At least seven is a lucky number. But that's hardly comforting to any American entrepreneur or executive analyzing the "networked readiness index" survey recently produced by the World Economic Forum. The survey looks at each nation's ability to exploit information and communication technology--known as ICT--and last year, the U.S. ranked fifth on the list. Now it's No. 7.
Still, there's no cause for alarm, according to Irene Mia, a senior specialist and senior economist at the World Economic Forum. "The drop in rankings doesn't by any means imply that the U.S. is losing its innovation and ICT primacy; the U.S. is still No. 1 in terms of market environment, with the largest availability of venture capital, well sophisticated financial markets and high levels of business sophistication among others," adds Mia, a co-editor of the report.
So what happened? Mia indicates that America has dropped two notches "basically due to a deterioration of most variables of the regulatory environment in the country." More specifically, politics and the judicial system that regulates ICT have gotten in our way. In addition, other countries have simply moved faster in using ICT than the U.S.
Who are the top contenders and what are they doing right? Here's a look.
William Shakespeare, that prolific playwright who gave us the memorable line about something being rotten in Denmark, would be impressed. Were he able to visit the country today, he would notice that it's become extremely tech-savvy. After e-mailing his latest screenplay to his Hollywood agent, Shakespeare would be able to keep up with current events and entertainment by watching TV on his mobile phone, a service the country has fervently embraced in the past year. In fact, when Danish cyclist Bjarne Riis admitted in May that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his Tour de France win in 1996, nearly twice as many mobile users as TV viewers tuned in to the news channels for the press conference. But the Danish have more than just cool gadgets. Denmark's Ris� National Laboratory is known for its advancements in solid-oxide fuel cells, polymers and wind energy. In fact, Denmark now gets 20 percent of its electricity from wind energy. It's pretty clear that at least on the ICT front, nothing is rotten in Denmark.
Some say that children in Sweden grow up not dreaming of becoming basketball athletes, actors, doctors or lawyers, but engineers. The nation's entire culture is wrapped around the mantle of science and technology. Indeed, it ranks eighth globally for broadband penetration. And when it comes to quirky cell phone gimmickry, residents can pay for groceries with the devices. After shopping, a scanner at the register gives the customer an ID number; they message the ID to a phone number, and the purchases are charged to the phone bill. If that's not enough, when numerous countries around the world got together to discuss how speeding up technology might help lower greenhouse gas emissions, everyone met in Riksgraensen, Sweden. Earlier this month, the Chinese President Hu Jintao was in the country to sign a pact for sharing knowledge about "environmental technology solutions." Why this partnership? China needs the technology; Sweden has it.
Singapore is in year two of a 10-year plan called ICT Masterplan iN2015, a program that's been rolled out collectively by the government and industry. So far, 3,400 public hot spots exist across the island nation, with another 1,600 wireless hot spots expected by September of this year. Nearly 430,000 people have subscribed to the free and unlimited Wi-Fi service. But perhaps the best example of how Singapore has become a technology hub is its annual ICT conference, which is now Asia's largest infocommunications event. Held every June and growing exponentially every year, an estimated 67,000 visitors from 100 countries attended the latest Infocomm Media Business Exchange to see 2,320 exhibiting companies and 30 national or group pavilions, spread out through eight enormous halls at the state-of-the-art Singapore Expo.
Finland has a lot to brag about. Nokia, the world's largest mobile phone maker, is based there. The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is always making headlines, whether it's for using technology to improve parking in a garage to producing bioethanol from wood waste. But probably the best indication of Finland's status as a tech hot spot is its emphasis on business research and development. Finland has 16.5 researchers per 1,000 employees, the highest in the world, according to a recent Canadian study. Yet another ranking, from an Ernst & Young report, puts Finland at the very top, tying with Japan, when it comes to science proficiency among high school students. (America is ranked 20th.)
Switzerland rose four spots to No. 5, because of its "first-class business environment and by effective e-leadership shown by the business sector," according to a press release from the World Economic Forum. The business sector certainly strutted this month when CSEM, a Swiss technology company, made headlines for showing off "smart clothes" it's working on. The clothing has embedded sensors designed to monitor body fluids, such as blood and sweat. It's envisioned that the clothes could be used for people like injured athletes and hospital patients, who have chronic illnesses. Also this month, the country debuted its first biomedical imaging center at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne; the new center boasts the world's most powerful magnetic resonance imaging scanner. And a Swiss company, Datamars, just announced that it's developed a rotating garment dispenser system featuring a robotic arm that places pre-hung garments on a routing hook to make sure the right wardrobe goes to the right customers at dry cleaners. That famed Swiss quality goes far beyond just cheese and watches.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.