It’s Time for Virtual Montserrat 3.0

In the first decade of this century Montserrat began to talk and work on the idea of building a Virtual Montserrat. Views differed on what that would look like and focus on, but given the current global situation, it is time to reboot the vision and update it to build an island that can outlast crises.

An unseen enemy has done what the Soufriere Hills Volcano, rough seas, high winds, and hurricanes have tried to do but never completely accomplished. This virus has brought the island to a screeching halt. The decision to close the border to our meager annual visitors which finally hit 12,000 in 2019 will resonate for time to come. Service-driven businesses are the hardest hit as the island and the Caribbean’s over-reliance on tourism continues to highlight our vulnerability.

There is a lot of talk about this being a new normal but in truth it is our new temporary normal. Our new reality won’t be closed borders forever but it will mean news ways of doing business and living life. A Virtual Montserrat will not be solely for the benefit of those outside but those who live and work here. This time is filled with much opportunity for Montserrat if we will choose to put in the work to have it.

Refine How we Communicate and Share Information

There are more than 10 Facebook groups focused on sharing and celebrating life on Montserrat. Within these groups, residents, nationals overseas and people who desire to be here discuss and debate all manner of issues. It is the townhall of today and positions online from the right or wrong influencers can result in a change of government decisions.

When I returned to Montserrat in 2009, I was impressed with the fact that the island streamed the General Elections via radio, television and web. It shouldn’t be a surprise, as this is the island where the Big RA (Radio Antilles) was formed and from which so many of the most distinctive voices in radio (Rose Willock OE, Keithstone Greaves, Mike Jarvis) today were birthed and/or trained. Real time election results is now the norm and with each event, the process becomes more technologically driven and efficient, not only on the streaming and production side but the counting and tabulation of results.

Yet, the gap remains. There are some who would prefer to keep information for a privileged few and those who believe it is important for the population to know. Government ministries and staff need to commit to public information sharing as the norm and the standard. They should also understand their position and not see themselves in competition with private media to break a story but to ensure that every possible means to inform the public is utilised. This includes adequately budgeting for publicising official announcements and staffing the relevant departments to manage information sharing. The Public Information Act needs to be enacted.

People won’t want to know less information after this shutdown ends. They will expect to hear and see more of what is happening and from the source they prefer to hear it in real time.

Virtual Funerals/Weddings/Church

Live streaming funerals on Montserrat is the norm. The celebration of the late Soca King of the World Alphonsus “Arrow” Cassell in 2010 solidified this.

While many may not be able to afford to travel home for funerals, they are able to be a part of the process of honouring the lives of the departed watching on Facebook or other social platforms. It may mean a lessening of the repast budget for many and maybe that will be a relief to those who feel the pressure to go all out when they can hardly afford to do so. Live Island Events is the current go-to company to deliver live streamed funerals and other community events.

While Montserrat does not have many weddings, there is an expectation that any type of ceremonial activity should be accessible in real time no matter where we are in the world. This access will become even more important going forward.

Pastors are quick to quote Hebrews 10:25 – Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. The idea of church outside of the building unless it’s an open air service doesn’t sit well for some but in this climate, we need to remember WE ARE THE CHURCH and it is not the building. We can assemble online and share just as we would in a building. Many churches are noting that they are reaching way more people than they would in their weekly services when they stream online. What a great way to spread the gospel. It is also a good way to connect with members who may have moved away for school or life but still consider the island as home.

Preserving Memories

Our senior citizens are all national treasures. They hold the last of the pre-volcanic memories and we have got to find away to capture that knowledge for current and future generations. There is often a sense that many do not like to share knowledge and that means we are sentencing our people to the perpetual hamster wheel of always starting over in each generation.

Our access to our seniors will probably be curtailed for some time as we build up resistance to the virus or until a viable vaccination is found. How will we capture their stories? How will care for them if we are unable to connect with them regularly?

Virtual Cultural Events

Our cultural products can be the lifeblood of our economy but not if we give them away. Festivals and other events which require people to gather and be in close proximity have been hardest hit and won’t be the first option for many for at least 18 months or more. Does this mean the end of our festivals?

