Friday, August 7, 2015

Is Malta on the road to become a testbed for technological innovation?

IT companies are increasingly looking for small communities, preferably slightly isolated but still technologically advanced and with a diverse population, to test their new technology and ensure that any research is conducted in a segregated area. Malta has a diverse population, actively social online and our geographical position is ideal for us to become a test-bed for research and testing of new high-tech products.

 We can attract such foreign investment if the Maltese Government is willing to continue investing in infrastructure. Foreign companies look at our road networks, reliability of the electricity distribution and communications systems when evaluating whether to use Malta as a testbed. Interested companies might be attracted to utilize already existing office space, such as Smart City in Kalkara or perhaps the more centrally located Life Sciences Park in San Gwann which is within walking distance from the University of Malta, making it ideal for any collaboration projects.

The private sector on the other hand should gear up on networking with foreign firms who are, even right now, looking for strategic partnerships with small communities to test their technology. A collaborative effort should also be put forward to promote our islands for such projects. The advantages of drawing such investments to our country are obvious, it will not only mean that our youths, mostly trained in technology related fields will be able to find high paying jobs, but also our country will attract the best minds in the world, the economy will certainly benefit and the general population will indirectly gain from all this. At the moment some automakers are using Malta to test electric vehicles.

The Government is helping out by incentivizing the general population to purchase electric vehicles by awarding monetary grants when purchasing such a vehicle. The Government is also facilitating such research by installing infrastructure complementary to the use of electric vehicles such as charging bays around the islands and committing to further development.

 This type of investment if combined with support and research grants will incentivize other high tech companies to join in and set up a base in Malta. It is a well known fact that tech companies tend to cluster and follow each other, this happened in Silicon Valley and the reason is simple, since networking conferences, events and the best talent could be found in the same area. If the Maltese Government, in collaboration with local private investors play their cards right in a few years we might experience growth in this high-tech testing sector.

 The World Economic Forum publishes a yearly report, entitled “Network Readiness”, ranking tech-friendly countries measuring how companies are likely to invest in a particular country based on factors such as contract enforcement, availability of venture capital, taxes, education, broadband communication, political and regulatory frameworks and availability of scientists and education. In the recently released report for 2015 Malta ranked 29th out of 143 countries listed. According to this report Malta ranked above average for high-tech related skills availability, affordability both in property and office prices, general infrastructure, political goodwill towards businesses and investors. Nevertheless we are still lacking behind in patent legislation, intellectual property protection frameworks and business innovation.

 One of the report’s authors, says that investment by governments is important however it would mean nothing if the country does not have a trained and specialized workforce. Any country wanting to climb higher in this rank should keep investing in practical education and avoid theoretical or outdated subjects which will not help the student leap successfully in the real business world. In order to advance in the ranking Malta has to look at what other successful countries are doing and planning. Singapore which for the last 5 years has been ranking in the top position is now aiming to become the world’s first Smart Nation with a series of pilot tests undertaken via various public-private collaboration projects in different areas. It is interesting to note that just like Malta, Singapore started testing Electric Vehicles around 7 years ago, today thanks to business friendly policies set up by the Singaporean government the country is hosting a massive interconnected Smart Nation Platform test. This entails a massive data collection exercise with points installed in every road, monitoring car traffic, accidents and even pedestrians.

The system has become so ‘intelligent’ that it now issues related to infrastructure are being resolved even before the general public raises a complaint. The system is able to predict where the next telephone line fault will occur or where vehicle accident blackspots are and the authorities can take preventative action. Such systems are being tested in partnerships set up between the Government and tech-giants like Samsung, Sony and IBM drawing in massive investments. Singapore’s economy is thriving, since 2008 unemployment was always below 2% and economic growth rates average 4.8%. Earlier this year Finland announced that they started testing a 5G network in one city Oulu. It is the only place where 5G is being made available to customers under testing conditions.

A few weeks ago Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Maltese government to research and develop a 5G network to be tested in Malta. The plan includes development of a nationwide fibre-to-home project and fibre connectivity to other countries. Huawei are planning to partner with other telecommunications companies already operating in Malta. 5G is being closely associated with the ‘Internet of Things’, meaning that everyday devices will be able to communicate with one another and can be controlled by humans via smart phones or computer devices connecting through the internet.

Development of such smart devices is hugely dependant on 5G networks. Right now 5G networks are not available commercially anywhere in the world and many companies testing smart devices are flocking en masse to Finland, however if Huawei succeeds in implementing their plan it will probably be a game changer for Malta and will attract massive investment from interested parties to test their smart-devices and see how they interact with a 5G network.

 Overall, Malta is on the right track to attract investment from high-tech companies to test their technology in our market. Nevertheless we have to aspire to become an economy where free trade and competition is encouraged whilst at the same time the Government must aim to become more business-friendly and eliminate unnecessary red-tape.

 Article originally published:
The Times of Malta, dated 7th August 2015, (Doing Business in Malta supplement)

 original article:

Copyright notice : This article was written by Ian Vella and published on the Times of Malta. (7th August 2015)  Copyright may be shared between the mentioned author and entities.  Please do not republish without permission 

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