When it comes to being the world’s most digitally innovative nation, the U.S. now trails Romania, which has become the first nation to accept the “Every European Digital” challenge from the European Commission. For Romania, “Every Romanian Digital” is a bold experiment to use digital innovation as a lever to drive socio-economic change within every sector of society, across every demographic and every age group. It means turning legacy assets like libraries into Internet hubs and finding new ways to reach out to older or rural segments of society who may have never used the Internet. So why isn’t the U.S. taking similar steps to mobilize its digital potential on a national level?
In December 1997, back when the Internet was just getting started, WIRED magazine famously featured “The Digital Citizen” of tomorrow on its cover. But how far have we come in the past 15 years? Does the fact that nobody is talking about the “Digital Divide” anymore mean that the Divide no longer exists – or that it has simply fallen off our collective national radar? Despite national initiatives like Startup America – which has the support of the current Obama Administration – how many politicians have you heard talking about taking steps to address the digital future of America during the 2012 Presidential campaign?
The good news, though, is that some of America’s leading cities are taking the premise of The Digital Citizen seriously. Take New York City, for example, which unveiled The Road Map for the Digital City last year in a race to become the leading digital city in the nation. Not only is the city increasing the digital connectivity of its citizens through initiatives like free Wi-Fi in city parks, it is engaging its citizens in transforming government into a truly digital platform. And it’s not just New York – in a recent Citibank study, more than half of the world’s top 20 digital cities were in America.
The possible benefits of extending this vision for digital cities to the rest of the nation are endless. In a talk with the European Commission, Paul-Andre Baran, the “digital champion” of Every Romanian Digital, explained how a fully digital citizenry has the potential to boost economic growth, streamline government and lead to a vast new re-skilling of the population. Every Romanian Digital would also strengthen all the loose ties of society in ways that are more difficult to measure.
Of course, skeptics will point out that it’s a lot easier to transform a relatively compact nation of 20 million people into a digital powerhouse than a sprawling nation of 280 million. But that ignores an important fact – Romania has a dark authoritarian past, while America has one of vibrant democracy. In a recent debate about the future of the country, the Romanian Minister of Communications said that ½ of his country views the Internet as “a sort of UFO” – and yet the goal of The Digital Citizen is so alluring that it has become a national priority.
The important point is that the rest of the world is rapidly catching up with America in terms of digital innovation, especially in parts of the world – like Eastern Europe – that we used to dismiss lightly. Adopting the goal of Every American Digital will not be easy. It will require leadership at the grassroots level and it will require a strong voice at the national level. In today’s global economy, there is a direct link between how digital you are and how competitive you are on the world stage. Striving for a goal of Every American Digital will ensure that America remains the leading digital innovator in the world.
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