Azerbaijan is better known for its offshore oil than for its high-tech achievements.
The country’s desire to change all that though was highlighted this week at the Caucuses’ largest high-tech exhibition in Baku.
Azerbaijan remains a state with a predominantly oil and gas economy, but in recent years it has been actively investing in information and communication technology. Government estimates say, in the future, profits from the industry will grow and become comparable with those from oil production.
A variety of innovative products and services are on display at BakuTel, mostly communication, security or business solutions. But there is also cultural and educational technology presented here by both foreign and local developers.
One exhibitor demonstated the latest devices to detect drugs and explosives. She was also proud of a new “wonderful tool that detects harmful chemical substances.”
Another presented a brand new 3D laser scanner which works like a sonar. Its’ developer says it is a little more complex.
The machine “sends a laser signal and measures the distance between each point to build a three-dimensional image,” he said. “We’re currently using it to create a 3D model of the entire city of Baku.”
A realistic model of the Azeri capital could become a useful tool for business and urban developers.
One of the highlights of the exhibition was an interactive playing table for children designed in Azerbaijan itself. The device encourages thinking, memory and drawing skills with more than 530 games.
The state has ordered 200 copies for kindergartens across the country.
A recent boom in oil and gas exports has allowed the country to make surprising developments in its telecoms sector.
Until now Azerbaijan has had to largely rely on Soviet era phone lines that failed to reach hundreds of mountainous villages. Developing wireless and satellite communications is now a national priority.
Another challenge facing the country is the contamination of its soil, air and water with toxic pollutants after decades of oil and gas exploration.
Azerbaijan now hopes a shift towards a cleaner, IT based economy may alleviate some of these issues.
Ali Abbasov, the country’s Minister of Communication and Information Technology says the move is necessary:
“During the Soviet period, Azerbaijan was one of the centres of chemical industry, and we all know what that meant for its ecology. So resolving our region’s environmental issues is one of our main political goals, and information technology will play a massive role.”
One major national IT project is building an e-government infrastructure, using the experience and cooperation of Estonia.
Visiting the exhibition, MEP Kristiina Ojuland explained how Estonians had utilised new technology to further its democracy.
“In Estonia we have already practiced several times e-voting in elections, and all the benefits of introducing the e-government to the system for the whole country simply makes life easier for everybody who is participating in society.”
Another large-scale project is a broadband network linking the region to Europe and East Asia by a fiber-optic information super highway.
The President of Azerbaijan, İlham Aliyev, was at Bakutel to endorse the idea.
“Oil and gas will one day be depleted, but technology, innovative industries and investment in science will always be in demand,” he said. “We see our country in the future as one of the world’s leading developed countries. Without a strong IT-sector it will be impossible to achieve.”
Current estimates predict that Azerbaijan’s oil reserves will probably run out in 30 years ,so it is now a race against time to build a sustainable alternative economy for this country at the crossroads between Europe and Asia.