Government Technology

Lessons from the Past

February 28, 2007 By

Much of this issue focuses on the need to embrace wireless, broadband and other technologies to help communities better face their growing challenges. Communities must better identify these issues and get more inventive with new technologies to solve problems before they become crises.

We do this on many different fronts. However, in America over the last few years, we've jumped from crisis to crisis, learning lessons at a terrible cost after the fact. Look at the largest recent disasters: 9/11 and hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Each represents lack of foresight and failures in judgment.

If poor planning and delayed responses to disasters continue without proper reflection or afterthought, we're in for a rough ride over the next 50 years. It needn't be this way.

Perhaps I'm too optimistic, but I believe that most potential situations can be resolved with sufficient understanding and time -- but only if we work as true communities, assess priorities correctly, and make coordinated efforts to use technologies imaginatively and wisely. We must also harness our ingenuity to move science and technology forward for the benefit of all.

That's the overriding lesson history can teach us, something I was reminded of after learning more about the Battle of Britain in World War II when Nazi and British air forces fought over England's skies. It was the first time the Nazi war machine was stopped in its tracks. In these few months, Britain could've been defeated, but instead, the Nazis began to lose the war.

Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding's obsession with "early warning" systems, according to some historians, was crucial in winning the battle. He created a national network of observation posts manned 24/7 by volunteers. This and radar technology let his control rooms direct fighters toward enemy planes. Observers also had spotting scopes to find the position of attacking German planes -- something vital to preparing good counterattacks.

The posts effectively and simply harnessed existing technology. They were connected via a telephone network -- described by researchers as the first Internet. If parts of this communication system were removed, messages were rerouted to the main command until the network was re-established. In addition to British pilots' courage and sacrifice, and the ingenuity that let England build 250 planes a month, this effort also took foresight, leadership and a community approach.

Today's challenges are quite different. Beside learning from our failures, perhaps we can learn from past successes.

The notion behind Digital Communities is that through new communication technologies, we can make communities work better. So, we should be able to better assess looming problems before they become crises, and then together find effective solutions in a timely manner. The complex nature of many of these challenges means that no one sector, government included, can solve them alone.

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