The key to the next economy

Everyday visionaries and information technologists will rebuild the collapsed economic house of cards

"The world has changed, and we must change with it."
-- Barack H. Obama, 44th president of the United States

During his inaugural address, President Obama voiced a commitment and spirit that made me cheer, thump on the table, and beam with pride. He had much to say about the economy, global politics, military heroism, and all of the essential touch points of someone elected to lead the most powerful nation in the world. Our president also offered words that should strike a chord with all of us who work in and with technology. He spoke of curiosity and creativity, productivity, and invention and ingenuity as emblematic of America and Americans.

Ours is a nation of thinkers and doers. The creative, whether they draw the blueprints or build from them, will lead this country along the road to new prosperity, but this time we will not take prosperity for granted. This time, those who make and think and create, those who build and experiment, who try and fail and try again, will be celebrated over boards of directors, shareholders, and CEOs.

Too many have forgotten that "ordinary" people still chart the future on whiteboards and in spiral notebooks. The country is full of five-figure wage earners who bring their work home with them, or work day jobs so that they can afford raw materials to sculpt, make music, build firefighting robots, or write priceless software that they make a gift to the world. These are some of the people who will start the building of an infrastructure of ideas that I believe will be the foundation for a sustainable economy.

Obama made a commitment to economic stimulus through investment in science, technology, and infrastructure. He couldn't have made it plainer to me that IT has a charge to execute and a flag to carry. IT enables and drives science, medicine, research, government, and the creation of good and services that can be profitably exported to places that now hold liens on America's future.

[ What should Obama's tech strategy be? InfoWorld's Galen Gruman proposes a national tech agenda. | Where could tech spending do the most good? Three experts share their ideas. ]

Obama made specific reference to telecommunications, and that's an area greatly in need of attention and intervention. Deregulation, and lack of enforcement of those regulations that have survived, allowed regional monopolies to join together to hold vast swaths of America hostage to high rates and limited access to vital connectivity.

Telecommunications carriers overbuild in places that are already equipped. Metro residential DSL customers get 10mbps service while outlying areas and city districts with less profitable demographics suffer from inadequate or no service because of persisting, unchallenged lies about distance from the telephone company's central office being the sole determinant of data service availability, price, and speed. Telcos somehow find a way to get high-speed DSL to dense and profitable suburbs well outside the claimed reach of central offices. I needn't tell you how costly connectivity is for businesses, and smaller businesses may be unable to reach a sufficient audience of broadband customers if tiered programs that give big businesses preferential access to bandwidth go into effect.

With city water and sewer should come city fiber to the curb, with money and jobs flowing back into the local economy. It was a mistake for municipalities to agree to grant monopolies to telcos and cable operators. Inadequate, overpriced, or absent connectivity in less profitable areas leaves schools and neighborhoods stranded. Municipal telecom infrastructure, funded with local taxes and contracted to local IT operators, strikes me as the only solution.

That notion is not without precedent. I heard a story on NPR about an experimental city-operated program in Berkeley, Calif., that absorbs the enormous up-front cost of installing solar panels on citizens' roofs in return for a surcharge on their property taxes roughly equal to the amount the homeowner saves on electricity. It was reported that the trial homes are saving 85 percent on their energy costs. Imagine 85 percent of your monthly electric bill being redirected to local infrastructure, education, and jobs. Alternative power of all varieties creates more energy than can be measured with a voltmeter.

This time around, if execution meets promise, economic stimulus won't take the form of checks to individuals not in need or bailouts of banks which then don't circulate the money. It will be invested in technology and science, but politics resists change and works slowly. It falls to those of us who make a living in and have a passion for technology to start building this infrastructure of ideas, to draw out the shy geniuses and take a fresh look at visions written off as impractical or unprofitable. The world really has changed. What was impractical or unprofitable just a year ago might hold the key to individual, departmental, corporate, municipal, regional, and nationwide prosperity.

Prime the pipeline by asking people what they do in their time off, what they're scribbling in their notebooks during their lunch breaks. What are they working on or playing with in that desktop they switch out whenever someone comes into their cubicle or office? What people do outside their job descriptions, no matter how far it apparently diverges from your primary line of business, could be worth more than what you pay them to do now. What a waste of opportunity it would be for you not to ask.

Don't wait until the seeds planted in Washington spread roots that reach you. Don't wait until the everyday visionaries among you grow frustrated, join together, and leave, or let your own bosses tell you to keep your crazy ideas to yourself. When our president proclaimed science and technology to be the foundation for America's next economy, I saw a vision of IT carrying that flag.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.