Fu­ture proof­ing the Caribbean

Stabroek News Sunday - - LETTERS -

If like me, you lis­ten reg­u­larly to the BBC World Ser­vice, you may have heard a re­cent item about an ex­tra­or­di­nary leap for­ward in tech­nol­ogy, which, over time, could lead to clothes and even shoes be­ing pro­duced us­ing a do­mes­tic 3D prin­ter.

Al­though the idea is still at the level of ‘as­pi­ra­tional’, the tech­nol­ogy ex­ists. The con­cept and implications are ex­plained in an on­line TED talk given in 2015 by Danit Pe­leg, an Is­raeli de­signer who is al­ready pro­duc­ing gar­ments in this way. In it, she set out how soon it will be pos­si­ble for cre­ative tal­ent in re­mote lo­ca­tions to sell un­der li­cence their dig­i­tally con­verted cloth­ing de­signs to own­ers of 3D print­ers. The buyer would down­load the soft­ware, and print at home or else­where made-to-mea­sure ver­sions of de­signer clothes us­ing new bio-degrad­able ma­te­ri­als that will ul­ti­mately make clothes re­cy­clable

The con­cept has so far only been ap­plied to haute cou­ture by Ms Pe­leg and a small num­ber of other de­sign­ers. To be­come com­mon­place, it will re­quire a dra­matic re­duc­tion in the cost of 3D print­ing and some tech­ni­cal re­fine­ments. How­ever, it is an in­di­ca­tion of how new and lat­eral think­ing in re­la­tion to tech­nol­ogy will not just dis­rupt es­tab­lished in­dus­tries, but be­fore long of­fer small na­tions and cre­ative in­di­vid­u­als dis­tant from the world’s largest mar­kets the op­por­tu­nity to leap the com­mer­cial con­straints im­posed by their geo­graphic bound­aries.

It is an ex­am­ple of how dis­rup­tive new tech­nol­ogy is be­com­ing, and the need for small Caribbean na­tions that have barely caught up with the end of pref­er­ence to look much fur­ther over the hori­zon.

In re­cent weeks, this col­umn has sought to il­lus­trate the sig­nif­i­cance of the new long-term think­ing on tourism, which seeks to de­velop the sup­ply side of the in­dus­try in ways that cap­ture much greater value for the Caribbean econ­omy and those who work in the in­dus­try. It has also pre­vi­ously fo­cused on the im­por­tance of the re­gion be­com­ing a global lo­gis­tics hub and com­ing to recog­nise that a part of its fu­ture wealth lies in and be­neath its seas.

What, how­ever, is much less ap­par­ent is whether any thought is be­ing given to the ef­fect that a world mov­ing rapidly to­wards the use of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence in man­u­fac­tur­ing, fi­nan­cial ser­vices, and agri­cul­ture, or the ef­fect that in­ter­net en­abled re­motely de­liv­ered ser­vices will have on the re­gion’s ex­ist­ing in­dus­tries or fu­ture eco­nomic growth.

For ex­am­ple, what does the fu­ture hold for Caribbean agri­cul­ture if na­tions in South Amer­ica mech­a­nise to the ex­tent that crops pro­duced on large acreages are tended by ro­botic driver­less ma­chines, op­er­ated re­motely by a sin­gle farmer? Lis­ten to the farm­ing pro­grammes in Europe and North Amer­ica and it is im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent that within twenty years this will be com­mon­place, re­duc­ing labour re­quire­ments, the cost of pro­duc­tion and of many food­stuffs, af­fect­ing all crops, in­clud­ing those that are in­dus­tri­ally pro­cessed.

In the Caribbean, some cre­ative in­di­vid­u­als are find­ing tech-re­lated so­lu­tions to break down the dis­tance be­tween them and the con­sumer mar­kets they want to sell into.

The best ex­am­ple is, per­haps sur­pris­ingly, a pri­vate Cuban com­pany, Clan­des­tina, known glob­ally for its ‘Ac­tu­ally, I’m in Ha­vana’ t-shirts.

