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The Digitization Of Taiwan

December 19, 2017  

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By Paul Barker

Taiwan, a nation whose total land mass is just slightly larger than Vancouver Island, has, despite that major geographic size difference, some distinct similarities to Canada. Key among is that each of their closest neighbors — the United States and People’s Republic of China — both happen to be  the most powerful countries in the world.

But unlike Canada, which enjoys full diplomatic status throughout the world, Taiwan, otherwise known as the Republic of China or ROC has for the most part, been forced to go it alone since 1971 when it was banished from the United Nations as a result of huge political pressure from Beijing. Today, the country with a population of 23.5 million is in a new phase of economic activity, one that clearly revolves around the digital revolution.

David Sutton, a research analyst at the NATO Association of Canada, is impressed with the efforts. In a recent article that appears on the association’s Web site, he wrote that Blackberry has become “a living specter of the Canadian tech industry, an inspiring story of achievement that fell short of enduring success. Given the successes in smaller nations like Taiwan, Israel and Finland, why is Canada, as Dan Breznitz, professor and Munk chair of innovation studies, put it, the ‘place with the most unfulfilled proven potential.

“Taiwan has churned out a multitude of global tech companies, including Foxconn, the chief manufacturer of iPhones, computer manufacturers Asus and Acer, and TSMC, which holds more than 50% of the global market share of the semiconductor industry. Taiwan is a high-tech manufacturing hub integrated into the global supply chain that has become invaluable to global firms.

“So how is it that a small island that was mostly focused on the agricultural industry up until the 1970s has upstaged Canada – a country in no short of supply of talent or resources? According to Professor Breznitz, there are several reasons: a lack of stamina in seeking long-term successful companies instead of short-term financial gains, a lack of expertise in turning great innovation and commercializing it; in addition to a mess of government regulation that is supposed to support the sector, but instead is unconstructive at best and obstructive at worst.”

Sutton defines Canada’s technology culture as one of  “thinking big and selling short,” where Taiwan has a culture of building businesses: By contrast, (it) has been largely managed by one non-profit research organization in particular, the Industrial Technology Research Institute or ITRI, which has an exemplary track record. ITRI has been a keen agent for the country by developing and commercializing patents, forming over 240 companies, all of which have received numerous awards and international praise.”

In September, Taiwan had an opportunity to display its prowess when it hosted the 2017 World Congress on IT (WCIT), which took place here in the capital city. First held in 1978, the annual event brings industry and political leaders of the host nation together to discuss topics ranging from emerging markets and technologies to new business opportunities and developing political and economic trends.

For the host nation, it is a chance to show off their ICT arsenal and new R&D efforts to upwards of 3,000 delegates from 80 nations. This year’s theme was Living The Digital Dream and according to a number of studies that have been conducted that is more than a dream in Taiwan, it is reality on many different fronts.

The country ranks number one in several areas including mobile phone network coverage, the number of Wi-Fi connections per capita and something called the Global Open Data Index, which measures and benchmarks the openness of government data.

The brainchild of a group called the Open Knowledge Foundation, the index, it says, “tracks whether this data is actually released in a way that is accessible to citizens, media and civil society.

“An increasing number of governments have made commitments to open up their data, but it’s not clear that these commitments are actually being fulfilled. We want to know how much data is being released? What kind of data is it and what format is it published? Which countries, regions and cities are the most advanced and which countries are lagging behind in terms of open data publication?”

During an opening keynote ceremony of the WCIT, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-Wen said that the country has “successfully transformed itself from an OEM centric economy to an IT application super power.

“There is also a special budget planned for industrial advancement and balancing urban and rural development. Taiwan can thus be rid of the industrial age and play a significant role in the digital economy.”

When it comes to the digital economy, the Tsai administration has also embarked on an industrial initiative called 5+2, which revolves around the financial commitment and full government support of the following five sectors: Internet of Things, Biomedical, Green Energy, Smart Machinery and Defense, along with New Agriculture and the Circular Economy, the latter being a topic that was discussed at length at the WCIT.

According to an article that appeared in Taiwan Business TOPICs, a monthly magazine published by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, the policy is “backed by the government’s US$3.billion Industrial Innovation and Transformation Fund to be used for investment in new technologies.

“With budgets in the tens of billions of NT (New Taiwan) dollars and grand plans for support in terms of infrastructure build-up and regulatory and legal reform, the cross-ministry initiative promises to link Taiwan local industries to global markets and corporations – and, through its emphasis on innovation, to future technological and market developments. The 5+2 plan also holds the promise of reducing Taiwan’s dependence

Another key strategic move made by the government was the appointment of Audrey Tang, a transgendered software engineer and entrepreneur who up until last year worked in Silicon Valley and has a reported IQ of 180, to the position of Taiwan’s first digital minister.

Tang, who was placed in “charge of helping government agencies communicate policy goals and managing information published by the government, both via digital means,” spoke to a group of visiting journalists about her personal views on digitization and the workings of an office she has been in since October 2016.

“As the digital minister, I mostly help all the different ministries. I don’t have a dedicated digital ministry, because all the ministries are supposed to be digitally transformed,” said Tang, who has been described as one of the 10 greats of Taiwanese computing. “We formed what we call a participation officer network, in which there are maybe one to three people from each ministry.

“They network together and build a virtual task force with shared chat rooms, shared comment boards, shared tasks and we meet monthly, weekly, and quarterly. What we do is try to work with the career public servants, not politically appointed ones, and lower their fear, uncertainty, and doubt toward digital transformation. That’s my role.

“As part of digital transformation, people’s voices and the way that we network together, through self-communication, through social media and whatever, bring people to a sense of being closer to each other and feeling both empowered, in the sense that people can very easily find people with similar ideas, and also disempowered because this very infrequently lead to social change, too.”

Tang added that Taiwan can also learn a lot from countries such as India, which is also embarking on a massive digital transformation program.

“In my previous life, I was a software engineer and designer. I worked with Apple for six years before joining the Cabinet. As you can well imagine, in Silicon Valley, there’s a lot of bi-directional communication with India, both in the sense of the movement of talents and the movement of capital, and collaboration on the software chain.  I think Taiwan can learn a lot from India in how we should collaborate internationally, both in the easier movement of talents, both to and from. and also about how we redefine ourselves as a design-first or a software-first place.

“Taiwan, as many of you well know, was known for semiconductors, peripherals and all kind of hardware manufacturing. But we are now also changing our own value chain, driven by technologies such as AI on the edge and IoT, which all require us to move closer to the user and closer to design and to user needs.”

Tang also shared a poem during the press briefing that she wrote two days before becoming digital minister.

When we see Internet of Things,
let’s make it an Internet of Beings
When we see virtual reality,
let’s make it a shared reality
When we see machine learning,
let’s make it collaborative learning
When we see user experience,
let’s make it about human experience, and
When we hear the “Singularity is near,”
let us remember: the Plurality is here.

“The whole idea is not one single singularity-like technology that transforms the society,” she said. “It’s the other way around. It’s the plurality. The society with sufficient data literacy, computational literacy, and critical thinking demands something of the technologists.” C+


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