Saturday, December 30, 2006

A couple of days ago, I signed in to the Norwegian Government's citizens' portal Minside (myPage) for the first time. myPage gives me access to information about me, that is registered in some of the Government registers. I can also use simple governmental services relating to healthcare and student loans. This is a great start, I hope the scope of the services widens and made more relevant for me.

Santa was particularly kind this Christmas, he sent an XBox 360 down the chimney! Joining my kids in playing FIFA 2007, I was struck by the advanced user interface AND the deftness these children displayed in manipulating the software controls to configure the games, teams or players etc. (Besides being able to configure strengths and stamina of the players, one can even configure the way a player celebrates after scoring a goal!!). Anyway, I attempted to contrast the two user interfaces - FIFA 07 and the citizens' portal (minside). Even though they serve different purposes, I sensed this HUGE gap in expectations that citizens of the (not so distant) future will have to citizen (or consumer) portals.

That gamers hardly ever read manuals, nearly always skip through instructions (almost telepathically) and demonstrate an astonishing multi-tasking capability makes for some really interesting design challenges -- not just the user-interface but also the content and quality of the service.

The citizens' portal is a great start, but has a long way to go... for that matter consumer portals from service providers like my insurance company, or my bank or energy supplier have an equally long way to go. Or could this be a cue for the "new intermediary" -- a service broker that aggregates these services? And then when I have customised these services using tools provided by this "new intermediary", could my preferences serve as personalisation criteria for other services?.. and Amazon-like user experiences. Utopia? I hope not! Maybe businesses and government should take a closer look at the trends of online gaming, sharing of preferences and social bookmarking. We are probably just scratching the surface of something that can be very, very disruptive.... and exciting!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

During the Christmas holidays I have been reflecting on the origins of my interest in the Digital Society. I have been observering changes and the technological advances over the last 5-6 years; without actually being able to define what I observed. I did however comment services, technologies and other products in emails with colleagues, clients, friends and family. Blogging appears to be the most practical tool to collect my thoughts -- I suspect it will have more therapeutical benefits than subject matter insights.

This blog was set up in Jan 2004, more as a placeholder – while I figured what to do. Resuming its use is driven by the need to capture these thoughts with the freedom to ponder my observation post -- as a solution planning architect? as a citizen? as a consumer? or as quasi-academician? Right now I am most "citizen"-- but I strain to resist the temptation to "think solutions"

A brief background
The interest for this topic arose with my engagement for the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland (in 1999 & 2000). I led a team to create a novel solution to communicate and share the essence of the Annual Davos meetings. We created some interesting technology solutions for information visualisation, collaboration etc. However, it was the environment and the World Economic Forum's approach to the Global Agenda which gave me good insight into the complex mesh of society, technology and business at the global level. However, at that time, Digital Divide og Globalisation were buzzwords portrayed more problem-oriented than opportunity-oriented.

Over the years, I have had a number of interesting client engagements and insightful discussions at work and with friends and family. These have given me a better understanding of the dynamics of solutions we – directly or indriectly -- create for society at large. It was late 2003, as part of my work around alliance development and in shaping the "Home PC" agreement for my employers, that the idea of ”Norway as a test-bed for the Digital Society” first came up. The idea was to drive the creation of digital services; services that consumers (or employees in this case) would be willing to subscribe to. The Home PC scheme is a tax-rebated scheme instituted by the Norwegian government to increase the use of IT among the general population. Exploiting this scheme together with key service providers and other major players in the Norwegian amrket could create an arena for creating digital services. ”Consumer-driven Design” and ”citizen-driven design” were key concepts (borrowed from ”user-driven design” and ”user-centered design” approaches from software engineering). That did not quite happen (even though a few did create interesting home media solutions).

So what?
I am not quite sure where this will lead, but I observe our society transform "slowly" but surely. I also see the potential to exploit techniques from "enterprise architecture" and "enterprise transformation" to increase the predictability of this societal change. Not so much to manage, but to facilitate and hopefully increase the participation of citizens. My hope is technology is a tool and catalyst to transform society.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Seasons greetings!

The Yahoo article (link) on Virtual Dinners makes interesting reading. Fiction? Not really. Only for nerds? Depends on how the key players react. Health-care and insurance companies definitely have an interest in this, afterall there are interesting opportunities to reduce the cost of quality health care, making it more affordable to buy solutions such as these.

