U.N. summit to look at tech big-picture
By David Kirkpatrick
(FORTUNE.COM) -- The man who calls himself the United Nations' "wedding planner" is no lightweight. I met Monday with Nitin Desai, whose latest project is the World Summit on the Information Society, which takes place in Geneva December 10-12 and will be the first time the U.N. has attempted a big-picture look at the global importance of information technology.
Desai is Kofi Annan's special advisor for the Summit. He previously spearheaded the massive gathering on development in Johannesburg last year, and the Indian diplomat has been involved in planning many other world events over the years.
He is not the typical unimaginative government bureaucrat one might expect, but a genuine tech visionary who clearly brings passion to this unique event, which is being organized by the U.N. and its agency the International Telecommunication Union. (The Summit actually takes place in two phases -- a second meeting is planned for Tunis in November 2005.)
This is a big deal. Something like 60 heads of state are expected, along with CEOs like Jorma Ollila of Nokia and many others. It's an event every company in tech ought to be supporting -- and getting their executives to attend.
The idea for the summit started back in 1999 when, as Desai puts it, "everyone thought this [technology] was the magic wand that would solve all our problems." The aim then and now was to connect technologists and policymakers. Desai argues that from the standpoint of the companies the event is more timely now than ever, because demand for technology is less and less automatic.
"It's harder to get people to throw away their computer every year," he notes. "Now the opportunity is to get technology into geographies where it has not penetrated, and also to sell it into new areas of application." He's thinking specifically about new uses for tech in health, education, and government.
Sitting in front of some of the U.N.'s own decrepit technology -- a monitor from long-defunct AST Computer -- Desai says the Summit aims to achieve two fundamental things. First, the U.N. wants to formulate a set of policy goals for technology that the world's countries will agree upon.
Just as one example, Desai suggests we might agree to connect all the world's schools to the Internet by some specific date. Companies, governments (both donors and recipients), and NGOs would then begin working together toward this goal. Other goals might include timetables for getting citizens access to government information, or goals for e-health programs in developing countries.
Another big part of this event will be what he calls a "policy trade show," which highlights successful applications and systems that can aid development. Here are two examples of the kinds of initiatives Desai hopes to highlight:
• In India peasants in several states can now access land records online. While farmers usually have to take a lengthy, often multi-day trip to a local government center, now local entrepreneurs oversee kiosks where the farmers can look up the information they need to make a transaction or research a deed.
• The mayor of Seoul, South Korea has put municipal contracts online for all to see. Now if you have a beef about a local road project that's disrupting your neighborhood you can learn not only the name of the contractor, but who in government approved the deal.
I pushed Desai to answer the question any skeptical American is likely to have: How can we expect this to be anything but window dressing when so many of the U.N.'s member nations have absolutely no interest in seeing their citizens take full advantage of technology and the Internet? Unflustered, he suggested: "Down the line this is a set of technologies which will be hugely democratic."
"The Internet is a basis for citizen to citizen connections," he went on. "A good example is the land mines treaty, which essentially happened because citizens around the world connected via the Internet and pressured governments to create a ban."
But what about countries like Burma, Cuba, Zimbabwe, or even China, I ask, whose governments simply won't endorse significant information empowerment of their citizens?
"By setting markers on what is considered good policy, this sort of conference shifts the weight of opinion worldwide," he says, "and that's what counts. You can't make this a piece-meal thing and just take the bits that aren't about access to information. What's important is that we are not ducking the issue. We will at the end come up with language about access to information which will be very important. And in some countries later some group will say, 'Hey, you agreed to do this -- why haven't you?'"
Desai must know he's walking a tightrope, because many countries are undoubtedly working hard to subvert this summit. But he also knows that there is no alternative but to forge onward. These issues will eventually confront all governments whether they like it or not.
Desai worries that business hasn't sufficiently engaged with the Summit process. He admits that the U.N. has not sufficiently gotten out the message that this isn't just a telecom event, as many companies seem to think. But he also sees a deeper underlying reason for the ambivalence of many in the tech business, especially in the United States.
"This is an industry which has always been deeply skeptical about the benefits of public intervention," he explained. "I understand the industry's skepticism, but your growth as an industry going forward is going to come more and more from an intersection with public policy."
Desai has a better long-term vision about where tech is going than many industry CEOs. Executives would learn something by engaging their companies with the Summit. That's a wedding that Desai will be proud to have planned.
David Kirkpatrick is senior editor for Internet and technology for Fortune.com.