This is the time to create more live streamed experiences, virtual reality activities that people can have in the comfort of their home or at venues in their own country. Consider how many hours of content you have consumed on your devices since this crisis began? The ease at which you can stay at home and be entertained will be the option many will gravitate to for time to come. How can we make sure those experiences include our cultural events? We know there is demand, the number of views on free live streamed events for past festival/carnival prove this. Clear systems for monetising will be needed. The cultural practitioners who are willing to become brands and push their creativity into virtual spaces will be able to leverage a larger audience.

Remote Work for Government Services

The various ICT grant programmes have produced software and other applications which were designed to put more government services online. This is the time to push through all of the necessary legislation and remove the bottle necks to this. With the Bank of Montserrat moving to mobile banking solutions, it paves the way for online payments and contact less payment options, to reduce the need to exchange cash or cheques.

Moving services online will make some jobs redundant, it will be time to re-skill workers to function in new roles or to take up jobs in the private sector.

Hosting regional meetings online was already a given for the OECS before the crisis. Now, it is an approved method for handling government business without getting on a plane for a photo opportunity. The Cabinet of Montserrat proved it is able to adapt and this should continue to be encouraged.

Food Delivery

Restaurants were probably the first to feel the heat of the closed borders and lockdown. This won’t revert to pre-COVID-19 levels as the loss of economic activity in other sectors means that cash for eating out will be at a minimum. Concern for hygiene in public places will keep some people away until establishments can ensure and express that they are meeting a new higher standard for protecting customers.

Setting up food delivery and takeaway options will allow for businesses to stay afloat. The ones who are reliant on people walking by or remembering they exist will have the toughest time. The time for an app to process orders and pay for deliveries is now. Staying front of mind by using social media will be critical.

Supermarkets will also benefit from having a systemised way to serve their customers. Aravins and Victor’s supermarkets stepped up and offered WhatsApp and other means for customers to place their orders for later pick up.

Attracting Digital Nomads

Montserrat has a history and a preference for villa tourism despite the push for day trippers. Long-stay visitors spend more on island. When the fibre optic cables have been laid and more stability comes to broadband, an area to be marketed would be to digital nomads who want a place to work with lots of clean air and limited traffic to disrupt their days.

Independent Travellers

Cruise ships are going to hurt for sometime when it comes to travel and this means the Caribbean will feel it too. Platforms such as Air B&B and Viator which cater to independent travellers looking for immersive experiences in communities will thrive. What can we do to attract them to the island? All properties need to be online and capable of accepting payments. Visitors may be more interested in seeing the island without a group or in a taxi which they are unsure of. Bicycles, cars that consider the environment, apps which allow them to learn about the island without the need for a guide will be useful.

Creatives Rise Up

This is the time bloggers, influencers, writers, musicians, filmmakers have been training for. We are going to choose to stay close to home rather than go out. This means, we want to do something, watch something, experience something. Anyone who can turn on their phone camera or share a blog post which can resonate and shape lives will be ahead of the pack.

New Ways to Learn

Many have long bemoaned how the education system is pushing out people who can only regurgitate information from a book and no critical thinking ability. The future of education for students of all ages will not simply be the contents of a book moved to a screen. There needs to be interaction, more opportunities for research-driven work. Cross-cultural and cross-border collaborations where our students are hacking global problems.

Leaders in every sector will need to become teachers as this will be the primary way of serving when people can no longer walk into your establishment. Learn how to teach virtual classes to extend the opportunities to generate revenue with your skill or interests.

Whatever is next, we have an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of it. We have been dabbling with elements of virtual reality with the Plymouth experience by 4th Dymension. Years ago Lavabits developed a travel app, which was never adopted. Our comfort with getting the latest news, watching concerts and shopping on our devices means our people will not have to struggle to learn how to access more of the island’s resources this way. All we need are some creatives, developers and a government with the will and desire to invest in building the Virtual Montserrat.

Nerissa Golden is the founder and editor of Discover Montserrat and an advocate for the use of technology to  educate and empower Caribbean communities.