When I first landed in Paro six years ago, little did I know that 2008 would turn out to be an auspicious year that would be remembered in Bhutanese history as a year of tremendous events and tectonic changes: His Majesty, the 5th Druk Gyalpo, was crowned; the first ever elections for the national assembly took place; a democratically-elected government began ruling; and the constitution was enacted.
Significant technological changes engulfed the country as well: In 2008, both broadband and mobile internet services were introduced in Bhutan for the first time. These two technologies signalled the start of a new era in ICT. No longer did Bhutanese need to connect using ancient dial-up modems and wait long minutes (or even hours) to read email, surf the web, or download documents. During the same period, global technological innovations that changed the world took place. Twitter was launched in 2006. Facebook was opened to (almost) everyone a few months later. The first iPhone was introduced in 2007; the first Android-based phone saw light the following year. The combination of global and local developments - social media, smartphones, and faster and cheaper access - has had a rapid and profound effect on Bhutanese society.
It was thrilling to experience the incredible changes that took place over the last 6 years: examples include the international internet capacity increasing dramatically to 5 Gbps; more and more government services becoming available online; a very active blogging scene with writers, such as Passu, receiving more than 1000 page views a day and having a voice heard within and outside Bhutan; politicians and journalists skillfully using social media including a Prime Minister with more than 34,000 Facebook “Likes” and 8,000 Twitter followers; a small but promising start of local apps, for example, the beautiful Zakar app commissioned by the Dratshang Lhentshog; and the launch of iSchool, an initiative to tackle the shortage in teachers by using remote classroom technology.
Along with these wonderful developments, challenges abound. I list a few challenges that deserve careful attention going forward, if the goal is to embrace progress while actively supporting an adaptable, healthy and forward-looking society and culture.
The broadband divide: While urban dwellers are increasingly enjoying faster and cheaper internet connectivity, accessing the web in rural areas is often next to impossible. Mobile broadband technologies have the potential to significantly narrow the access gap between these two increasingly growing-apart segments of society. How? By skillful deployment of fast 3G in all gewogs, as well as guaranteeing that cheap devices are available to all. A recent unfortunate decision made by BICMA, the body in charge of regulating the telecom providers, has made cheaper Indian smartphones unusable for 3G in major Bhutan localities. This in effect helped widen the gap instead of narrowing it. In the future, important decisions affecting society and individuals must be carefully scrutinized.
Hi-tech industry: The launch of the much-awaited, World Bank-supported Thimphu TechPark, with its failure to jumpstart a hi-tech IT industry, was a stark reminder that “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t always work. While the lack of speedy and reliable internet connectivity certainly hasn’t helped, the main issue has been the lack of top-notch talent. A thriving IT industry requires the best and brightest to compete globally. Computer programming can be taught at primary school level, and high school toppers in science and math must be directed and encouraged to study computer science and computer engineering (but not “computer applications”) at top universities. A handful of successful IT startups can create employment opportunities even outside of ICT, in fields such as e-agriculture, media, music, health, travel, and education.
Effect on society: No one is certain how living in the “always-connected” age - the result of the addictive combination of mobile internet and smartphones - affects our psyche as individuals, as well as a society. This is research in progress, and we are the ultimate guinea pigs. But given the thoughtful and very careful emphasis that Bhutan places on the effects of development on its culture and well-being, this must be carefully considered. Bhutan cannot - and should not - avoid these developments, but leadership and citizens must be constantly mindful of how technology affects us. As the Buddha said, “Be devoted to heedfulness. Guard your mind.”
Boaz Shmueli was a faculty member and co-director of the Rigsum Research Lab at the Rigsum Institute of IT & Management, 2008-2014.