Why Tony Blair gets it when it comes to tech

Cisco's CEO says British leader's visit to Silicon Valley is symbolic of his willingness to adapt to a culture of change.

In a world filled with many global challenges and crises, it's always telling to observe where our world leaders choose to visit and spend their time.

That's why Prime Minister Tony Blair's trip to Silicon Valley last week was so symbolic. Blair's visit is indicative of the critical importance technology and innovation play in the future of every country.

I was honored to host the prime minister's visit. While it was his first visit to California as prime minister, Blair has been a friend of Silicon Valley for many years. He has always understood the important role technology plays in transforming industries and societies, and the critical linkage between that transformation and competitiveness.

His leadership in everything from pursuing technology solutions to facing the challenges of climate change reflects his keen understanding of how innovation can improve our daily lives. And his efforts to modernize the National Health Service in the United Kingdom by enabling prescribing, appointment booking and integrated records shows he understands how information technology can connect doctors, patients and researchers.

There are, of course, many challenges involved, and his willingness to tackle this issue head-on will produce tremendous benefits. This is an ambitious project, and he should be congratulated for making the U.K. the world leader, in commitment and progress, in this complex area.

I think the prime minister came to Silicon Valley to gain an understanding of what is possible.

Blair's visit to Cisco demonstrates that a decade after the mainstream introduction of the Internet, it remains one of the single-most important elements to our success as nations, industries and people. Some look at the Internet and say it's an old story. But what they miss is that we've barely scratched the surface of how the Net will transform the way we live, work, play and learn. It changes everything; from the way we conduct business to how we are entertained to our interactions with our families and communities.

Connecting people, information and data creates a human network that unites the world in ways we never would have imagined. It creates opportunities for everyday citizens, entrepreneurs, gamers, sports enthusiasts, social activists and more to experience the whole world. It enables experts, such as cancer specialists and surgeons, to share their skills and knowledge with the poorest and most remote communities in a country or around the world. It offers new ways for the heroes we rely on during national emergencies to communicate and make critical decisions that save lives.

And yet we're just beginning to understand the impact of the convergence of voice, data, video and mobility.

Its true potential lives in the minds of today's 10-year-olds in London, Glasgow, Belfast and Cardiff who will grow up in a world that was always networked and always available. Because of their new experience and different approach to learning and interacting, they'll think differently than us and will imagine and create wonderful visions of how to change the world and to enable their own future.

I think the prime minister came to Silicon Valley to gain an understanding of what is possible.

But his visit also demonstrated his understanding that, whether for government or business, nothing important comes easy and that countries and businesses must adapt a culture of change in order to be successful. Success in a country in the 21st century requires different approaches and different skill sets. It requires a different way of collaboration, which technology uniquely enables.

Information technology used to be viewed as a cost that had to be endured. Now it must be considered a catalyst. Without information technology, we cannot cure cancer. For it's the ability to collect, aggregate, analyze and, most importantly, network medical data that will ultimately unlock the cures to cancer and other diseases. One doctor can treat an AIDS patient; thousands of doctors sharing information and working together can eradicate AIDS.

Education coupled with technology must also be our focus if we are to succeed in solving the world's problems. Last month, I visited Newham College in London with Stephen Timms, chief secretary to the Treasury. We spoke with the students there who are training for the next generation of information and communication technology (ICT) jobs, especially in light of the increased demand for ICT skills that will be required for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which will take place in London. Training today for the skills that will be needed tomorrow is imperative.

Our approach to how we educate our youth, however, must also be reconsidered, which is why England's "Building Schools of the Future" program is a critical investment in the future. We cannot continue to use 20th century tools and approaches to prepare our children for the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century. In this "Era of Innovation," education must be a priority, with a focus on math and science. Yet all too often, especially among young women, math and science is not prioritized, or worse, is devalued. We must insist that our education infrastructure is first-rate and stress the value of using technology to help educate our youth. If our current approach doesn't capture the imagination of our youth, then we must explore a new one.

Blair is a busy man, but not too busy to ever lose sight of the fact that the future of Britain is based on its ability to educate and to lead. The U.K.'s Trade and Investment office has done a phenomenal job of strengthening the relationship between the U.K. and Silicon Valley, and we look forward to the prime minister's next visit.

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