My name is Stephen Alexander and I first was seduced into the wonders of the digital world after seeing colour animation on an Amiga games console. I started by seeking funding to deliver real time advertising in supermarkets across the UK. That was my first mistake. The second was setting up UK’s first DOS based multimedia business, six months prior to the first 16 colour PC being actually made.
Nevertheless, we got going in August 1988 and undertook a wide range of ground-breaking projects and became the darling of the technology manufacturers and vendors who fed us well. By then I had become intrigued by the notion of joining up everything via a thing called the Internet and finally convinced my sceptical mate John May that the synergies between computer chips, satellites and fibre optics would change the world forever. After interviewing Al Gore, John finally got the national Telegraph to print a special 14 page supplement in Sept 1994 warning of the impending digital tsunami.
That found me sitting in front of Bill Gates, having been flown first class and in a helicopter to boot, listening to him explaining why his proposed global Internet would work along with what I suspected was to be his own global tax collection model for internet trade. (He knew how to corner a market.) A range of similar meetings and interviews with the good and the great of the day enabled me to start to grasp some of the dynamics of power that would at some point drive the new digital economies that would change our lives forever.
I also realised that whilst the industrial revolution gave us the haves and have nots, this digital revolution would impose the can and cannot’s, and as a consequence create a great deal of inequity. I managed to interview most of the technology offenders and interestingly no one would accept the social or economic implications upon people of their collective activities despite my attempts to corner them. Only Al Gore and rock star Peter Gabriel, who was funding internet servers for people in the Amazon, were up for this discussion which was going to air live on UK TV until the producer pulled the plug.
That was when I started to explore the notion of community, trust and relationships. In particular, the capacity to aggregate the collective social, economic and political power of communities that shared a common interest that they regarded as something almost sacred.
I started to grasp that if sufficient motivation existed in a given community (crowd) to empower or protect this sacred thing then they could aggregate their collective economic, social and even political power (demand), providing they could create the preconditions required to fully automate digital trading exchanges which first require trust followed by a governance structure that straddled the digital and real world.
Having been involved in the development of the first online financial transactions clearing services, where a mainstream Bank (Barclays) underwrote the risk of each transaction, I then got involved with AI expert, Marty Tenenbaum, who had started the collaboration group CommerceNet in Silicon Valley. They had partnered with the financial transaction consortia group comprising the major banks and US Government Treasury to develop an XML based electronic cheque. I ran a proof of concept in Australia to prove the cost benefit and the non-repudiation status of the model.
This put me on a very steep learning curve about what type of governance it really takes to create open environments where a state of non-repudiation exists. This legalist benchmark has always been used by the financial sector and trading exchanges for both physical and online transaction environments to manage risk. As we have seen today, without this risk mitigation tool the tendency is for technologists to aggregate the risk and liabilities along with the data to an unsuspecting owner/operator of any digital exchange or cloud environment.
My conclusion then, was that at some point in the future it would become possible to embed into internet protocols a range of common law legal instruments that would enable any person or group to transact with any other group in real time. This would, for the first time in human history, enable the demand for a service or product that had become commoditised to become aggregated.
Finally, some of the missing digital legalist instruments, like block chain, are now falling into place to enable smart contracts with embedded certificates of validation that do not have to rely upon a centralised system that can slow things up as I experienced with the e-check project.
Which brings me to my own experience and passion of using digital disruption in regional Australia to contribute towards regional ability to survive and even prosper in a global knowledge based economy. Back in 1996, Dean Brown, the then premier of SA enticed our family to move to Australia to help him realise his vision of making Adelaide a (smart) city of the future. The telcos and local government put paid to his plan to bring high speed internet and e-commerce to Adelaide but as his e-commerce advisor I fully embraced his vision and embarked on a most interesting journey.
The most interesting aspect of that work was developing the concept of a digital trading exchange that would have been hosted in Darwin where a free port tax exempt status had been established for a goods trading hub. This would have provided the opportunity for value adding digital services and attract logistics organisations to Darwin.
This experience demonstrated that even having a visionary leader, adoption could not be guaranteed and that a strong grassroots level of collaboration was required.
Through Dean, I encountered Rory McEwen, the then President of the Greater Green Triangle Regional Local Government Association spaning both sides of SA and Victorian border. He believed that these clusters would one day act like digital principalities with their own micro digital economies and even regional currencies or bartering chips. This is a link to an article I wrote on the observations.
The identified common principle was the need to trade with other regions around the world independent of national trading agreements whilst strengthening regional identity, culture and values. Some years later Senator Alston set up a programme that had me visit over 22 regional townships and remote communities across Australia with a small team of advisors to assist them to form plans and strategies for e-commerce to underpin local economies and build community capacity.
That's when I discovered that the outstanding common interest across regional Australia that could bring everyone together to tackle large initiatives was its paternalist attitude toward and caring of its youth. A most powerful culture of nurturing the capacity to survive in regional Australia and a passionate drive to “see them right” underscored every conversation and was the defining benchmark of outcome in almost every scenario we explored.
Interestingly, this included providing regional youth with the skills to adapt to the changing global trading conditions and tempering them with the tenacity to deal with the manmade and natural shocks that for regional and outback Australians is a way of life.
All this was later confirmed when one of the leading lights in the digital regional transformation arena in Queensland asked me to help him evolve the community broadband infrastructure to include financial transactions. We developed a model where the region could acquire "white branded" day to day banking services at a discounted wholesale price, sell them at a discounted price and give a generous percentage of each service, transaction or commission to a fund to develop the skills required for youth to stay (or come back) to the region.
The CEO of one of the big four banks was willing to cut a deal but wanted to cut the youth bit out and give that as a commission to freelance brokers. I am aware of a range of similar ideas being explored, now that the banks are exploring block-chain currencies and barter.
Then a remarkable man, Ian Fletcher, who ran the office for Premier Richard Court, invited me to run a four day workshop. This involved the head of the National Party at the time, the under treasurer and other leaders whose task it was to provide a 20 yr vision for WA having factored in all the mega trends, financial drivers and sentiment. Ian saved the day and a few people’s teeth as the debates hotted up and I provided a heady mix of digital megatrends, implications and some reasoning.
The predicted tipping point centred around the time when State Governments will run out of sufficient cash to service all expectations of utilities and public services. Interestingly we could see even back then that the digital meshes interconnecting and in many cases operating all the public and private sector activities for communities would re-shape our regional boundaries. Much to the surprise and displeasure of some parties (as you could imagine) the resulting prediction was very close to that of Rory from the Greater Green Triangle, in that funding and resources would have to be given to the regions in the hope that they could make them work.
This would result in State Government administrations retreating to a more streamlined supporting role. This concept was later discussed at length by the national chair of the local government authorities and the then deputy Prime Minister who was seeking substantial cash from the sale of Telstra to fund at least six regional government clusters.
The idea was to provide the sort of infrastructure now spoken about in Smart Cities and Regions and, more importantly, to develop the skill sets so that these clusters could shift into a role of driving innovation, skills and start-ups, and attract seed funding. This in turn, would enable Federal government to fund regional initiatives directly bypassing State Governments who have been known to require heavy administrative charges.
All this was perhaps a little bit before its time and some of the concern from Canberra was the issue of culture and skills within administration which would take some time to transform even after getting the resources.
Which brings me to my support for John and his unwavering effort and determination to provide Australian regions, industries and small business with the tools that can help them help themselves and get to where they need to be.
My speciality centres around designing the preconditions to create meaningful and measurable value that can be captured and applied to help fund and operate the infrastructure that regions need in order to realise their own aspirational journey.