In Norway, I wonder if Tandberg (the video-conferencing people) and Telenor Broadcast could work with the Healthcare Ministry and related ministries to create such a practical solution? The Hjelpemiddelsentralen (government agency that caters to people with temporary og permanent handcaps) and maybe SmartHus Forum could be a crucible for such collaboration. Perhaps the home-security people could also be a player here (after all a number of homes are plugged with sensors and alarms). Definitely worth exploring how this can happen, I suspect thechallenge is in shaping a "business" case for the project, and then delivery & scope management.

But are these only for the developed world?
Developing nations have more on their plate than to think of such "luxury" services. But, I suspect in places like China or India where care for the elderly is a family (and not government) matter, this will have potential. Migrant workers in urban cities could drive growth in the rural areas. Applying techniques from telemedicine can increase the relevance for developing countries? Helping specialists in the urban/large cities to also serve the rural areas. Medical assistance is just one type of application, education, other professional services can also be delivered like this.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

From online petitioning sites to "petitioning platforms". Just a few weeks after driving an online petition in Mumbai, and then supporting the Bjørvika (Oslo) petition, it is interesting to discover newer tools that will "professionalise" online petitioning.

Check out

Saturday, December 16, 2006

In the Dec. 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Clayton Christensen and others present "Disruptive Innovation for Social Change". The article leverages Christensen's "disruptive innovation" model to make some interesting observations and examples to explain the phenomenon of the Digital Society (my term, not theirs). Linking it to "innovation" is not unexpected, but hardly needed as far as I can tell from their 5 distinct characteristics (see abstract below). So while we may probably end up hearing a lot about "catalytic innovation" I hope the article will help channel energies in driving societal change.

My own take on the article is that there are some good points to help bring government and business together. And while it comes across as more of an "what is"-explanatory note; I am looking for the "how to". I sense that welfare-based societies like those of Northern Europe, in particular the Nordics or Canada have an advantage. Their earlier investments in societal infrastructure, can be digitized to lead the next wave of civilisation (Google "neotechnic" & "third wave"). Further, I think multi-national firms can be great catalysts, by involving their employees in this innovation. After all, employees are also citizens of of their (local) societies....

Abstract of the HBR article below (the highlights are my own).

Countries, organizations, and individuals around the globe spend aggressively to solve social problems, but these efforts often fail to deliver. Misdirected investment is the primary reason for that failure. Most of the money earmarked for social initiatives goes to organizations that are structured to support specific groups of recipients, often with sophisticated solutions. Such organizations rarely reach the broader populations that could be served by simpler alternatives. There is, however, an effective way to get to those underserved populations. The authors call it "catalytic innovation." Based on Clayton Christensen's disruptive-innovation model, catalytic innovations challenge organizational incumbents by offering simpler, good-enough solutions aimed at underserved groups. Unlike disruptive innovations, though, catalytic innovations are focused on creating social change. Catalytic innovators are defined by five distinct qualities. First, they create social change through scaling and replication. Second, they meet a need that is either overserved (that is, the existing solution is more complex than necessary for many people) or not served at all. Third, the products and services they offer are simpler and cheaper than alternatives, but recipients view them as good enough. Fourth, they bring in resources in ways that initially seem unattractive to incumbents. And fifth, they are often ignored, put down, or even discouraged by existing organizations, which don't see the catalytic innovators' solutions as viable.

As the authors show through examples in health care, education, and economic development, both nonprofit and for-profit groups are finding ways to create catalytic innovation that drives social change. The HBR Spotlight on Making a Real Difference explores a pair of vexing questions: How should executives think about corporate social responsibility? and Why is it that the billions of dollars invested in social sector institutions haven't begun to solve our basic problems? Both articles have smart, original things to say about how business leaders can make a real difference. A company that aligns its strategy with its CSR to invest in disruptive social sector innovations might change the world.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Today, Telenor launched the Windows Live Messenger service to mobile users in the Norwegian market. There is nothing revolutionary about the technology, it has been available for some time. However, what is significant is that this is another small step of "educating the population" in our growing Digital Society.

These small steps are great in spreading enterprise and consumer behaviours to society as a whole. If I may draw the parallel to the PC/LAN era -- where the end-user is the consumer/citizen today and the Centralized IT Department is the Telecom provider. It is then heartening to see that the "IT department" has responded to the "end-user" and offered a service that originated in the end-user community. (Instead of saying "No, dear user, those services are rubbish and just a passing fad"). That Telenor could have come with this service earlier is another discussion -- not altogether unrelated. But that's for another post.

Now, how would other service providers like insurance companies, banks etc offer similar services? Am sure there are millions of homegrown "applications" people have created to keep track of investments (in Word, Excel or Access).

