In the past, a country’s competitiveness was decided mostly by the productivity of its industries.

But many people say that in this era of computer networks and advanced information technology, national competitiveness will be decided by easy access to high-quality information — data that go beyond improving economic productivity and help raise the quality of life. In Japan, the government and major companies now face the problem of utilizing their technology and information to meet consumer needs. In contrast, individuals and entrepreneurs are creating their own networks to suggest ways to maintain the nation’s vitality and competitiveness.

In October, International Data Corp., a U.S.-based information technology research firm, released the Information Imperative Index, which it says is the world’s first attempt to benchmark where nations stand in their ability to access, absorb and effectively take advantage of information and information technology. Based on 20 variables that make up the index, IDC, together with U.S.-based publisher World Times, ranked 55 nations that together occupy 97 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. The United States topped the list, followed by Sweden and Denmark. Japan tied Germany for 12th.

“The infrastructure changes that are coming with the new social revolutions and information and high-technology innovations are changing the way individuals and countries can compete with each other,” says IDC’s senior vice president, Philippe de Marcillac. “It will be a useful yardstick for governments to measure their countries. … Also it is an interesting measure for companies to decide where to invest or think how to do business, and how to relate to the governments and individuals in each country.”While many analysts predict that Japan will be among the leading countries within the year in terms of technology and hardware, they say the nation must still figure out how to improve its social infrastructure. IDC rated Japan below Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea in accessing and effectively using technology and information. They attribute Japan’s low achievement in this field to its supply-side-driven technological development at the expense of user and market needs.

One typical example is the development of the Intelligent Transport System, which makes use of information networks to reduce traffic congestion and to scout out sites for unattended toll gates on highways. While it is technologically possible to introduce an electronic toll collection system in Japan, the government is reluctant to do so because it does not want to entrust private companies with the task of collecting fees and managing data for identifying violators, as is done in the U.S., he says.

“Developing a de facto standard is the key to spreading this system anywhere, but ministries won’t allow it to happen,” Yamauchi says. “Japanese companies are always worried about what the ministries think, so they cannot take actions based on their own decisions.” He says ITS will not develop further here unless the government pays more attention to what kind of service and information users want, and what kind of private information they do not want to be made public.

The government, for its part, has begun to realize the need for a drastic shift in policymaking in order to cope with the rapid development of the information society, with two key factors in mind — market-driven development and de facto standards. “Our policies were supply-side-oriented and technology-driven,” admits Hiroshi Suzuki, senior deputy director of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry’s commercial and consumer credit division, who is working on introducing electronic commerce in Japan. “But we then realized that a user-oriented, market-driven way of thinking is vital to this project,” Suzuki says in explaining why his division joined the project, which initially had been managed solely by the ministry’s Machinery and Information Industries Bureau.

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