Online Druk Journal Conversation, Bhutan in the Age of Technology

 

The first-ever online Druk Journal Conversation was held on June 30 on the spring 2020 issue – Bhutan in the Age of Technology. There were more than 40 participants including students and faculty members of Gyalpoizhing College of Information and Technology (GCIT) and senior members of all political parties. More than 34 per cent of the participants were women, mostly college students.

Three speakers who contributed to the issue of The Druk Journal spoke on Bhutan’s national ICT policy, ICT education in tertiary institutions, and DHI’s initiatives to grow the national ICT  initiatives, looking at AI, Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data, and other global trends. The Druk Journal Editor, Dasho Kinley Dorji, moderated the conversation which was an open discussion that explored and questioned the government’s policy as well as its capability to implement them. 

The moderator began the conversation by explaining its objective to deepen the discourse around ideas introduced by the journal issue. He explained  that The Druk Journal is published biannually with each issue carrying a specific theme based on national priorities. 

Dasho Kinley Dorji said that technology is a national priority, even emphasised by His Majesty’s Royal addresses. Perhaps even more important, technology is moving ahead. The world is becoming so high-tech, people are even worried that technology is taking over humanity in terms of work and life ethics and values.

The moderator introduced members of the four political parties taking part in the Conversation: Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party – Karma Loday, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa – Member of Parliament Kinley Wangchuk, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa – Sangay Phurba and People’s Democratic Party – Sonam Jatso. 

The conversation began with Director of the Department of Information and Telecom, Jigme Tenzing talking about his article. Jigme Tenzing spoke on the  driver of the government’s flagship project, ‘Digital Drukyul’, presented the potential and implications of the focus on ICT. Along with the emphasis on ICT education at all levels, the government views that using technology and online services is an opportunity for government agencies to work collectively to provide needs-based rather than government-driven services. 

A large portion of the flagship programme focuses on taking connectivity to as many people as possible. The government is trying to connect schools with the Internet to enhance ICT-based learning. In a move to improve public service delivery, hospitals are connected to improve health care services in the country. Programmes are also being developed to build the capacity of the private sector and ICT professionals working there. 

Karma Loday from Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party asked what the government was doing to address the issue of cybersecurity and online safety. According to Jigme Tenzing,Cybersecurity remains a major concern for the Digital Drukyul initiative. One major programme of the initiative is to establish a digital identity based on a system adopted in the EU. “…Besides that, we are focusing on building cyber-security competency within the country itself,” he said. He cautioned that nothing is 100 percent secure but the government’s idea is to try to cover as many leaks as possible. He also said that not investing in digitalisation is not a choice given that the public is more digital savvy than the government. With more than 600,000 people using smartphones, the government increasingly feels the need to move quickly and adapt.

GCIT student Yoezer Choki asked how the government plans to provide network connectivity in  remote villages where connectivity remains an issue. Jigme Tenzing said that the government was taking stock of the problem and has allocated a large chunk of the fund to improve connectivity to the remoter parts of the country. The government has also planned on improving technology know-how especially for those who haven’t attended formal education. 

To reach this section, the government plans to use students to get their parents trained in the use of technology to ensure that everyone can leverage ICT. Plans are also being made to improve the affordability of the Internet by increasing the number of users and putting in place some regulatory measures. 

Ujjwal Deep Dahal, who heads the Department of Innovation and Technology with the Druk Holding Investments spoke on the importance of finding a Bhutanese pathway to technology. “It’s important that we have a strategic plan on how we move ahead in terms of how we strategise technology. How do we utilise the resources we have in the right way so that we at least have short, medium and long-term plans?” said Ujjwal Deep Dahal. 

He emphasised the need to learn from some countries like Estonia, Singapore, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea as a basis to see where these countries began and where they are now. As a first step towards its strategy, the DHI is mapping Bhutan’s ecosystem of technology to find out the gaps and to help prioritise the areas of importance. The DHI has also started a centre called the DRIVE Centre. Though the centre is still new, it is being looked up to as the research centre eventually. It’s open to collaboration at national and international levels to take technology at the centre and develop intellectual property. 