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Societal digital infrastructure -- a term I am coining to capture the concept of fundamental software-powered services and corresponding data structures needed to ensure basic interoperability of services and information exchange at the societal level. For eg in Norway there are a number of different secure registers for companies, vehicles, individuals, properties, insurance claims, securities etc. These registers are used by businesses and government to simplify business and public sector services. For loan processing, insurance claims management, tax returns management etc

For example: I can, at any time check, if a vehicle I wish to buy is put up as collateral for a loan. See Previously this service was manual, it is now digitized and offering many usage scenarios. Used together with other similar services, this offers almost limitless opportunities.

I believe these services and registers will offer a competitive advantage to societies through the exploitation of machine-to-machine communication. This can open the path for a unique value proposition. Caveat: The service needs to interoperate at the global level -- so what we need is a Business equivalent of the DNS and ICANN; some kind of agency that manages the registers and unique identifiers.

Developing and exporting the usage of these services to developing countries could be a unique business opportunity :-) --- there is ofcourse a significant investment needed in building trust and transparency that is a prerequisite so that such services can thrive.

This is an evolutionary process, in the same way mobile telephony and IP has taken to gain momentum ...

So will there be professional Societal Digital Infrastructure Service Providers? I think so...

Monday, December 11, 2006

On Sunday evening, my family and I and the daugther of a good friend went down to Jernbanetorget in Oslo (near the Central Station). We were to join the candle-light procession to honour the Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus. As part of 200-300 people procession we waited outside the Grand Hotel to greet the prize winners (Dr. Yunus shared this prize with the Grameen Bank).

I just read the speech given by Dr Yunus and am struck by how far he has come in the ways of the Digital Society (my term of course). His ideas around globalisation and the duality of enterprise responsibility - economic and social responsibilities; are very concrete. Will the financial community take up the challenge? Will the Social Stock Exchange be a reality? We have witnessed alternative networks like the World Social Forum as an alternative to World Economic Forum. Can the prize reenergize the drve? Can collaborative technology make the difference?

(On a separate but related note: Can enterprises learn to measure success, performance and productivity in other ways than purely economic? Enterprises are poor at assessing contributions when colleagues help other colleagues; ironically, the measurements in place today effectively dissuade people from reporting any "help". But that's for another post)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

I just came across this interesting article by the CEO & Chairman of Accenture Bill Green. It gives some context to my after after-hours hobby project (creating an alumni portal for my school back home in Bombay). While the similarity is not direct, but it definitely points to the nature of action being rooted in local small communities.

Taking this thought one step forward.... Imagine local communities being able to collaborate with other local communities -- making driect contact. As a catalyst, multi-national companies play a key role in encouraging their employees to this form of global networking. Imagine colleagues sharing their experiences and their local networks across the globe to grow their local communities.

Making this a bit more concrete -- and personal:
Consider the school as a community. It is a fascinating thought -- my children working together with students from my alma mater. The experiences and networks from such collaboration would most likely surpass the end-result or deliverable from such a project. The value of the improved understanding between youth is hard to measure but is very much there.

I guess measurement of such "societal value" is a possible research topic?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

More than ever before, there seems to be a lot of activity around the topic of the "Digital Society" .... I am not sure how this term will evolve but at any rate I am happy it is not being hyped as I had once feared.

The amount of grass-root activity is quite amazing. And after being a part of two small e-protests, it is great to see people from all backgrounds exploiting the collaborative nature of the Internet. Am sure most of them do not perceive this as "collaborative this or that". They can see the power of like minded individuals coming together.

This form of citizen participation, is more evidence of the wave of "consumer-centered design" (or "citizen-center design") that I see on the horizon. I am drawn to comparing this to the wave of "user-centered design" that came after the launch of the PC and the Local Area Network.

And I wonder... would policy makers and government learn from that period? i.e to learn to help their citizens particpate even more in matters of society? to shape policy that really solves the issues felt at the grass root-level? Learning in much the same way IT departments eventually learned to helping their users? (I think most IT departments grudingly accomodate end-user flexibility -- but they have struck a good balance between educating users and enforcing policy --- freedom with responsibility).

And so, I continue to live in the hope that the Digital Society (powered by Internet technologies) will help citizens to participate more in shaping their own lives.

However, I am clueless how politicians will react to this state of "citizen-centered design". After all:
  • Why would they need 4 (or 5 or 7) years in office to represent citizens?
  • Why would they have to congregate in the capital?
  • Why have long and laborious election campaigns?

Many questions ... Stay tuned to your society ...