Where should Obama spend his tech stimulus?

Three thought leaders suggest where the money would do the most good

Now that the excitement of the inauguration of a new president is over, the anticipation begins, especially in the high-tech community. Why? Because the new administration has promised to stimulate the U.S. economy by spending billions of dollars on high tech.

The question is what kind of projects should money allocated to high tech go to? How is it best spent? For some, such an investment holds great promise. "If we pull this off right, we will build an infrastructure that will make us the world's leader in the 21st century," says John Seely Brown, co-chairman of Deloitte's Center for Edge Innovation and formerly chief scientist at the famed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Others are pessimistic that the stimulus money will really make its way into high-tech investments: "It's more apparent how the cement industry will benefit rather than IT," says Ken McGee, a Gartner vice president.

[ What should Obama's tech strategy be? InfoWorld's Galen Gruman proposes a national tech agenda. | Inspired by Obama's inaugural address InfoWorld's Tom Yager urges IT to take the lead in the recovery. ]

InfoWorld asked several thought leaders for their advice to President Obama.

John Seely Brown: Build a collaborative, smart fabric

Brown says the U.S. should not be looking at technologies per se but systems. Any stimulus plan should be about building a smart infrastructure, what he calls a "collaborative fabric" where objects talk to objects, people to people, and yes, even objects to people and vice versa. "My lightbulb should have a conversation with me," he says, so the lights come on when you walk into the room or the lights dim and the blinds open when the sun comes streaming into a room.

To do those kinds of things, says Brown, we must refurbish our 20th century infrastructure so that instead of a bridge collapsing when a key piece breaks, the bridge talks to us and tells us what is worn. Another variation: "Why aren't cars conversing with cars?" Brown asks, so that we don't waste an incredible amount of time sitting stuck in traffic jams.

Essentially, what are now passive objects are remade into smart objects; doing so would require a redesign and a retrofitting of the infrastructure as well. In Brown's view, high tech becomes the tool to fix traditional infrastructure, and as we retool America we reinvest in new industries and new jobs. To make this vision a reality, Brown says someone in the Obama administration -- perhaps the new CTO position as yet to be filled to assemble a unified theory and vision about how the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

In the longer term, Brown says the U.S. needs to create a  "culture of learning." In such a climate, we won't have to go back to college to learn new skills. Instead we will always be learning from each other -- peer-based learning, in other words. The concept of peer-based learning goes beyond mutual education. Brown says: Thanks to collaboration and cloud computing technologies, a $3 million electron microscope can be shared across the Internet.

Ken McGee: Support our services-based economy

Gartner's McGee is skeptical in what he's seen in the stimulus package proposed thus far. For example, in the current stimulus package, $79 billion is allocated for schools, "but that doesn't appear to include an infrastructure of technology," he says. Instead, the money is allocated to only brick-and-mortar improvements.

McGee adds that spending on mass transit improvements and renewable energy -- two other proposed focus areas for the stimulus package -- can't really succeed without the infusion of high technology.

McGee says it doesn't make that much sense to focus stimulus dollars on brick-and-mortar projects. In a services-based economy like ours, tax abatements and tax strategies will have a greater impact on high tech and the economy, he argues, because these strategies can induce people to invest. In the modern world, information -- not roads or buildings -- is the real infrastructure and thus increasing demand for information services is what should be encouraged, he says.

David McQueeney: Focus on broad-use information infrastructure

David McQueeney, IBM Software's CTO for the U.S. government sector and former head of the IBM Research lab in Zurich, recommends that the stimulus plan focus on technologies that touch as many other things as possible, for maximum effect.

He lists the power distribution grid, high-speed networking[es1] infrastructure, and electronic medical records as the modern era's equivalent of the interstate highway system that was created under the Eisenhower administration. That bold move led to the blossoming of manufacturing and jobs over 50 years ago. McQueeney believes a similar approach to information infrastructure projects will have similar broad benefits.

Of course, for the stimulus dollars to really have an impact, they have to be well spent. Thus, the stimulus plan's spending and results must be held as accountable as any IT department's work would be in private industry, says McQueeney. "We need to be able to say the money went in here, it was used for this and got that result." He notes there are plenty of performance measurement systems in private industry that could be used for monitoring the tech stimulus efforts.

McQueeney says that everyone needs to keep in mind what Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, recently said: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

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