‘It’s time to give the country the skills and tools to be digital’

26 Aug 2010

To succeed in the 21st century Ireland must invest in skills and infrastructure, says Cisco’s Kim Majerus

There’s a mentality pervading in powerful circles that things like the Leaving Cert, the CAO points system and by-rote learning that were good enough 20 years ago will be good enough for the next two decades and don’t need updating.

But if any of these great and good souls asked people on the street – or better yet, people on the dole who are wondering what happened to their livelihoods – they would quickly realise there’s a massive social and economic shift under way.

The biggest shift has been economic – no doubt about it – but the biggest social and cultural shift has been technological. Thanks to technology – driven in part by innovations from companies like Cisco – the world is better informed.

In the UK this shift has been well understood, both by the previous Labour government that set in motion the Digital Britain strategy and today’s Conservative/Liberal Democrats government that sees the difference digital infrastructure can make socially and economically.

Take, for instance, the appointment of a digital champion like Martha Lane Fox who has written a manifesto aiming to get the 10 million Britons who have never used the internet to be online by 2015.

“The 10 million people in the UK who have never been online are already missing out on big consumer savings, access to information and education. They will be even more isolated and disadvantaged as government and industry expand ever faster into digital-only services. We must change the mindset from the one that shields people from using the internet to one that helps empower them to get online and enjoy all the benefits.”

I raise this issue with Cisco Ireland’s managing director Kim Majerus who has been an ardent supporter of the President’s Your Country, Your Call campaign. Cisco is the company that has done the most to underwrite the basic plumbing of the internet and is symbolic of the entrepreneurial spirit the technology world can unleash.

“The great thing about Ireland is it has achieved broadband penetration that exceeds some of the other European countries but is it enough? So while penetration is important to ensure everyone has access, once you have the access are you enabling people? Do they have access to the best services? So whether it’s finding the cheapest rates for an airline flight, or car insurance or the best housing for your needs – it’s about taking that a step further,” explains Majerus.

“Before the internet it was pulling facts out the Encyclopedia Britannica, whereas on the internet it is information at your fingertips. I think about how I’d like to see my child grow up and it’s not good enough to say ‘well if it’s not in the book, it’s not in the book’. It’s all about what’s out there and how much information can they grab.

“I think it’s a great initiative that the UK is taking. If you look at what leadership is needed here in Ireland to embrace that and take that to the next level and say ‘okay I’ve done everything I can to give you the access, how much more can I give you to excel?’”

Majerus’, or rather Cisco’s views, on the matter are too important to ignore. The company employs 200 people here in Ireland, including an R&D division in Galway. Global revenues for the full year 2010 hit US$40bn out of which Cisco derived a US$7.8bn profit.

Analytical thinking

She readily believes Ireland needs to grasp the new wave of educational thinking that ‘by-rote’ learning is obsolete and feels it is important that Irish schoolchildren learn to think critically, to analyse, collaborate and compute.

“How we educated our students in the past is not how we’re going to educate our students in the future. Think about the jobs and the requirements – whether it’s technology, innovation – we have to give our kids and students today the ability to think and dream the biggest dreams available and the only way to do that is to enable them with information and a curriculum that stretches their imagination.

“It’s not just 1+1=2 and that’s the way it’s always going to be. It’s an evolution of the curriculum and we have to depend on our educators to do that.”

Earlier this year the Government took the wraps off the findings of the Innovation Taskforce and Majerus says that it’s critical the State benchmarks its recommendations.

“It’s important for us to hold people accountable for what was in that report. We all as citizens as well as technologists and industry leaders should be asking that Taskforce what are the key steps, what are the milestones and are we achieving them?”

Moving on to the thorny subject of broadband infrastructure, Majerus says it’s about time policy-makers attributed digital infrastructure the very same importance they attach to physical roads.

Video traffic is set to overtake peer-to-peer as the top internet traffic contributor by the end of this year and the total global online video community will exceed one billion users by 2014, according to a new forecast by Cisco.

The recent annual Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI) Forecast, 2009-2014, projects that global internet traffic will increase more than fourfold to 767 exabytes, or more than 3/4 of a zettabyte, by 2014.

This amount is 100 exabytes higher than the projected level in 2013, or an increase the equivalent of 10 times all the traffic traversing Internet Protocol networks in 2008.

Future of digital media

The main drivers will be video, 3D TV and HD TV. For the first time, consumer demand for bandwidth will actually exceed that of the business world.

Says Majerus: “The type of media that’s going to be consumed is video, whether it’s to share a moment with family across the world or to dial into a remote video of a professor in a school that has known experience in a particular field. Or even, from a healthcare perspective, giving people and doctors the ability to take a look at X-rays online.

“All of that requires infrastructure and if we have to provide it via a digital format that is the best quality. The last thing you want is to have a doctor read you an X-ray digitally and the quality is not there. What is it the country needs – commitment from the service providers and commitment that the Government is going to push and help drive that agenda.”

The very notion that this country could fork out millions on taxi fares to ferry X-rays from one city to another is lamentable in the digital age. “Northern Ireland is looking into the opportunity to provide burns patients with additional assistance online and consult with doctors not just in their region but also globally, that’s an amazing opportunity,” says Majerus.

“Think of taking the three-hour drive some people have to take in Ireland to see an orthopaedic surgeon and cancel that out with internet technology. That’s what’s available today,” she adds.

To see a video interview with Kim Majerus, go to Digital21.ie.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years