Kinley Rinchen from the Royal University of Bhutan (RUB) explained the initiatives and plans that the university has made to engage students in ICT through the introduction of new courses in different technical colleges. Kinley Rinchen said that technology is at the core of change. The RUB is cognizant of the changes around the world and in Bhutan. 

While new challenges will arise from these dramatic changes and evolution of technology, we’ve also seen that it offers greater opportunities, especially after the current pandemic. For instance, with the use of technology, the university was able to carry on academic sessions online during the pandemic. While the university and colleges are struggling to embrace virtual learning, it has also provided opportunities to learn, improve, and plan for the future. 

He said that technology is the trajectory of our economic roadmap and the RUB as the biggest university in the country like anywhere else in the world should strive to contribute to these national goals. “As a step towards this national goal, digitising schools is one of the flagship programmes to prepare children for the technology-driven era. As they progress to higher levels of education, the RUB should be prepared to advance their ICT knowledge and skills,” he said.

Accordingly, RUB is now introducing more and more courses related to technology. Currently, over 1,000 students are undergoing education in ICT-related courses across the country. New programmes such as cybersecurity at GCIT and Data Science programme are being introduced in Sherubtse College. And it is expected that the number of students undergoing ICT courses could increase by 2,000. “As the biggest university in the country, the RUB can contribute towards national development in two ways: first our faculty and students doing research and coming up with technology-related solutions; the other being grooming our students for the future human resource requirement of the country,” said Kinley Rinchen. 

Given the high unemployment rate among university graduates, RUB is leaning towards STEM where there are more opportunities. This is being planned, considering the need for ICT personnel and facilitating future generations to enter the global ICT market. The RUB is exploring how the university can get our future ICT graduates employed as freelancers in  global ICT firms, like in Bangladesh which employs over 600,000 of its population. 

Entrepreneurship has a huge scope in the digital economy. Therefore, a Fabrication Laboratory (Fablab) is being planned for each college to encourage entrepreneurship. Discussions are being held on having business incubation centres in these FABLABs to prepare our students as technopreneurs, not only to get employed but employ others, too. But students should learn to learn more than one set of skills. They should also learn to connect with various ICT sectors. 

Druk Phuensum Tshogpa Secretary-General Sangay Phurba suggested the introduction of digital identity where people could use their digital signature and identity online to sign documents. On Digital Drukyul, Sangay Phurba asked what are the priorities of Digital Drukyul. Responding to Sangay Phurba’s question, Jigme Tenzing said that the government’s priority is to improve connectivity in the service providers as well as the people. The government is planning to connect government offices, schools, and hospitals with optic fibre. 

He said that the plans to bring down the costs are also being studied to make the Internet affordable. But the Internet costs cannot be compared with big countries in the region like India and Bangladesh. The costs, however, should be down substantially enough to make the Internet affordable for all types of users. 

On the use of digital identity, like in opening bank accounts, Jigme Tenzing said that there are mindset issues. There are also legal ramifications of using digital identity to open bank accounts. One cannot open a bank account if one’s unable to legally represent oneself. “But one of the major components of the Digital Drukyul is also digital identity, which will enable people to remotely represent themselves with the same level of security and reliability as being physically present. Once we can make this digital identity available pervasively, we will be able to overcome this legal requirement…,” said Jigme Tenzing. 

Sonam Jatso, representing People’s Democratic Party, lauded the government’s efforts to embrace and move forward with technology. “For decades, we’ve always had good plans, I hope that we don’t fall short on implementation,” said Sonam Jatso. He also stressed the need to secure the 3rd Internet gateway for the country. 

Responding to questions from participants, Ujjwal Deep Dahal said that the DHI is doing mapping to understand the technology ecosystem. This mapping which is going to take two-three months would provide the country to see where it is now and where the country wants to head and even plan appropriate projects. 

