I still remember people’s faces when I mentioned I was going to Alaska in March, where snow and cold reigns during most of the winter season. I was not ready for Alaska…literally. I landed in my fancy dress and heels as it just did not occur to me that many inches of snow was to be expected during the timeframe we visited. Luckily I found some great Alaskan boots, which became my friends for the next days. It was an amazing place, a dream come true and a once in a life time opportunity as I would never have gone to Alaska otherwise. I know I wrote in my last post that Baltimore had the best city coordinators and fellows, but Alaska was definitely in the same category. The city coordinators Sarah, Shauna and Mara were just wonderful. They put their life on hold to give us an unforgettable experience. I really enjoyed spending time with brilliant and accomplished, yet humble individuals.
Our trip had many highlights such as fascinating introductions to rural Alaska, its population and how its remote geographical location is driving innovation; learning about Alaska’s climate change challenges and how these fast paced changes are impacting economic development both domestically and abroad; presentation given by Alaskan Gas-line Development Corp President Keith Meyer on the critical role Alaska plays in strategic relations between USA and Asia in developing the gas pipeline project; visiting Alaska’s Native Heritage Center and getting a tour by a native elder on history and its fascinating cultural development; Anchorage has the top 4 diverse ethnic of high schools in the country where they teach over 100 languages; getting stuck in the snow only to be saved by Ben the park ranger; challenges Alaska faces with immigration, domestic violence and several other important issues as well how the private sector is providing tele-communications where coverage is most probably the major concern the state has seen its geographical location and the much needed technological advances (not to mention the security concerns related to infrastructure resilience). Finally, visiting Kodiak was the jewel in the crown. The sun comes out only twice a year and it came out just for #GMFMMF when we were there.
Introduction to no man’s land
The heading is deceiving of course, as parts of Alaska I visited where far from deserted. Alaska is America’s arctic, a member of the Arctic Council and home to many natural resources. It has about 30% of oil and natural gas in the ocean and has more coast line than any other state in the United States. We learned about the struggles Alaska faces with its declining economy. We learned about the Alaskan Native Claim Settlement Act (ANCSA) and cooperative agreements between Alaska Native Tribes and federal government. Cooperation that serve as a basis for building partnership across the transatlantic sphere as an acknowledgement to their identity and values. We learned so much about American native culture as it was a common theme throughout our programme. What is also impressive is their continuous drive for creativity and innovation, as they are pretty remote from everything else and thus the need for self reliant and resilience of civil society is significant. Especially in an era where climate change is redefining the High North and transformation is happening at an unprecedented pace. Keeping up is challenging to say the least, which is why I was so excited to meet Brendan Babb and his team who are responsible for innovation at the Municipality of Anchorage.
From Bloomberg to Anchorage, disrupting government through innovation
Brendan and Patrick explained how the municipality established an innovation team that brings disruption to the way government, business and tech sector work together and drive innovation. “Rock more, talk less” in changing traditional ways of working to keep pace with challenges Alaska faces due to its geographical location. Their approach is marked through data centric and data design aimed at changing mindsets and fostering a culture of innovation. Having people that are able to translate what tech means for government and business is at the heart of human centric design. This also begged the question why understanding of IT in government is very narrow focused to include “cable guys”, whilst instead IT is at the core of digital transformation in the 21st Century and decades to come.
That said, it is important to remember that technology is not the solution to everything. They highlighted the importance in starting with the users in developing solutions. The importance of understanding the issues and their root cause and then assess whether technology solutions are fit is still underrated. Early user testing and feedback in a risk taking environment where failing fast and forward is promoted will be essential for success. Define the problem first then build the policy to facilitate the solutions. A final issue discussed is the challenges related to open data policy. Anchorage is in the early stages in becoming a data rich city, but the lack of transparent algorithms are not helping. Sharing methodology and the algorithms used as trust building has to evolve if open data is to become the norm. Maths was not my strongest asset let alone understanding algorithms. However I do see the point in increasing educational awareness campaigns in how data is used to enhance social constructs in this digital age. The recent Facebook scandal should not have been a surprise to us in my view, but people should be aware of both the consequences and construct of their online presence and activities. Another critical mindset change that needs to happen if open data is to advance.
Again this sense of community by people who invest more than their fair share to combat challenges of poverty, domestic violence and sex trafficking just to name few is admirable. Learning about their efforts fuelled my desire to learn more about social entrepreneurship and how we can learn from these shared value business models where profit and charity go hand in hand. Despite the cold, snow and car challenges this trip was a dream come true. It left me with a burning desire to come back during summer and visit the amazing people I have met as well as see the hidden diamond of nature under the snow. And obviously to see the bears that were hibernating!