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Testing one, two, three

Malta has all the right elements to become a test-bed for technological innovation, says Ian Vella.

IT companies are increasingly looking for small communities, preferably slightly isolated but still technologically advanced and with a diverse population, to test their new technology and ensure that any research is conducted in a segregated area.

Malta ticks all the boxes and has all the credentials to become a test-bed for research and testing of new high-tech products: it has a diverse population, is active on social media, and our geographical position is within reach of major European and African markets.

However, we can only attract such foreign investment if Government is willing to continue investing in the infrastructure. Foreign companies look at our road networks, reliability of the electricity distribution and communications systems when evaluating whether to use Malta as a test-bed. Interested companies might be attracted to use already existing office space, such as Smart City in Kalkara or perhaps the more centrally located Life Sciences Park in San Gwann which is within walking distance from the University of Malta, making it ideal for any collaboration projects.

On the other hand, the private sector should gear up on networking with foreign firms who are, even right now, looking for strategic partnerships with small communities to test their technology. A collaborative effort should also be put forward to promote Malta for such projects.

The advantages of drawing such investments to Malta are various. The local workforce, mostly those trained in technology-related fields, will be able to find high paying jobs. Malta will also attract talent from other countries. Moreover, the economy will benefit while the general population will indirectly gain from the spillover effect.

According to Network Readiness, Malta ranked above average for high-tech related skills availability, affordability of property and office space, general infrastructure, and political goodwill towards businesses and investors

Malta can attract various industries. Carmakers, for instance, can use Malta to test electric or hybrid vehicles. Short distances, a good infrastructure and government incentives are the ingredients that make Malta ideal for testing the range and reliability of electric and hybrid cars.

This type of investment, if combined with support and research grants, will incentivise other high tech companies to set up base in Malta. It is a well-known fact that tech companies tend to cluster. This is what happened, for instance, in Silicon Valley and the reason is simple: networking conferences, events and the best talent can be found in the same area. If Government, in collaboration with private investors, invests in supporting the ICT sector, including start-ups, we will experience growth in this sector.

The World Economic Forum publishes an annual report entitled Network Readiness. The report ranks countries according to how attractive they are to investors. Criteria include contract enforcement, availability of venture capital, taxes, education, broadband communication, political and regulatory frameworks, and the availability of scientists. In the 2015 edition of the report, Malta ranked 29th out of 143 countries listed.

According to Network Readiness, Malta ranked above average for high-tech related skills availability, affordability of property and office space, general infrastructure, and political goodwill towards businesses and investors. Nevertheless we are still behind in patent legislation, intellectual property protection frameworks and business innovation.

The report further notes that while Government investment is important, this needs to be complemented by a trained and specialised workforce. Any country wanting to climb higher in this rank should keep investing in practical education that faithfully reflects the real business world.

In order to advance in the ranking Malta has to look at what other successful countries are doing. Singapore, which for the last five years has been ranked in the top position, is now aiming to become the world’s first smart nation with a series of pilot tests undertaken via various public-private collaboration projects in different areas.

Thanks to business friendly policies introduced and supported by the administration, Singapore is currently hosting a massive interconnected smart nation platform test. This entails a massive data collection exercise with points installed in every road, monitoring car traffic, accidents and even pedestrians. The system has become so intelligent that issues related to infrastructure are now being resolved even before the general public raises a complaint. The system is able to predict where the next telephone line fault will occur or where vehicle accident black spots are and the authorities can take preventative action. Such systems are being tested in partnerships set up between government and tech giants like Samsung, Sony and IBM.

Earlier this year Finland announced that it started testing a 5G network in the city of Oulu. It is the only place where 5G is being made available to customers under testing conditions. A few weeks ago Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei signed a memorandum of understanding with the Maltese Government to research and develop a 5G network to be tested in Malta. The plan includes the development of a nationwide fibre-to-home project and fibre connectivity to other countries. Huawei plans to partner with other telecommunications companies already operating in Malta.

5G is being closely associated with the internet of things, meaning that everyday devices will be able to communicate with one another and can be controlled via smart phones or computer devices connecting through the internet. Development of such smart devices is hugely dependant on 5G networks.

Currently 5G networks are not available commercially anywhere in the world and many companies testing smart devices are flocking to Finland. However if Huawei succeeds in implementing its plan, it will probably be a game changer for Malta and will attract massive investment from interested parties to test their smart devices on a 5G network.

Overall, Malta is on the right track to attract investment from high-tech companies to test their technology in our market. Nevertheless we have to aspire to become an economy where free trade and competition is encouraged while at the same time Government must aim to become more business-friendly and eliminate unnecessary red tape.

Ian Vella blogs at www.ianvella.com.

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