Elaborating on Smart Cities, Ujjwal Deep Dahal said that it will be used as a testbed to test various new technologies whether it’s new communication technology…. “The Smart City looks at capturing data from sensors to … making sense of the data, which could be used for policy-making, for safer driving. So that’s the idea of the Smart city project,” he said. 

At the university level, Kinley Rinchen said that the FABLABs are being opened up in Colleges like College of Science and Technology to encourage entrepreneurship. FABLABs will also be open for the use of communities and school students to encourage learning. The university is also exploring options to open a Bio-FABLAB at the College of Natural Resources. 

Karma Loday told students not to forget our roots as Bhutanese and emphasised on cautionary. “…The only thing that is steady in Bhutan is its GNH values,” said Karma Loday, cautioning not to overlook the degradational impact ICT has on society. And repeatedly emphasised on aligning our ICT plans with our culture and values and where they fit.

He also cited social media and online games addiction among children as growing problems in society. “Children are experts on online football but can’t kick a football on the ground,” he said, adding it’s also equally important for the government to come up with contingency plans to employ its people when machines might be taking away the jobs in the future. 

DNT representative, Member of Parliament Kinley Wangchuk, also reiterated the need to begin digital education in schools. “It is important for agencies from the government as well as private firms to come together and create content that is Bhutanese and are in line with our culture and values,” said Kinley Wangchuk. 

Sonam Jatso also expressed concerns on the increasing number of people spending more and more time online and the dangers surrounding it. Therefore, he called for the government to come up with programmes to safeguard children who are spending and wasting a lot of their time online playing games.

Participants were encouraged to share any feedback online and to read the Journal.

Recommendations Summarised

  1. Given the poor connectivity in the other parts of the country, improve connectivity to the unreached places in the remote areas 
  2. Improve digital literacy
  3. One of the speakers suggested ICT students to read, Star of the Nation to learn more about technology
  4. In relation to the issue of employment of IT graduates, the Conversation generated several recommendations relevant for students and academic institutions:
    • It is essential for all to “learn to learn” — to stay relevant in the market; to connect one’s skill and knowledge set with fast changing requirements in the IT job market.  Students should learn more than one skill to be employable in the future.
    • ICT education should cascade down to lower grades or begin from lower classes
    • Students can also reach out to DHI to talk about its ICT plans to find the Bhutanese Pathway
    • Students and academic institutes could work closely with ThimphuTech Park, DHI and the government to learn about technology, future plans etc. so that learning can be made relevant to the needs of the market and government plans.
    • Learn to learn, meaning try to learn more than one set of skills to be employable
    • Enable and educate our children with skills employable abroad
    • Encourage youth in ICT related entrepreneurship
    • Digital education and learning should cascade to lower schools
    • Students should learn how to communicate with IoT ( Internet of Things) computing devices
    • There’s a strong need to improve networks especially to enable students to continue their studies online and be able to sit for their examinations not only during pandemics but even under normal circumstances
    • Students are encouraged to learn to be open-minded, focus on memory and knowledge learning 
    • Students should work closely with ThimphuTech Park, DHI and the government to learn about technology so that they prepare themselves accordingly.Reduce bureaucratic procedures and introduce digital identity where people could represent themselves digitally to sign papers/open bank accounts, etc..

5. Focus on implementation of the plans and programmes to maximise  achievements

6. Make the Internet affordable for users across the board since many from the lower income groups still cannot afford Internet at the existing rates

7. Cyclone Ampham disrupting our network was a stark reminder for Bhutan to secure the 3rd Internet Gateway through Eastern Bhutan

8. Don’t forget the Bhutanese identity in the age of IT. That we are driven by a GNH vision and what Bhutan  really stands for.

9. Have contingency plans for employment when machines might take over jobs since millions of jobs will be taken over by machines, etc..