Tuesday, June 11, 2013

IT as a Utility in Emerging Economies

Mobile is critical for IT in emerging economies.
(CC-BY-NC-SA AdamCohn, Flickr)
The ITaaUN+[1] workshop on IT as an infrastructure in emerging economies attracted social activists-cum-academics, academics-cum-industrial consultants, linguists, digital humanitists, and technology visionaries to the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), where ACU Secretary General, John Wood, played host to the compact but vocal group. The agenda was to discuss the challenges and opportunities of IT, seen as a utility, in the majority world. John Wood is himself a veteran of e-infrastructures in the UK, having being Chief Executive of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, where he was responsible for RAL and Daresbury. Later, he held positions at Imperial – first as Principal of the Engineering Faculty, and later as Senior International Advisor. He now sits on the board of JISC and the British Library, and has advised numerous governmental and corporate organisations across the globe. But his experience at the ACU gives him a unique perspective on infrastructures that are in place already in the Commonwealth countries that are also developing countries (assuming provision of computational infrastructure in higher education institutions is an accurate barometer of infrastructure elsewhere in countries, which it usually is, to some degree).

Why the service/utility distinction though?

Jeremy Frey, Physical Chemist at the University of Southampton and one of the minds behind Chemistry2.0 application CombeChem, explained that there is a natural progression of a technology as it becomes part of the fabric of our lives. The transition: Revelation > Innovation > Specialist Tool/resource > Service > Utility – is one that the utilities that form the infrastructure of daily activity, such as electricity and telecommunications, have already progressed along. IT, and especially networked IT, is somewhere between the last two stages (and there will continue to be debates about whether and to what extent all utilities should be services or utilities, depending on the economic model in place). But, as the UN’s World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) has suggested, internet access is beginning to be established by governments as a basic human right, and so it will become increasingly considered a utility rather than a service – something we need rather than just something we want. And the impact that this will have will be felt nowhere more so than in the emerging economies of the developing world.

In 1965 the centre of gravity of global wealth was located on the plains of La Mancha, in Spain. This was, however, the last time that this topographical El Dorado[2] lay in Europe. As the years have passed, the centre of international wealth has meandered out across the Mediterranean, and zig-zagged through northern Algeria and Tunisia. Having bounced off Malta and back towards Tunis, it is now poised to zoom eastward once more, skirting past northern Libya to settle in the middle East some time around the middle of this century (remaining oil reserves notwithstanding).

The economic and social conditions that led to Europe being the dominant force in the world over the last few centuries can be attributed to a combination of factors: a great abundance of natural resources – particularly wood, coal and iron – suited to the manufacture of ever-more-complex tools; the concentration of historically competitive cultures within Europe itself (leading to wars, but also leading to a wealth of art, science and advanced technology); and the suitability for domestication and farming of indigenous fauna and flora. This last blessing, in combination with the large Eurasian landmass whose principal axis is East-West and therefore at the same latitude, allowed successful farming methods to spread very easily over a large area[3], dramatically increasing population size in Europe and therefore the means to successfully colonise new areas of the globe.

With war and recession, and with growing social justice – helped in part by the ease with which injustices can be brought to the World’s attention through social media – the old colonialism has crumbled and many of its worst crimes are behind us. However, some corporations exploit the cheap labour and (often) rare natural materials of developing nations in much the same way as colonial powers once did[4]. Sometimes this is for food: growing soya for cattlefeed, for example…but potentially at the expense of rainforest. Sometimes this is for palm oil: a food and a fuel, but at the expense of rainforest and peat bogs, potentially leading to local and global environmental problems. And in many African nations, landscapes are plundered for rare metals, destined for today’s mobile devices.

Today’s mobile devices are not, however, solely owned by rich people in rich countries. Competition between mobile device manufacturers and an increased acceptance of their ubiquity in our everyday lives has led to dramatic price drops in the developed world. And together with greater prosperity in the developing world, such devices are now becoming more affordable for a growing global middle class – mainly urban; often involved in the knowledge economy in some way. People in these countries are leapfrogging the PC/browser paradigm, and (for a large number) the first personal device they own that can access the web and email is in fact a webphone or smartphone.

