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Future of ICTs depends on tech innovations

14 October 2009

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The future of ICT depends at the ability of the two worlds to converge on technological matters, writes John Liebhardt. To make positive impact on human development, ICTs must continue to play dynamic role in the developing world, he adds.

There's an old story of the fisherman and his cell phone. Sometimes the fisherman hails from Senegal; other times he is from India.

Image credits: Global Voices Online/ Banglalink cell phone advertisement, Dhaka, Bangladesh

But the story – and its lesson – remains much the same. It goes like this. Before the fisherman arrives in port with a boat full of fish, he uses his cell phone to place calls to different fish dealers. The dealer offering the highest price would most likely get the fisherman’s business.

This lesson has been passed around as a prime example of the significance of internet and communication technologies – especially the relatively cheap and reliable mobile phone – helping raise living standards in the developing world.

This simple technology allows someone from the so-called bottom of the economic pyramid to improve his economic prospects, bettering the quality of life for his entire family. If the mobile phone can help the fishermen extend his contacts and increase his market price, think of what it would do to the working poor all over the world?

This year the number of worldwide mobile phone users hit 4.6 billion people. Much of that growth has taken place in the developing world. And, as phones expanded in some countries, so did economic development (at least that’s what cellphone companies have said).

While the numbers remain strong and the digital divide may be decreasing, one problem remains: The fisherman story is a little out of date.

Like other things, technology has moved on. If ICTs are going to continue to positively affect human development, they must also keep up.

"I wonder if anyone envisions a world where ICTs for the industrialised world will be much the same as those for the millions of users in the developing world"

Richard Heeks argues that, ICTs will require a new outlook on how they view the poor. People in developing countries should no longer be characterised as passive consumers. Instead, they should be seen as active producers and innovators.

Yochai Benkler is a Harvard University professor of entrepreneurial legal studies and the co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which hosted the September 23-24 forum Communication and Development: The Freedom Connection.

In an essay written for the forum, Benkler argues the next generation of ICTs must continue to be flexible and dynamic, while also becoming more powerful. Perhaps designers will leverage cloud applications, social software or organisational tools.

But mobile phones alone will not solve the problem.

The reason mobile phones were such a successful early ICT platform in poorer countries was that they are much cheaper; and they rely on networks that run all the intelligence in the network, allowing for very cheap edge devices.

Yet it was precisely the stupidity, or simplicity, of the network relative to the “intelligence” or computational complexity of the edge devices that was so critical to the development of the network information economy and society as it has.

A drive to make cheap devices available throughout poorer countries that does not take account of whether the cheapness comes at the expense of a truly open, neutral network will result in a very different kind of ICT platform than the one we imagine as so creative and productive in the wealthier economies...

Here is his recipe for the next generation of ICTs for development.

Devices must be cheap enough to be widely distributed as basic background features, owned by individuals in a pattern uncorrelated with pre-existing power relations. Devices must be accompanied with skills training in the use of the device and the open network, so that the difficulty of use does not continue to drive people to the simpler devices that deliver the more predictable, controlled, and “safe” applications.

In the near future, this may mean programs focused on women, much as micro-lending has been, or youths and children. In the longer term, it must mean an emphasis on cheap computers from the lineage of the personal computer, not souped-up mobile phones.

Or, in the alternative, it means that we need a heavier focus on regulatory interventions that will require mobile phones and phone networks to be more open and flexible – although this is a harder row to hoe. And in all events it means devices coupled with training.

I wonder if anyone envisions a world where ICTs for the industrialised world will be much the same as those for the millions of users in the developing world? For all the advances ICTs have made in the past six years, it seems we still aren’t at a point where the two worlds converge on technological matters.

Here is an interesting investigation from Mira Slavova in the blog Mobile Market Design for Development. She looks at a recent article “The Cloud, the Crowd, and Public Policy” by Michael Nelson, where Nelson “traces the evolution pf ICTs from Phase 1: standalone devices, through Phase 2: the World Wide Web, to Phase 3: the Cloud.”

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