Accelerating Barbados’ Digital Transformation

The results at CivTech have been remarkable. Not only is it producing solutions to public sector problems that help efficiencies, reduce costs and make lives better, it’s also triggering new businesses, new jobs, and new revenues - and for the right products, new markets on a worldwide basis.

By Mark Elliott

March 23, 2020

USB Stick

Consider this. It’s an editorial from the 24th May 2022. Yes, you read that right …

Accolades flow as Barbados hailed a world leader

During the past week, accolades have flowed for Barbados as the United Nations and World Bank hail the tiny island nation as a global exemplar of digital transformation. This digital transformation was carefully designed and imaginatively implemented early in the administration of what was in 2018 a cash-strapped Barbados Government. In four short years, it has revitalised the country, triggering not just a renaissance of civic life and engagement, but significant benefits to the economy.

The World Bank now rates the delivery of public services and Barbados’ ease of doing business – both crucial to the economy – in the top quartile of 178 countries it assesses. Four years ago it was in the bottom quarter. Citizen satisfaction ratings for public services also have shot up, as has the economy. What had been a tech sector ravaged by years of government neglect, under-investment and a harsh regulatory and tax environment is now booming, with smart strategic alliances allowing both products and services, skills and knowhow to flow freely into and out of the country through significant export growth in key areas of niche specialisation.

There is an ease to doing business with government and the public sector that has never been experienced. People are able to do more with less effort and less time – leaving them more freedom to be productive and do what they want. Along with the increasingly buoyant economy, society is on a path to wellbeing. Health, education and social services are just some of the areas that are markedly improving. The country is demonstrably more equal, fairer, and more just…

Not a bad vision is it? And it’s most definitely one that can be achieved if digital transformation is successfully delivered in Barbados. But that requires it to be well thought-out, well planned, and backed up by determination, the right resources, and leadership. As of writing, some of the most important elements of this are either in place, or being put in place.

There’s no doubt about leadership – the Prime Minister of Barbados, the Hon. Mia Amor Mottley, Q.C., M.P., has made her ambitions in regard to digital transformation very clear. There’s more to put in place, of course – for example, the Prime Minister’s stated ambition needs to be taken up wholeheartedly at every level of government and the public sector – but there is clearly a will to see change throughout Barbados. And a public tech accelerator along the lines of Scotland’s CivTech could be one vital element.

CivTech is the world’s first successful public sector-focused accelerator system. It takes problems public sector organisations have and turns them into challenges, which are then put out so that anyone – any individual, team, start-up, established SME or big business – can offer up a solution. The proposals then go through an exhaustive selection process and the best one for the challenge goes through to the Accelerator.

In case you don’t know what an Accelerator is [and why should you?],

think of a super-intensive rollercoaster where you take your idea and turn it into a working product: 15 weeks of incredibly hard work, crammed full of workshops and coaching, so you build not just a product but a business capable of growing fast. Easy it ain’t – but at CivTech we’ve never had a single person who wouldn’t go through it again!

The results at CivTech have been remarkable. Not only is it producing solutions to public sector problems that help efficiencies, reduce costs and make lives better, it’s also triggering new businesses, new jobs, and new revenues – and for the right products, new markets on a worldwide basis.

There’s another element at play: investors worldwide tend to look for great, scalable products, driven by teams who are capable and knowledgeable, who already have revenue flow. And because their time is limited, they tend to look for places that have concentrations of these kinds of propositions. CivTech alumni tend to have these qualities – in Scotland, they tend to be seen as at least ‘pre- qualified’ for consideration for investment. This means a successful Barbados Tech Accelerator could easily become a focus of attention for those looking to invest in Barbados and the Caribbean.

Movement towards a Barbados Accelerator is already underway. There’s a commitment in the Throne Speech of 2018, and a mapping exercise has just been completed. It’s told us that there is indeed real potential to both drive digital transformation from within Barbados and establish a successful accelerator right here, triggering benefits across the board, and contributing to not just the digital transformation of the nation but also to its total renaissance. It’s a start, and the future editorial is clear as to where we need to go …

When asked to explain this unprecedented transformation, a government spokesperson said, “We planned well and got things right at the outset. We brought in talented people and the best tech to help us, but ensured when those people left, their skills were retained so we could grow the tech sector ourselves. We always looked for opportunities for Barbados itself. We put the citizen first in everything we did. We put aside political agendas for the common good.”

Others point to the wise decision to fully empower and properly resource a small agile supra-governmental unit to take the lead on this. “It brought buy-in on an unprecedented level from all sectors of society and brought investment to the island on unprecedented scales,” commented a private sector source. “It meant everything could move fast in four short years of the new Government coming into existence,” she continued.

Update on the Barbados Tech Accelerator Trial Run

Reports coming in from those who attended Smart Barbados Week 2019 (SBW 2019) indicate it was a resounding success. From October 1-4, 2019, speakers and participants from Europe, North America, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean met at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre for this first-of-its kind event designed to showcase the Smart Barbados of the future.

A highlight of the week was the participation of Mark Elliott and Rui Cardoso of CivTech Scotland, who jointly introduced the concept of a Barbados Tech Accelerator for the delivery of digital public services. In addition to a presentation during the main conference, Mark and Rui demoed the Civtech challenge methodology during two workshop sessions, winning kudos from those in attendance. The challenges identified by the enthusiastic participants and the innovative solutions they developed are being seen as an exciting new way to improve Government’s procurements processes, particularly as they relate to tech projects and digital solutions.

The excitement was echoed by Minister of Innovation, Science and Smart Technology, Senator the Hon. Kay McConney, who announced Government’s commitment to fully developing the tech accelerator in the weeks and months ahead.

SBW 2019 was jointly planned and hosted by the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Smart Technology (MIST), the Internet Society – Barbados Chapter, Barbados international Business Association (BIBA), Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI), and the Small Business Association (SBA).

Billed as 4 days / 4 events / 1 vision, SBW 2019 signalled the start of a national partnership that aims to:

  1. Define what it means for Barbados to be a smart nation;
  2. Explain how smart solutions can improve the lives of citizens and residents;
  3. Identify strategies for realising a shared vision for Smart Barbados (SB); and
  4. Build national consensus around actions required for smart transformation.

SBW 2019 attracted innovators, entrepreneurs, policymakers, academics, students, business support organisations, local and regional firms to a series of presentations and panel discussions on areas central to Barbados’ digital transformation. Other keynote speakers included Mr. Linnar Viik, co-founder of Estonia’s e-Governance Academy, and Mrs. Claudette McGowan, Chief Information Officer, Enterprise Technology Employee Experience, BMO Financial Group, Canada.

Mark Elliott