Although there is still tremendous disparity between rich and poor in the world, developing countries are experiencing this growth of a middle class (defined as having $10-$100 of disposable income per capita per day in PPP terms), exactly at a time when those people are being empowered with devices that help them to access information and to make decisions. The pace of change is rapid. New technologies are initiating and catalysing social change (in the manner of the Arab spring), and opening up new possibilities in the realms of education and research, communications, and e-governance. In many ways, ever-cheaper technologies are helping to correct the economic unevenness that led Europe (and North America) to become unduly dominant over the last few centuries. Mobile web as a globally democratising tool, if you will.

For that reason, the potential for real change in emerging economies that might be realised by IT has attracted visionaries and projects from the developed world, eager to demonstrate the power and potential of technology to enact measurable social change quickly. E-Governance, for example, is an area where both the potential for positive change and the motivation to do so, especially in countries that are newly democratic, is very attractive. But at the ITaaUN+ workshop, individuals with direct experience of having participated in such programs suggested that this approach can seem like neo-colonialism. Why implement (or as it might seem, impose) e-voting tools, for example, when similar innovations haven’t always had brilliant success in long-established democracies? It could smack of using developing countries as test cases for technologies that haven’t already been tried and tested in the developed world.

There are, however, good examples of IT making positive changes to people’s everyday lives. Take microcredit, for instance. This allows people to send small amounts of currency using their mobile phones. By using SMS as the technology behind the system, microcredit uses a simple, tried-and-tested service that, though perhaps lacking the bells and whistles of wifi, is more reliable in sub-Saharan Africa, where internet connections cannot always be guaranteed. Distributed systems, whether for power generation through smaller, local solar and wind power; or computer networks themselves – might offer solutions that bring specific benefits to emerging economies, where geographical isolation can be a barrier to some technologies being more widely adopted. 

The discussion next led on to 3D printing. The 3D4D challenge, for example, looks at the benefits this rapidly developing technology could bring to emerging economies. From simple to complex devices (including medical tools), to an enabler of innovation, 3D printing could have a huge impact on emerging economies, although much interest has come so far from the developed world. The ability to make new parts and eventually more complex components could mean that emerging economies, which are already embracing a more sustainable approach to technology adoption through frugal innovation, manage to avoid some of the more wasteful consumer trappings of buying every new model that are prevalent in the West. As resources needed to make new mobile devices are depleted, the developed world could learn a thing or two from the emerging economies.

The link again for ITaaUN+ is:

...they're running workshops and events all the time, so it's worth taking a look.

[1] Information Technology (ok, you probably knew that bit) as a Utility Network-plus
[2] There are several maps tracking the movement of the centre of economic gravity, over a number of time-scales. I’m using one by Homi Kharas of the OECD development centre: working paper #285, “The Emerging Middle Class in Developing Countries”. Although it simplifies the calculation, by assuming the centre of each nation’s GDP is located on its capital city, this is a fairly reasonable assumption to make (better, in my opinion, than assuming that GDP is colocated with the geographic centre of each country). There are, of course, countries where the capital is not the wealthiest city – but in many cases these are close enough geographically (e.g. New York and Washington; Toronto and Ottawa) to not make too much difference. Sydney and Canberra are ‘close enough’ at the distance they are  from the centre; Milan–Rome and Köln-Düsseldorf–Berlin present more of a problem due to their proximity to the centre, but this is still the best solution I have seen.
[3] 1. This argument is from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel
2. Crops are generally sensitive to being north/south variance but will grow happily along the same latitude
[4] What corporations are not able to do is maintain control over entire nations, so that, provided governments in developing countries offer some degree of freedom to their citizens, individuals and groups are able to act in an entrepreneurial manner

1 comment:

Steve Brewer said...

This is a really interesting report back from the Emerging Economies workshop. Not only has Stefan captured the ideas that emerged during the workshop, but he has also developed these with some fascinating supplementary research which is exactly what the ITaaU Network+ is aiming to motivate.