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New Internet communications technology empowers citizens and emerging nations but poses growing dilemmas for governments, speakers told the opening session of the Cisco Public Services Summit 2011 in Oslo today.

Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon in Davos 2009 (courtesy of WEF)

Delegates from more than 40 countries heard from former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo; European Union vice president for inter-institutional relations Maros Sefcovic; technology theorist Manuel Castells; and Cisco director Martin Stewart-Weeks.

Zedillo said new information technology lowers barriers to competition and helps more nations accumulate wealth faster. “Most emerging economies will be contributing to the change in the composition in global GDP. Countries still thought of as poor will be the dynamos of the global economy in years to come. The economic convergence between poor and rich countries might be in motion at last.”

In a question-and-answer session following his address, Zedillo elaborated: “I wouldn’t be surprised if in ten years we were talking about Africa as the true emerging power of the world.”

But Zedillo also noted that current governments fail crucial tests, accusing the G-20 nations of “flunking” their mandate to manage worldwide fallout from the 2008 financial crash, and predicting a global power shift will only bring more.

“It is unbelievable how the European monetary union has been about to fall off a precipice the last two years due to inability to close a gap between economic need and governance,” he said.

Stewart-Weeks, senior director, Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group, echoed the warning that technology and citizen expectations have raced ahead of governments’ desire or capacity to deliver.

“There’s an important shift going on,” said Martin-Weeks, “with important questions about how much transition we are prepared to cope with. We are reaching the limits of some of our capabilities. People are demanding new patterns and styles of participation.”

Martin-Weeks told the forum governments must develop “resilience,” which he defined as “the ability to anticipate, navigate and thrive on coming change … and bounce back to something better.” He suggested, “As we move from a centralized to a decentralized world, we must give up a little control in exchange for resilience.”

“Volatile change creates massive risks and opportunities” he said. “Dealing with these risks means big transitions. At the heart of this capability is the art and practice of connectedness.”

The 2011 Summit theme is “Empowering the Edge: Boosting Resiliency and Productivity in the Public Sector.” Castell, a professor of communications technology at the University of Southern California and author of 25 books, warned that most governments fail to leverage Internet capabilities. He noted that e-governance services across Europe remain aimed primarily at businesses, and that citizen-focused websites are still mainly static information banks.

Maros Sefcovic. EU VP for inter-institutional relations

“The Internet is about interactivity, not information retrieval. The Internet is not a billboard,” he said.

Castell agreed with President Zedillo that “we do have the technology to improve the wealth of nations,” but he warned the political world lacks “institutions adequate to guide the transformation.” He called for more “organizations open to innovation” as IT capabilities outstrip most public institutions’ ability to either keep pace or cede control.

We must “solve the contradiction between our fundamental capacity to innovate and our tendency to self-destruct,” Castell concluded. “Great changes come out of necessity.”

Sefcovic, the European Union vice president, sounded an optimistic note, suggesting government’s closer embrace of digital technology is inevitable. “We need to jump-start the economy, and the only obvious source is the digital world,” he said. “We are going to focus on removing as many barriers as possible from the European environment because it is a big source of future growth.

The larger the discussion, the bigger the participation, the more creative and better ideas we will have.”
As if to underscore Sefcovic, interested parties in 20 countries followed the PSS proceedings via live Internet video and Twitter.

This marks the tenth year Cisco systems has presented the Public Services Summit. The Summit continues Saturday with addresses from Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, key figure in this year’s Egyptian political developments and 2005 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and former Los Angeles police chief Bill Bratton.

You can watch the live streaming sessions here tomorrow: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/cisco-pss-2011 and follow the discussion on Twitter #CiscoPSS.  Dr. ElBaradei’s remarks on “Egypt’s March Towards democracy” runs from 14.45 -- 15.30 Central European Time (08.45 -- 9.30am EST).  He will take questions from the audience and via social media channels from the ustream feed.   Bill Bratton will open the session with a discussion entitled “Collaborate or Perish: A New Mindset for a Connected World” at 14.00 CET (08.00 EST).

The overall event agenda can be found here.   We look forward to your participation through all the channels highlighted above.

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