If there's any lesson that we can learn from the COVID-19 crisis, it is that no economy is immune to unpredictable events. Unlike the financial crisis of 2008, which one may argue could have been largely mitigated with the right regulatory structure, there is little we could have done in the face of a novel, highly contagious virus.
What is sure is that, whether the cause is climate change, another virus, or something else entirely, this crisis is not the last. The impact of such shocks is particularly acute when they are asymmetric, affecting particular regions or industries significantly worse than others. The collapse of certain industries, e.g., as a result of changes in external regulation, could have a much stronger effect on the economy than if it were spread amongst several industries.
For these reasons, Prof. André Xuereb, Head of the University of Malta’s Department of Physics, was particularly excited to be approached to join the Digital Economy Think Thank recently launched by the Parliamentary Secretary for Financial Services and the Digital Economy. This think tank brings together a cross-section of people from various industries, including the financial services, digital entertainment, and even academia. We will be looking at existing sectors in the Maltese economy that could be expanded upon or brought into the digital era, as well as novel technological niches that hold significant potential for Malta.
Newspoint asked Prof. Xuereb on the value this participation in this think tank will bring to the table.
What has been discussed by the think tank so far?
What struck me most was the spirit of our interaction which, whilst respectful, was a “no holds barred” kind of discussion where honest and constructive criticism was the order of the day. Over the coming months we shall be working hard to identify new areas for Malta to explore and incorporate into its digital strategy.
How does quantum technology fit in the Digital Economy Think Tank?
My line of work includes developing quantum technologies and understanding what role these could play in a future, increasingly digital, Maltese economy. One example I often discuss is quantum communication, which will be in use worldwide in just a few years to create ultra-secure communication links that cannot be hacked into. My role in the think tank will be to understand whether and how cutting-edge emerging industries, including quantum technologies, can be brought to Malta. This is not an easy task, because we need to keep in mind what infrastructure needs to be put in place, how to make sure that we have a skilled-enough workforce, and that any activities we promote are sustainable in the long term.
Will this think tank translate to more funding in areas that contribute to the digital economy?
It is very difficult to give any assurance as to what the precise outcomes of this exercise will be. Nevertheless, in our discussions so far, we have repeatedly brought up the idea that if Malta is to enter any new digital niches, this must be accompanied by a long-term plan and associated funding.
What role can the University of Malta have in enriching Malta’s portfolio?
Firstly, UM is Malta’s foremost research-led educational institution. As such, it serves a threefold role in contributing to Malta’s economic make-up.
The first role, which is perhaps the one that most people immediately associate with the University is that of education. It is essential that University faculties and departments engage in continuous horizon scanning, seeking to ensure that their courses are kept relevant to the needs of current industry but are also able to pre-empt the needs of future industries.
The second role is that of research and innovation. One of the most encouraging shifts in recent years is the increasing volume and quality of publications emerging from the University. It is essential to support this activity across the board. It is tempting to think, for example, that research with no immediate commercial application should be lower down the priority list; the truth is, however, that it is this type of research that results in the most world-changing innovations.
A third role that the University of Malta can and should have is an increasing focus on technology transfer. The situation nowadays is a drastic improvement over what it was when I was a student; there is increasing emphasis on bringing innovation to the market wherever possible. It is this, in fact, that underlies the success of some of the most innovate institutions worldwide.
What can an economy do to ensure benefits in the long term?
Whereas any discussion involving the future is by its very nature uncertain, one can do quite a bit to stack the odds in their favour.
For a small economy such as ours, one key is to balance short-term wins with long-term potential. Investing exclusively in technologies which may or may not pay off in one or two generations is noble but would risk having an adverse effect on our economy. Conversely, thinking solely in terms of what can pay off in the next year or two is equally fraught with danger; such plans must rely on importing foreign talent and innovations and are, therefore, highly susceptible to external factors that Malta has no control over.
A more reasonable strategy would be to walk the tightrope between these two extremes. The most promising technological niches have low-hanging fruit that can be taken up in the short term, whilst at the same time having a positive long-term outlook. Whilst focusing on the former, we must put in place strategies that ensure that our future workforce will have the correct makeup to exploit innovations made in Malta and, at the same time, lay down the infrastructure and regulatory frameworks required to ensure the continued viability and innovativeness of the economy.