There are specific issues which Trinidad and Tobago needs to deal with if it is to be truly competitive in the global digital world
WORDS By: Tracy Hackshaw
Published in CONTACT Magazine
Earlier in this issue of Contact, Trinidad and Tobago was shown to have a rapidly growing mobile digital population. Not all the news is positive, however. There are some hard-to-crack challenges which we need to overcome before we can consider ourselves fully equipped to compete in the global digital economy.
Output from the traditional education system is proving to be inadequate to meet the needs of the ICT/digital sector, both in terms of domestic and international investment. We must find the correct formula to ensure we can sustainably produce the right numbers of the right skills.
Electronic payments systems
Our risk-averse, deficient institutional and regulatory frameworks struggle to support robust and competitive electronic payment systems. This 20-year battle continues to confound both the private and public sectors and to mystify prospective e-commerce entrepreneurs. Efforts are being made to move things forward, both in the private and public sectors, but the pace is glacial. Meanwhile, our regional competitors have moved much further forward than we have.
The case of Uber is instructive. Whatever else we may think about Uber, its presence in Trinidad and Tobago – its only location in the English-speaking Caribbean – presented us with both a challenge and an opportunity.
Uber explained its operational “pause” in Trinidad and Tobago by saying that “at this time, we believe that there is a lack of a proper environment for innovation and technology to thrive in Trinidad and Tobago”. That should at least serve as a wake-up call as we seek to attract international investors in the digital sector.
Tamana InTech Park
In 2014, Cable & Wireless Communications (then Columbus Communications) earmarked Tamana InTech Park as a preferred location for a major regional data centre, similar to previous investments made in Curaçao and Colombia. This would have set the stage for Trinidad and Tobago to emerge as a regional hub and/or centre of excellence for data-related services, similar to the models and initiatives established by ASEAN leaders Malaysia  and Singapore.
However, since little has been heard from either the government or Cable & Wireless regarding this project for some time, there are those who fear that a serious opportunity to develop Tamana into an active regional data hub is being missed.
From the US diaspora, Matthew Talma, an engineering manager at Amazon and co-founder of Ticktr and M:Carnival Manager, observes: “[T]he sense that I get is that the government and business understand that technology can have a large impact [but] they are still struggling with the implementation of these technologies. This may not necessarily point to a lack of talent in the region but rather a problem in bridging the gap between developers and business owners.”
Talma believes that nurturing small business with a technology focus will help. “It solves the problem elegantly by giving technology developers real world experience in applying it to business problems. It is usually these companies that are able to disrupt larger ones. It will take a champion in the region to bring to light that this sort of disruption is possible.”
According to Dr Patrick Hosein, Professor of Computer Science at The University of the West Indies: “The latest ICT technologies are typically available locally, but these are not being used to their maximum potential … Companies must be brave enough to make changes to decades-old processes and ignore the objections to these changes by those who would prefer to maintain the status quo.”
Simon Aqui, IBM’s regional executive in charge of Caribbean Financial Services (and most recently the Country Head responsible for Trinidad and Tobago’s IBM operations), recognises that there are movements towards digital transformation within the public sector, but thinks more must be done, and done faster.
“The public sector can lead the way through adoption of advanced ICT initiatives,” he says, “such as electronic/online payments, integrated systems (like ‘single sign on’ for all government services), open data and API presentation for companies to utilise back-end integration to government databases (payments, registries, etc). Relevant legislation and ICT-based incentives can also encourage businesses to confidently implement new technologies and services.”
Another regional professional with well over 30 years’ experience in Telecoms and ICT is direct in his assessment. “I don’t believe the government has treated ICT as a priority or as an enabler. Legislation that should have been changed years ago remains as is. I believe that unless the government makes it a priority to maximise investments such as the eTeck Park (at Tamana), we will not be considered a serious ICT player in the Caribbean region.”
If Trinidad and Tobago is to truly advance in the global digital economy, our relatively indifferent attitude towards the ICT and digital services sector cannot continue.
The country needs a high-level official, an effective champion – preferably a minister with the ability to build consensus between the public and private sectors – who can be held accountable for the performance of the ICT and digital services sector. This accountability needs to be built into the government’s performance management framework, with ICT & digital services at the forefront of an overdue re-orienting and re-balancing of the local economy.
We need to collectively adopt participation in the global digital economy as a priority, competing on an equal footing with our international counterparts.
To do that, we must re-examine our approach to domestic and foreign investment in this sector. In the same way as the downstream energy sector was catalysed by the establishment of Point Lisas in the 1960s (with the subsequent involvement of the government), we need to place renewed emphasis on meaningful public-private partnerships where both sectors can derive tangible, sustainable value.
Trinidad and Tobago should be a hub or centre of excellence for ICT and digital services. While we certainly can’t “boil the ocean”, given the vast scope of this sector, we can take a sensible approach by selecting a few key areas of high global demand and focusing our energies towards developing and enhancing the necessary capacity.
The private sector
In the private sector, business leaders must consciously and explicitly identify digital transformation as part of their strategic plans.
Jean-Paul Dookie, Executive Vice President in the regional operations of the Japanese multinational technology company Fujitsu, notes that “businesses and governments the world over are being impacted by digital disruption, where traditional business models and value propositions are under threat. Trinidad and Tobago is no different.”
The private sector “cannot take lightly the impact of the digital world we live in; and therefore this should be the top priority for leadership and strategic business planning. Driving business innovation, efficiency and new value propositions through digital co-creation, should be at the forefront of leader agendas.”
Other public sector initiatives
Integrated Financial Management Information System
A Ministry of Finance project funded by a US$40 million IDB loan, this seeks to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of financial management. Once implemented, it will ensure that budget decision-making and delivery is driven by smart data, with the desired positive impact, and meets the needs of all stakeholders.
Likely to be introduced soon within central government. TSTT has been using in-house electronic tenders software for several years now. TSTT and the National Information and Communication Technology Company (iGovTT) have signed an MOU to jointly market and promote the adoption of TSTT’s e-tender software as a service procurement portal by 22 ministries, 119 companies and 135 statutory bodies.
Global Services Promotion Programme
The government wants to catalyse the local ICT & digital-enabled services sector through a programme of strategic and tactical interventions. Funded by another IDB loan (US$18 million) and executed by the Ministry of Planning and Development, the programme seeks to position Trinidad and Tobago as a prime location for global provision of IT-enabled services. The expected outcomes are increased exports and employment in the sector.
 ASEAN Data Analytics eXchange: ADAX.” Accessed June 25, 2018. http://adax.asia/.
 “BDA – Digital Innovation Ecosystem I MDEC.” Accessed June 25, 2018. https://www.mdec.my/digital-innovation-ecosystem/big-data-analytics.
 “How Singapore plans to become Asia’s big data hub in 2018.” Accessed June 25, 2018. https://www.edb.gov.sg/en/news-and-resources/insights/talent/how-singapore-plans-to-become-asias-big-data-hub-in-2018.html.