A Smart Nation in the making? Three recommendations on how to steer the digital transformation from Tunisia.
No this is not another article that will evangelize you about the potentials of digital technologies. Yet, it is a positive account that when the digital transformation is steered in the right way it will be the fundament for political and economic reforms. We tell the story of Tunisia and review how the government and the local ecosystem works together to find creative and smart solutions to tackle the Covid-19 crisis. More importantly, we suggest three learnings as corner stones that are essential for steering the digital transformation of the public and private sector: #1 the digital transformation is not about technologies — that might surprise you; #2 the digital transformation needs smart politics and real collaboration — that might not surprise you but is more difficult as you think; #3 the innovation of all this becomes only real, if it is built on something existing — probably the more complicated point but you will see what we mean further down.
When historians will write about the Covid-19 crisis in 2020 and 2021 they will most likely not just tell a story about a virus and a global pandemic or the societal and economic lock-downs it provoked. They will also tell the story about a huge disruption that forced a large part of the world to switch basically overnight from an analog way of live and work to a digital one. Of course, digital technologies where already everywhere but working from home, doing birthday parties with family in Zoom Calls, learning with a teacher online, having factories that being remotely controlled, buying groceries online, robots patrolling streets or a doctor talking to its patients over the Internet were rather abstract ideas and only for a few people a reality. The Covid-19 crisis showed all over a sudden that digital technologies work and that they come with transformative power behind them. At the same time, the Covid-19 crisis also exacerbated the inequalities between those people, companies or government entities that have access to these technologies (and infrastructures) and those who do not. A historian who want to study the do’s but also the dont’s might be good advised to take Tunisia as an example. Here is why.
The Smart Nation in the Making
In March 2000, in the heat of the first cases of Covid-19 in North Africa, the Tunisian Ministry for Communication Technologies (MTC) and the Ministry of Health published a Call to address the local tech ecosystem. The two ministries — supported by a private-public taskforce — were in search of digital solutions in the fight against Covid-19. In a few days the ecosystem — i.e. Startups, researcher, tech SMEs or students submitted more than 300 digital solutions. Among them teleconsultation apps, artificial intelligence for diagnosing patients or protection masks out of 3D-printers, to name only a few. An example that shows that the Smart Nation is already a reality? No! But a good example that shows that the Tunisian tech ecosystem is an important asset for the country. Tunisia has a quickly growing and dynamic IT industry, including a vibrant Startup ecosystem. The basis for this is the huge labor force of young graduates that leave equipped with good skills each year Tunisia’s universities. Yes, it is true that a huge challenge remains by having many of the brightest talents in this domain leaving the country to accept job offers in France or other European countries. But there are very few countries on the continent that have this excellent basis for becoming a Smart Nation.
However, the example also shows what still needs to be done. Becoming a smart economy, a smart government or smart people is more than just having the potential solutions ready. Developing, testing and integrating digital solutions might take years or even decades, not because the tech is so complicated, but because the contexts they arrive in often need to deal with rather huge complexities. Technology providers need to understand (yet often neglect this) the standards of medical equipment, treatment and diagnostic protocols, hospital practice, liability, assurance schemes, or patient needs if they want to become appropriated technologies. The Covid-19 crisis certainly accelerated a dialog between potential users and tech providers, but it also showed that lots of the solutions are not ready to be implemented and vice versa that users have a long way to go (building competences, changing legal framework or creating special units) to create an enabling environment for these kinds of solutions. Now the real question for Tunisia about this disruption is, if the country is learning of what needs to be done to become a Smart Nation. We suggest three recommendations that we developed over the past months when supporting the implementation of several projects and that might help technology providers, decision makers and users to make better choices for the future.
#1 The Digital Transformation is not about technology
If a project is started by choosing a technology, it is very unlikely that you will succeed. In fact, if somebody says to you something like let’s do something with blockchain or artificial intelligence you should turn around and run. We have seen over the past year how fast technological hypes are changing and that even the most sophisticated piece of technology might not do the job, if you do not have a problem that needs to be solved. The digital transformation is — yes — fist of all a transformative process facilitated by technology. Underlying to this is having a real problem that needs to be solved and this should not be very abstract or too general but as concrete as possible. Therefore, tech providers often fail, because they rarely have access to the complexities that their clients face. Therefore, besides having the problem ready, the co-creation between tech providers and users is one of the most essential pieces when developing a new solution. It might sound surprising, but the technology is a rather minor part of the digital transformation. The question to a Smart Nation is then, who will lead this transformation and what competences are needed?
#2 Collaboration and Smart Politics as key pillars for success
How does an expert in the digital transformation look like: A university-trained engineer, a medical doctor that developed an interest in tech, the sociologist that follows the impact of technology in society or a tech enthusiast self-trained on blockchain? The short answer would be non-of them but all. The digital transformation requires skill-sets that work hand in hand, right from the beginning. The key to assure this, is real collaboration between different stakeholders. This might sound trivial to some but is not very often a reality. Tech providers often lack the capacities to understand the potentials of their solutions to different user groups, industries or public institutions. And the other way around, a potential user or industry can normally not assess what technology can offer him or her and thus would not be able to foster an innovation process. The digital transformation requires the collaboration of many. This is a painful process that needs resources and often more time than expected. Political agendas need to follow the same logic. Because of the speed technology is developed and the collaboration that is needed, smart politics would not attempt to know what needs to be done but rather help to create the space where collaboration, change management and digital innovation will be promoted. So, you should not trust any digital strategy and even regulation frameworks that will reduce the digital transformation in stating how technologies should be used. Rather you should follow political frameworks that guide you into new partnerships and supports you to transform your environment.
#3 Build on existing solutions
For some reasons, discussion on the digital transformation are always spear-headed by the latest tech talk. Currently you normally hear something like artificial intelligence, 5G, robotics, big data, Internet of Things, 3D-printing or blockchain. But in reality the transformative power of technologies comes with solutions that build on existing infrastructures and the contexts they are deployed to. This is visible in the discussions around Industry 4.0 in Tunisia. The global discussions on Industry 4.0 is dominated by industries in Europe and the US and often marked by replacing existing manufacturing infrastructures with robots and automated production. In Tunisia labor costs and production settings urge often for very different set of solutions and technologies. They have to be built on existing manufacturing infrastructure and make them smarter, a process that is often referred to as retro-fitting. Through retro-fitting manufacturing companies can make with the intelligent use of sensors and software solutions a rather quick transition of their existing infrastructure towards Industry 4.0. This needs much smaller investments that can help industrial companies to reduce resource costs, assure the quality of production or improve the safety of workers. Thus, a project that pushes the digital transformation should always ask, what kind of technology do I really need and is there already a solution out there rather than always developing something new.
In times of Covid-19 digital technologies have experienced a boost as never seen before. It is time for the Tunisian government, the private sector and the people of Tunis to embrace the necessary next steps to take-up these technologies and use them for political and economic reforms. This is not an easy way, it is not about technologies but about collaboration, smart political and about solutions that build on what has already proven as successful.
Norman Schräpel & Magda Mahjoub