Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Government's Role in ICT Development

Hello Readers! I just returned from a one week visit to the United States and am enjoying connecting to the internet at a reasonably fast speed. The motels in which we stayed for most of the past week offered wireless internet, but at speeds around 11 Mbps. That obviously placed some limits on my internet activity. Even checking e-mail was a painfully show process.
One of the first things I found upon my return was an excellent short article by Dr. Lim Young Mo of the Samsung Research Institute entitled "Six Promising Technologies Awaiting Government-Led Development." The title of this article underscores a point that I will explore in some detail in this blog. South Korea's telecommunications revolution of the 1980s was built upon key technology-development projects such as the TDX electronic switching system and the 4 Mb DRAM semiconductor. These projects, while involving the private sector, were government led, as were the decisions to initiate color television broadcasting and to privatize telecommunications services. As show in the chart from his article, government R&D investment led the way in Korea until about the turn of the century. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Korea's lively ICT sector and information society today owes its very existence to government-led technology development. The opening paragraph of Dr. Lim's article states that "A nation’s wealth has largely depended on its ability to develop innovative technologies, rather than on capital and labor. Therefore, many governments around the world have spearheaded technological development. The trend will likely intensify rather than ease as the connection between the national wealth and its technological development ability becomes stronger into the future; while R&D may be more effective if the private sector takes the lead in areas in which it excels, the government will need to continue to play a major role." The article goes on to discuss the process of selecting promising technologies and nominates six for government support in Korea. They are: Intelligent Infrastructure, Biopharmacy, Clean Energy, Unmanned Military, Nanomaterial and Cognitive Science. While the role of the private sector and venture capital in R&D is clearly increasing, the United States serves as a shining example that deregulation and the private sector alone cannot build a comprehensive nationwide broadband infrastructure. I commend Dr. Lim's article, but I would carry it one step further and suggest that the revolution in information technology underlies all six of the technology fields he nominates for government support. In other words, it is a basic or fundamental source of innovation. One final thought: government-led development does not necessarily mean government-dictated development. The Korean model deserves more attention for the sort of government-industry-academia cooperation that underly its telecommunications revolution.

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