Clarke’s third law of prediction is well known to most of us: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. As that oft-referenced video from Minority Report showcased, it all did seem magic back in 2002. But now gestural interfaces are nothing out of the ordinary – from Microsoft Kinect to Leap Motion to this year’s announcement by Google about Project Soli, each year we expect a bit more from technology.
Whilst I never cease to be amazed by these developments, largely happening within the headquarters of global conglomerates in the US and Europe, I have a personal interest in tracking how technology is changing lives in developing markets at the other end of the world.
Ones to watch
Using a Windows phone combined with electronics and resonance tubes, Winsenga is able to monitor foetal heart rates without the need for sophisticated medical equipment in areas where, most likely, there is no access to it anyway, saving hundreds of lives in areas with high maternal mortality rates.
Lumkani uses rate-of-rise in temperatures to assess whether a fire in a crowded urban slum has the potential to create widespread destruction. With its networked detectors, it raises a communal alert. In areas with incredibly high population density, this can be the difference between life and death.
Eneza is a virtual tutor and teacher’s assistant that doesn’t need a smartphone to operate – a low cost mobile phone is plenty. Other services like Sterio.me, Obami and Fundibots in Africa are also pushing the boundaries of what technology can do for education, vastly improving the prospects of children across the continent by enabling learning outside of the traditional classroom setting. As the world gets more networked and access to opportunities easier, these are all crucial to building the next generation of talent in areas where lack of infrastructure (transport to get to schools, or even electricity to power lights) can cripple a child’s future.
The key driver for a number of these services is the growth of mobile. Venture capitalist Benedict Evans recently summarised the many reasons for the explosion in smartphones specifically over the last few decades, of which two stand out for me: the utility of mobile increases as income falls, and the cost of power and connectivity becomes as important as the cost of the device (which has fallen to about $35 for an entry-level Android phone).
The point about utility instinctively makes sense: learning about the daily price of vegetables via mobile, for example, enables farmers to be more in control of their livelihoods than they were before, when they largely gave up control to the middlemen. Mobiles also enable children living in towns and cities to transfer cash to their parents back home in the villages even if they didn’t have a bank account.
If access to mobiles and dependence on a reasonably robust mode of connectivity become so important, you can see why devices like the Brck, a cloud-managed router with built-in failovers (backup power in the event of a blackout, for one), will likely play a significant role in the future as we wait for government infrastructure to scale up to a robust level. Another technology is M-Kopa Solar, which is a GSM+mobile payments integrated platform to change asset financing through solar energy.
The politics of connectivity
But there are also bigger things to worry about as almost all the big players have started making inroads into these markets. The Facebook-backed Internet.org consortium wants to make access to the internet more or less universal (a laudable objective), but by deciding which sites they will give users in developing economies access to, they are also playing the role of a censor – a tightrope which needs to be walked carefully.
In India, earlier this year there was a huge uproar against telecom providers like Vodafone and Airtel for seeding ‘zero-rating’ plans – or additional charges for using specific services or websites over and above usual data charges. This was because, as the Guardian article stated, ‘In a country rife with political, social and economic inequalities, the web is a liberating universe that flattens hierarchies, creates room for innovation and allows unadulterated and totally free expression of speech. It is a reason why some of India’s most successful startups have called for the internet to be kept neutral.’
I don’t intend to insinuate that emerging markets are engaged in a larger number of social impact projects than the West. But by virtue of the challenges – and opportunities – of having young people as the majority of its population, and with cultures and societies that are in the midst of significant social, political and economic upheaval, there is a lot more for them to gain – and lose.
Check out Anjali’s e-book, co-written with Kavi Guppta, Disruption in the Developing World.