The Ministry of Tomorrow

Above: Professor Ken Julien at a 2018 UTT event. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1256 for June 02, 2020

In this space, on various occasions, I’ve floated the idea that ICT needs a czar to drive implementation and strategic development in TT.

The benchmark for such thinking is the career of Professor Ken Julien, widely recognised as a leading champions for greater control of this country’s energy resources over the last five decades.

Such lionising tends to gloss over the fact that Julien was part of a determined pride of similar minds in the seventh decade of the 20th century who pressed forward with the lunatic notion that TT need not depend on first world nations and their well-equipped companies to manage and exploit its own energy resources effectively.

It was never possible to completely wean ourselves off a dependency on massive oil and gas companies and their equipment for a fulsome exploitation of our petroleum resources, but significant inroads were made in diversifying what was then the monolithic attention on oil.

The first step on that journey was almost unimaginable. The idea of taking natural gas, then being flared off as a waste byproduct of oil production, and building an industry out of it.

In 1975, the National Gas Company was created to make use of that resource. When this was being envisioned, there was a single 16 inch pipeline bringing natural gas from Penal to Port-of-Spain.

Natural gas was also used as fuel for stoves in the small villages and camps populated by workers in the oil sector in the deep south. Its utility was real, but scaling it into a natural resource required a vision that while obvious in retrospect, but was almost unbelievable at the time.

Caribbean Steel Mills Furnace, 1988.
Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Its home would be another space that was born out of another vision, the Point Lisas port, which was originally a response to the dredging of the Port-of-Spain harbour and consequent loss of trade to San Fernando’s port.

At Point Lisas, the marriage between the dominant business of southern Trinidad and a the need for a new industrial port was being consummated.

It’s instructive to note that the relationship between the private sector and government in the construction of what would become known as Plipdeco, was disturbingly familiar. Project after project for the nascent industrial estate ran aground on public sector bureaucracy.

Capitalisation was one issue. The South Chamber could not finance the considerable construction required. The government declined to invest public finances into a privately controlled company.

The deadlock was broken in 1976 when the government took effective control of Plipdeco through share acquisition.

Dr Eric Williams saw Plipdeco as a dramatic reversal of the colonial mandate for production.

He had written of that process, “…the colonies were to manufacture not a nail, not a horseshoe. They were to produce raw materials only, which were to be sent to England, to enable downstream manufacturing operations, to provide jobs, to expand.”

By appointing Julien to lead the Plipdeco project as chairman in 1976, along with his appointment to lead the NGC, he made him his good right hand in making a dream of local resource capitalisation a reality.

In his 2005 Eric Williams Memorial Lecture, Julien would recall the late Prime Minister’s mantra as, “Tie-up the petro-dollar in the productive sector; and invest in our youth.”

Today that productive sector has moved on, but the investment in our youth has not, nor has it evolved.

…the colonies were to manufacture not a nail, not a horseshoe. They were to produce raw materials only, which were to be sent to England, to enable downstream manufacturing operations, to provide jobs, to expand.”
– Dr Eric Williams

Education has, instead, cratered.

Learning is being migrated from process to experience, with source material pervasively available and lecturers adjusting to engage with students as coaches and guides through oceans of raw resources. Trinidad and Tobago continues to pursue rote, pedantic learning over creative engagement with a global supply of education material. Our best effort has been to throw hardware at the problem with no supporting training or strategy.

Without a guiding star for the ICT sector, projects like the the Technology Park at Wallerfield, the digital equivalent of Plipdeco, have all but collapsed.

Plans dating from the original 2003 Fast Forward project have been largely shelved; elements brought into action piecemeal by commercial interests when it suited their bottomline and governments when it offered good PR.

The Roadmap to Recovery committee needed to engage with ICT leadership after emerging from three months in which it was made dramatically clear that effective technology implementation was a critical lubricant for national development.

After having our faces collectively shoved into that cold reality, the committee was convened without a single authoritative and experienced representative from the ICT sector.

The results of their deliberations have proven that choice to have not only stupid, it is potentially economic suicide.

At Cabinet level, there is no single person or team charged with the responsibility for futuring the destiny of TT. 

What’s needed is a Ministry of Tomorrow, a multi-sectoral authority capable of not just mapping our technology-driven future, but also of making it happen through direct investment, both foreign and local, and effective private sector collaborations.

In this century, we needed ’bout ten Kens to replicate, in ICT, the impact that Julien had on the energy sector in the late 70’s and 80’s.

We haven’t even got even one.