South African government and civil society should be working together to maximise the opportunities presented by the Internet economy – and this could mean looking to creative solutions such as a relaxation of immigration policies.

The potential of looking to a troubled Europe for skills to boost the nascent Internet economy was one of the more controversial and creative suggestions to come out of yesterday’s Internet Matters conference in Johannesburg.

With local organisation World Wide Worx and international company Boston Consulting Group having quantified the significant contribution that the Internet economy makes to overall GDP, a number of recommendations and suggestions were made on how to boost growth in this sector.

Pavlo Phitidis, CEO and co-founder of Aurik Business Incubator, was one of several speakers who bemoaned the lack of relevant skills, saying this is one of the major challenges holding South African innovators back.

However, he suggested that the current European crisis could hold a short-term solution to South Africa’s skills crisis and recommended that immigration policies be revised to take this into consideration.

“We are talking about a knowledge-rich economy,” he said, referring to the current build-out of communications networks in South Africa. “But our biggest set-back is that we have come to a skills standstill.

“We are seeing a number of entrepreneurs having to go abroad.”

He says the social network is also missing for South African innovators to get together and share ideas.

“If we can get these right, we can position the South African Internet as an export business.”

His suggestion was greeted with interest by Gauteng MEC for Economic Development, Quedani Nhlangu.

Nhlangu also pointed out that Gauteng has made a number of infrastructure investments and is also in the process of setting up a smart city model at NASREC, which will support manufacturing and SME development.

Andreas Lundmark, from the Boston Consulting Group, told the conference that South Africa should take a number of key messages from the Internet Matters survey.

These are that the Internet can be a key engine for growing the economy – especially for SMEs. Among its benefits, it provides access to tools, information and public services.

However, South Africa is currently in the low range of the BCG Intensity Index. To improve this, providing access to more of the population is key, he says. Access is more than the infrastructure, Lundmark says, and could include the provision of low-cost terminals that make it easier for more people to enter the Internet economy.

World Wide Worx (WWW) recommends that government, the communications industry, small businesses and individuals all take responsibility for driving the Internet economy.

Government, says WWW MD Arthur Goldtuck, needs to ensure universal access to Internet services through an enabling environment for infrastructure development and competition, with a policy framework that allows for the lowering of costs, the promotion of digital literacy and innovation. Specifically, it needs to help remove obstacles in the way of Internet access evolution.

The company urges the communications industry to simplify their offerings, lowering the costs of core services and access equipment, while reducing usage constraints and reaching out to underserviced areas. They should also support5 digital literacy efforts, support SMEs and focus on both providing security and educating users on security issues.

SMEs and entrepreneurs shod embrace the Internet, WWW suggests, by embracing new technologies, becoming educated and leveraging public and business services.

Individuals can also help drive the Internet economy by practicing good digital citizenship and educating themselves about what the Internet can do for them, and how they can leverage it.