Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Building walls and breaking down barriers

For a long time now technology has been playing catch up. With me.

Despite the pace of technological development, I've always wanted more from it. You'll be forgiven for doubting me when I remind you that the launch of the original iPhone happened in June 2007. Just nine years ago. Yet even in the face of the sometimes awe inspiring nature of some of the developments we've seen over the last nine years, I have always, in the back of my mind, thought, "wouldn't it be great if it could do this?", or when traveling, "I could really do with using a maps app now but I don't fancy remortgaging the house to pay for the bill when I get home!"

This morning though, when I noticed the latest update to the Google Maps app which, simply, allows you to download a 40MB packet of data to your phone which includes all the map information for your local area and which works, quickly and efficiently, without a data connection when you're out and about, I had an epiphany. I think technology might have sneaked up on me while I was sleeping... 
The way the smartphone has barged its way into every aspect of our daily lives has been so comprehensive that it's hard to fathom that it's only really been a relatively short period of time since the mere concept of a smartphone entered the collective consciousness. Stop to think about it though, and you'll probably be blown away by quite how much has happened.

From SMS to Whatsapp; from voice calls to data ones; from walking into the local branch of your bank to sending money around the world from your phone; and from a trusty London A-Z to Google Maps; fitness trackers, wireless scales that measure the level of CO2 in your bedroom, the 'internet of things' and fridges that will restock on milk, eggs and cheese on their own - these are all one-time technological luxuries which are shaping the way we will all do things tomorrow.

It's not just the devices, the operating systems and the mobile apps that have been coming along in leaps and bounds either. The telecommunications infrastructure too has enjoyed transformative change. From GSM to GPRS to 4G+ and soon to 5G, we take for granted how critical fast broadband is to the quality of the experience we have on our smartphones, but it has taken significant investment of time and money to get it to a point where we're not constantly complaining about how slow and expensive it all is.

Technology, infrastructure, and now regulation - they're all coming together to make the user experience match what must have been the vision all those years ago. Thanks to progress in EU regulation of the telecommunications industry, the average holiday experience is already far richer than it once was thanks to the availability of mobile broadband away from home at reasonable roaming prices. In fact, from 15 June 2017, all roaming charges will be abolished and you'll be able to communicate, navigate, discover and share from anywhere within the EU for the same rates as you would be charged if you were at home.

What's on my mind today though is the interplay between two distinct notions and the paradox they represent. On the one hand, technology is systematically breaking down virtual 'borders' and other barriers to business at a global level at a time when, on the other hand, the emergence of an increasingly nationalist/protectionist global political discourse (think Trump, Le Pen, Farage, Orbán) threatens to precipitate the reinstatement of physical frontiers and barriers to free movement which fuel a growing disconnect across territorial or 'real' borders.

As those borders become the focus of increasing national political interest in Europe and beyond and, here at home, we eventually find ourselves on the wrong side of the southernmost European fringe, it may well be technology, in the shape of, for example, development of fintech solutions, that may well be one of the keys to ensuring that Gibraltar can continue to reach, economically, far beyond its limited territorial scope. With the increasing use of robo-advice, as one example of the direction fintech is taking us, as well as the growing trend amongst executives of being mobile, free to be wherever they want to be, a focus on making Gibraltar a hotbed for financial technological development must surely be one of the ingredients of a plan to overcome, as we have always done, a new challenge not of our making.

A couple of weeks ago at the launch of the iPhone 7, Apple boasted about the new device having 'the most advanced computer chip on any mobile device,' no doubt capable of handling all the computing needs of the International Space Station. It seems a terrible waste that a lot of the time that same chip will be powering those emoticons of laughing dogs and lots of thumbs up! I am encouraged, however, that all that technological firepower, the solutions that stem from it and a good helping of local ingenuity on the financial services front will, I'm sure, stand us in good stead as we stare down the Brexit giant.