” took up Andersen’s challenge the next day. Nokia’s Timo Ali-Vehmas expanded on a vision of a “Future Intelligent Infrastructure” that focused on four clusters of ICT: Content; Network; Consumer Device; Consumer Identity/Data/Service.

He said that oncoming 5G networks have to support all sectors of society, not like 4G that provided only a few sets of services, a “flat architecture,” of a “flat ecosystem.”

Ali-Vehmas suggested that if 5G networking can transcend the earlier limitations, “it will be one of the greatest endeavors mankind has ever done.”

He said “history is repeating itself, in unpredictable ways.” What will be needed in any information economy ecosystem is Consumer Choice, Interoperability, Competition.

From Smart to Smarter Cities: “From Goal to Journey”

Global Forum’s emphasis on “Smart City” development, a recent trend of its conferences, was also a theme in Finland. The City of Oulu is a pioneer in this area: it was twice a finalist for Intelligent Community of the Year.

Alexey Ershov, of IBM, said that “Smarter City” is a better approach than “Smart City.” He said “Smart City” is a goal, but “Smarter City” is a journey. That’s a more realistic way for communities to think about their transitions to the information economy, he suggested.

Regarding the conference “disruption” theme, he said “We ain’t seen nothing yet”—disruption will continue, and intensify. He pointed out current valuations of these disruptive companies: Uber, $50 billion; AirBnB, $25 billion; Tesla, $33 billion; versus Renault at $18 billion, and BMW at $50 billion.

Today’s smarter citizens also expect more of their cities, and city administrations. Ershov called for ICT platforms that reduce the cost of city services, and increase the quality of services from public and private providers.

Finland’s Six Cities initiative addresses these concerns for a consortium of the country’s six biggest cities. They have three project areas: Open Innovation Platforms; Open Data and Interfaces; Open Participation and Customership.

Dr. Sylviane Toporkoff, President of Global Forum, led the 2015 conference as a Founding Partner of sponsor ITEMS International. The next Global Forum will be held in fall 2016, at a European venue to be announced early next year.

Jay Gillette is professor of information and communication sciences at Ball State University, director of its Human Factors Institute, and a senior research fellow and officer at the Digital Policy Institute. He also served as Fulbright-Nokia Distinguished Chair in Information and Communications Technologies at the University of Oulu, Finland for 2014-2015.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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