Digital Tunisia and Digital Migration

Sidestreet of Avenue du Paris in Central Tunis (photo by Iason Athanasiadis)

As it happens in Tunisia and elsewhere, digital is often reduced to what start-ups do, especially tech start-ups, but in reality, it is much more than that. Digitisation affects every level of our life: our work, our mobility, our education, and our relationship to state, society or our ‘tribe’. As founders we need to look through much wider digital lenses. As funders we need to think of digital transformation as much more than creating start-up companies. As policy makers in the Tunisian government or in International Development Organisations we need to adopt a much wider approach to digital transformation.

The Digital Arabia Network hosted a meeting dedicated to Digital Transformation in the MENA region. Ayad Al-Ani from the German Institute for Internet and Society predicted the following 3 scenarios for Tunisia:

1) Digital Integration: Arab Platforms and digital enterprises thrive. Public Administration is becoming a platform too and enable participation.

2) Selective Digitisation: Some segments become connected to digital centres of the global economy. Public structures and rural areas are left out. Traditional industries are becoming less and less competitive. High unemployment.

3) Failed Transformation: State structures reduced, migration waves into other regions continue. Global Platforms offer services. Population becomes dependent on aid and other transfers.

Tunisia has the chance to move towards digital integration. Majdi Hassen, Executive Counsellor at the Institut Arabe des Chefs d’Entreprise (IACE), estimates that Tunisia’s growth potential of digital transformation is 2.8% by 2021 equalling 20,4 billion Tunisian Dinar, that is if firms digitise. After the re-start of the Uprising in 2011 the Tunisian government would need to pass from the phase of re-launching to re-balancing. Three measures were key to that: establish an investment code, decree projects and develop industrial policies to accelerate digitisation. Those firms that were on the development track struggled from not finding enough technical competence (29,8%), lacking a global strategy (24,6%), or the comprehension from its management (24,6%).

Technology is the same all over the world, but the experiences of digital transformation are not the same everywhere. In a future where repetitive, rule based and predictable activities and so-called ‘Lights-Out Factories’ are managed by machine learning, Tunisia will be affected as low-wage workers through outsourcing will no longer be needed. What does this mean for the future of work? In Tunisia it could mean that if technology is open source in the ‘Big Wide Open Manufacturing’ with, for instance, Tesla sharing some of its car manufacturing blueprints, a Tunisian worker can be an architect and build cars.

The future of mobility would not be six car companies building fossil-fuelled cars (German model), but 1 or 2 platforms to help customers get from A to B with or without a car. If electric cars become the rule in Europe, Tunisia could benefit from a window of 10–20 years of taking over the market of building fossil-fuel cars for Africa, believes Al-Ani. But the country could also take a strategic decision, invest in innovation and owning the know-how and data. The real question for policy makers is: Do you want your organisation or your country to be the supplier or the owner?

If we trust scenario forecasting, machine learning will help us in conflict resolution and predicting the future of our political systems. Government and public administration then has to radically rethink its role and focus on what it can do best. We don’t know what the future state will look like, but we can imagine some of it when we look at the growing political polarisation and social fragmentation. The tribalisation of society questions our current nation state model. What we know is that 60% of all Tunisian documents requested by one government body are produced by another government body. To Majdi Hassen that could be a lot of time and money saved through digitisation of the Tunisian administration. GIZ, the German Development Agency, is funding the ‘guichet unique’ (one-stop-agency), which allows Tunisian citizen to go to only one government agency and track the progress of their files.

Parisian-style building, constructed by the French in the late 1800s (photo by Iason Athanasiadis)

Tunisia can shape its digital future by focusing on digital transformation in public administration and a transformation towards digital mind-sets as a way to address the brain drain of its digital talent. The public sector has been the change agent driving development until imported bureaucratic models showed its limits in transparency and accountability. If we understand that digital is more than IT (Information Technology hardware and software) and includes a way of thinking and a way of working, digitization can be the promise for citizens to become producers and owners in the value creation chain of public services.

We should start to think of public administration as a ‘Digital Partner State’, suggests Al-Ani, similar to a meetup platform. It was inefficient to rely on a public administrator to fix all citizens’ problems. Instead it could help to connect the citizen with the network and recourses to solve problems, in your local community for instance. Why not have the state pay citizens for fixing problems that affect the running of the country, asks Al-Ani? It would indeed free up time and bandwidth for public administration to focus on social security that will be key during disruption leading to job losses and re-skilling of labour. It would also enable government to adopt a citizen centric approach that involved the end user at the very beginning when trying to solve a problem.

One lesson we can draw from the British example of Government Digital Service (GDS) is to have government introduce open APIs, so that third-party software providers can help people, for instance, manage their taxes or allow service creation that combines public transport with maps and geolocation. While protecting privacy and security, opening up public services and data can create digital business models that benefit citizens at low cost. Taher Mestiri, IT entrepreneur and advisor to the Tunisian Ministry of Communication Technology and Digital Economy, says the government needs to stop being the ‘initiator’ of all things to become the ‘facilitator’, and trust its citizens.

Emigration in Tunisia has changed. Today, Tunisian digital talent was leaving the country and did not look back and did not come back, says Madji Hassen. There was a new wave of Tunisian emigration that invested its financial resources abroad representing a big loss for the Tunisian economy. It was a different diaspora, unlike the Tunisian workers in the 60s that sent remittances back home. Digital transformation experiences differ, but if public administrations not only in Tunisia adopted it as a way of working that made citizens owners and creators, digital migration no longer needed to be a question of brain drain.