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Hope for the Philippines with Shell Innovation Grant

The Legendary Dado Banatao Works His Magic

I attended the PhilDev Forum earlier this week, at the InterContinental Hotel in Makati City, Philippines. PhilDev is a non-profit organization. Its Forum focused on innovation and entrepreneurship, and featured speakers from the government, academia, and business, with a couple of American consultants thrown into the mix.

Cloud Computing was not on the agenda, but did get mentioned in passing a couple of times. One attendee, a real-estate developer, told me that Apple's iCloud has now focused people's attention here on Cloud-doesn't sound like an experiment anymore. It sounds real.

Big Challenges
The Philippines shares the challenges of many developing nations: too many people in poverty, too many people period, sub-par physical and Internet infrastructure, an underdeveloped educational system, and a lack of investment.

That latter point is a major issue in this country, which is constitutionally required to limit foreign ownership to 40%, with a few exceptions. Meanwhile, Communist China and Vietnam allow 100% foreign-owned licensing deals, getting around state-owned doctrine to drive foreign investment. The Philippines thus trails these two nations (and most others in Southeast Asia) in foreign investment, in real and per capita terms.

The PhilDev Forum's morning session featured an abysmal reading of economic and social indicators from a number of organizations - the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, ASEAN, etc. - placing the Philippines at or near the bottom by almost every measure among major Southeast Asian nations, and in the bottom third worldwide.

This in a country with the strongest English skills in the region and one of the few working democracies. But "perception is important," as one speaker noted, and with the Philippines, the external perception is often one of oligarchs, corruption, and natural disaster.

The country has managed to establish itself as the world's leading call-center location, and is one of the world's top destinations for Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) in general. There are currently half a million BPO jobs that didn't exist a decade ago, driving several billions of dollars of revenue.

Yet the legacy of colonialism continues to weigh heavily here internally, and there is a deeply ingrained mindset that the Philippines' problems are someone else's fault and that "help" is what is needed most. Internally, there's also been a perception from some quarters that President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III (elected in May 2010) is passive, unenergetic, and often carries a certain self-entitled air.

His administration vociferously claims that corruption is being tackled and that Noynoy is hard at work. Meanwhile, his recent purchase of a Porsche and a focus on whether the lifelong bachelor will ever get married draw a lot of attention.

Weighing Heavily
All this was weighing heavily on my mind as I sat through the PhilDev sessions.

There was a dispiriting speech by a government official, who urged the audience not to believe newspaper columnists and asserted that the government's main role is to provide stability and security - an ironic statement given the militarily weak government's current saber-rattling with powerful China over territorial rights to a small group of islands that may have oil.

An academic official complained that he keeps losing his best graduates to business, and that business should "give them back."

"Should we pay them less?" was the quick retort from a panelist from the business community.

Let the Sun Shine In
A ray of sunshine was provided by a panel focused on the emerging topic of energy security and led by Morphlabs CEO Winston Damarillo of Gluecode fame, who has also been named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. This session ended all too soon - a very large topic that should be addressed further, and seriously, worldwide.

Then, late in the afternoon, Diosdado "Dado" Banatao got up to speak. Dado is a legendary figure from the "real" Silicon Valley - the one that makes, you know, products from silicon. He co-founded a motherboard company in the early days, then Chips & Technologies (acquired by Intel), then S3 Graphics in 1989. Dado is involved in venture capital today, has a research institute at UC-Berkeley named after him, and serves as the Chairman of PhilDev.

Dado's appearance and manner define the term "elegant." Soft-spoken, wise, but brutally candid, he quietly lectured the room of the importance of getting "the rich people here" involved in innovation and entrepreneurship in the Philippines. He said that business must get involved in a big way and not count on the government to somehow solve all the problems facing the country.

At the end of the day, the Chairman of Shell Philippines, Edgar O. Chua, announced a grant of 100 million pesos (about US$2.3 million) to fund scholarships and innovation in the country. Chua said this initial grant was just a kick-start for a five-year campaign to raise 5 billion pesos (about $115 million).

The problems here didn't disappear that afternoon. But 1,000 people were exposed to a long day of strong opinions, and in the end, saw serious concrete action taken. I mentioned to an American friend who's lived here for 20 years that I thought we should elect Dado as President, of either the Philippines or the US. "Yes, but he's too smart to take either job," my friend said.

Indeed. But with a few others like him, there's hope in the Philippines after all.

Twitter: @strukhoff

More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.