4 May 2015

Asia and the Pacific Policy Society members are located all around the region in a wide range of roles. As part of our series profiling the work of some of our members ‘Five minutes with…’,  Asia and the Pacific Policy Society member Chris Sampson talks about closing the digital divide in  developing and disadvantaged communities through his organisation, the Digital Society Foundation.

Chris Sampson

Chris Sampson

Tell us about Digital Society Foundation:

I’ve started Digital Society Foundation to support the positive contribution to human and environmental well-being that affordable access to Internet-based technologies can bring to disadvantaged and developing communities around the world.

My career in technology and information systems has always been oriented towards the human use and value of technology rather than the technology itself.

I remember being on a panel at the University of Tasmania some years ago to discuss the Digital Economy with various folks from government, academia and industry, and realising then that we need a broader understanding and narrative on the fundamental changes that digital age technology is heralding for our collective futures.

It’s not confined to the economy – rather it is accelerating change across every aspect of society and human endeavour.

Through use of these technologies and innovations, we are able to collaborate and co-ordinate complex activities on such a massive scale – we are truly entering a new phase of human development – how can we ensure this capability is used to improve well-being for everyone around the world, to create a fairer, more sustainable future for all of us ?

The Foundation aims to bring together the best quality thinking and practical solutions from across the academic, industrial and community/public service eco-systems to help developing and disadvantaged communities rapidly catch up with the highest standards of well-being we have achieved elsewhere, and to close the digital divide.

Affordable Internet for these communities is key to improving access to technology and innovation so this is a major focus of the Foundation’s work at the moment.

So, how can improved access to technology and innovation assist countries in Asia and the Pacific gain social and economic well-being?

Our first initiative ‘Connect the Blue Continent’ is raising awareness about the digital divide affecting remote Pacific Island communities. We are researching ways to bring affordable Internet connectivity to these communities and aiming to influence policy at national and international level to speed up connectivity efforts.

At the same time, we are examining practical ways for the region to harness this technology to improve self-sufficiency, develop sustainable public services, enable digital age economic development and long term, culturally and environmentally intact sustainability.

In Asia, where two-thirds of the world’s poorest people reside, the rapid pace of development in some parts of the region is exacerbating the divide between rich and poor.  Providing affordable Internet access (which in some cases might mean free access) to the poor will help to drive microeconomic activity and improve social well-being.  For example it will help to support the viability and growth of small businesses. And for those people who have to travel far from their families for work (such as many tourism jobs) it will help to keep families in touch and connected.

There is a well-recognised need for more inclusiveness in economic development approaches and improvements to social support systems to help lift the most impoverished individuals, families and communities out of extreme poverty.  Affordable Internet access needs to be deemed as central to this inclusiveness — as an essential service — in fact, a human right – to create an equalisation force to counter-balance the polarisation between rich and poor.

Initiatives from Facebook, Google and the low and medium earth orbit satellite companies like O3B are helping this to become more viable, as are new fibre-optic cable projects supported by the market and by multilateral development banks and governments of the region.  But I think we need to intervene more rapidly for those communities where extreme poverty is still pervasive and we need a master-plan approach for the Pacific Islands where coverage is patchy and mass market economics doesn’t prevail.

Perhaps the biggest part of the ‘how’ is in our approach to public policy development — we need to properly tie systems-thinking/systems development in with policy development across all policy portfolios. We can no longer afford to separate these two disciplines.

What is the most interesting part of your work?

Along with the Foundation’s not-for-profit work, I am undertaking a research collaboration with the University of Technology Sydney and hoping to include the University of Tasmania and others involved in applied research into digital age public policy development. At the same time I am consulting in the field.

I enjoy the intellectual challenge and constant learning involved in building systems models across different aspects of society – working out how we can harness technology and innovation to make things better for people and for our environment.  There are some quite brilliant minds and innovations happening all over the world and it’s fascinating to find way to bring these together for practical purposes around a specific implementation.

But undoubtedly the most interesting and rewarding part is the people I am meeting along the way. It is very inspiring to meet people from different cultures and communities who are striving to navigate a positive future for their families and communities.

I particularly enjoy meeting people from across the different realms of academia, industry and community/public service.  From my perspective the most exciting and advanced thinking in digital age public policy is actually coming from academia first and I strongly believe in the establishment of practical collaborations between all three realms to drive forward the positive advances we need to make for our collective sustainable future.

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