The cloth­ing la­bel has a flag­ship shop in Old Ha­vana, and a witty on­line pres­ence which fea­tures t-shirts which carry its de­sign­ers’ graphics. To avoid the com­pli­ca­tions of US leg­is­la­tion, tar­iffs and ship­ping, it of­fers its prod­uct on its web­site. It then makes the se­lected de­signs avail­able through a US man­u­fac­turer that up­loads them, prints, pro­duces, and ships the fin­ished gar­ment to cus­tomers around the world. What the com­pany has found is a way to de­liver its cre­ative con­tent com­mer­cially in the most com­plex of sit­u­a­tions.

In the An­glo­phone Caribbean, too, some so­cially-led com­pa­nies are developing al­ter­na­tive ideas and ways to sup­port their re­mote­ness, par­tic­u­larly to lever­age the grow­ing de­sire of millennials to own or ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing au­then­tic.

In Guyana, Wab­bani, an en­vi­ron­men­tally com­mit­ted com­pany, is mar­ket­ing on­line ar­ti­san prod­ucts which fit the ex­act spec­i­fi­ca­tions of cer­tain kitchen and fur­ni­ture prod­ucts made by IKEA, the global house­hold brand. Util­is­ing the skills of lo­cal ar­ti­sans around Yupukari in the Up­per Takutu-Up­per Esse­quibo, where Wab­bani and its as­so­ci­ated en­vi­ron­men­tal projects are lo­cated, it is sell­ing such hand­made, cul­tur­ally au­then­tic items through an e-com­merce plat­form that links ru­ral craft work­ers to mar­kets in the de­vel­oped world. It has in much the same way sought crowd­fund­ing glob­ally to fi­nance its project’s de­vel­op­ment.

A very dif­fer­ent ex­am­ple re­lates to Cuba’s rapidly grow­ing num­ber of highly-trained IT spe­cial­ists. In its nine years of its ex­is­tence, Cuba’s Univer­si­dad de Cien­cias In­for­máti­cas (UCI) has grad­u­ated thou­sands of com­puter sci­en­tists with many now estab­lish­ing in­de­pen­dent soft­ware de­sign and cod­ing ser­vices. These are de­liv­ered through self-em­ployed groups within Cuba of­fer­ing non-state out­sourc­ing fa­cil­i­ties to for­eign en­ter­prises.Such ex­am­ples are, how­ever, iso­lated, in­di­vid­u­ally-led and un­likely to bring huge eco­nomic gains. Al­though wel­come, they do not sug­gest a re­gion think­ing com­pre­hen­sively about where its pro­duc­tive sec­tor will be in an­other twen­ty­five years, or what the im­pact of the rapid changes tak­ing place in tech­nol­ogy will mean for education, or on a frag­mented re­gion with high labour costs and cli­matic vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.

Un­for­tu­nately, there is lit­tle space in the Caribbean for in­cu­bat­ing the new outof-the-box think­ing that ex­ists among many of many of the re­gion’s bright, cre­ative and in­creas­ingly tech-savvy ser­vices-ori­ented young peo­ple. While re­gional and na­tional ICT ini­tia­tives ex­ist, these are un­likely to en­cour­age in­spi­ra­tional think­ing about the fu­ture.

This sug­gests gov­ern­ments or the UWI ought to be invit­ing in­di­vid­u­als from lead­ing-edge Sil­i­con Val­ley type com­pa­nies to take seminars across the re­gion that con­sider how the ex­tra­or­di­nary tech­no­log­i­cal changes now tak­ing place glob­ally will im­pact the Caribbean. Such com­pa­nies have be­come deeply con­scious of their so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity and are look­ing for projects to en­gage with that demon­strate their de­vel­op­men­tal com­mit­ment.

There may also be value in CARICOM na­tions ex­plor­ing Cuba’s new em­pha­sis on rapidly digi­tis­ing al­most ev­ery as­pect of Cuban life, and whether it might con­sider at a re­gional level its IT grad­u­ates help­ing sup­port the trans­for­ma­tion of Caribbean in­for­mat­ics.

Much of the Caribbean en­tered the twen­ti­eth first cen­tury try­ing to catch up rather than look at what is hap­pen­ing glob­ally and new op­por­tu­nity. If his­tory is not to be re­peated, more thought needs to be given to fu­ture proof­ing the re­gion.

David Jes­sop is a con­sul­tant to the Caribbean Coun­cil and can be con­tacted at david.jes­sop@caribbean-coun­cil.org

Pre­vi­ous col­umns can be found at https://www.caribbean­coun­cil.org/re­search-anal­y­sis/

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