The unnatural evolution of living

From the primordial soup, to the rain forest, to the African savanna, to… this. Welcome to Sci-Fi City, United Arab Emirates. Not only the future of cities – the future of living!

“Here, residents will live with driverless electric cars, shaded streets cooled by a huge wind tower, and a Big Brother-style ‘green policeman’ monitoring their energy use”.

How far we have come as a species. Doesn’t life in Sci-Fi City sound clinical? Today, if you took away all our electronic gadgets most people would complain for a while, but most of us still remember how to live without them. How quickly that is changing. As our technical creativity increases, so does our dependence on it. Some call this progress. I call it scary.

Spirituality: A home in ICT4D?

Back in the early 90’s, when I started to take a serious interest in international development, I spent many weekends flicking through mail order booklets and “Working Abroad” publications that I had to order by post. Back then there was nothing relevant on the World Wide Web to speak of – actually, there wasn’t really much of a World Wide Web to speak of.

One thing that struck me back then were the number of overseas placements being offered by church- and faith-based groups, and how in most cases you had to be a practising ‘this’ or a practising ‘that’ before you’d be considered. To put it mildly, this bugged me a little.

Almost twenty years later and I’ve been fortunate enough to fulfil my ambition to work abroad – helping out with hospital and school building, and numerous conservation projects – although in the end I found a home in the ICT4D field. Having made that journey, one thing strikes me. While religious-based placements are still commonplace in “generic” development, they seem glaringly absent in ICT4D. In fact, religion or faith full-stop seem almost entirely absent from our discipline.

Is there a reason for this? Are technologists generally less religious or spiritual than those who work in health, or agriculture, or human rights? Or is it that technology-based work attracts an entirely ‘different’ crowd?

Speaking personally, my work represents something of a mirror image of how I think life should be led. Values I strongly believe in – unconditional help, kindness, the need to be respectful, humble, polite, responsive and so on – are also characteristics I try to embed in much of what I work on. The problem is that many of these characteristics are largely intangible, and although I feel spiritually driven by what I do I struggle to explain exactly what that means or what it is.

When I think of all the different career paths I could have taken, and the many others working in ICT4D could have taken, I can’t help but wonder what drives us all. What common values do we share, why do we do what we do, and does spirituality play a part in many – or any – of our stories?

Differentiation and the non-changing face of innovation

Last week at the Rutberg Summit in London – an event dominated by senior mobile industry executives – one of the more interesting topics for me was differentiation. How will the new Microsoft/Nokia relationship impact the mobile OS ecosystem? What does the proliferation of Android mean to the many handset manufacturers bundling it with their phones? In a world being increasingly dominated by just a small number of mobile operating systems, how does one smartphone manufacturer differentiate themselves from the next?

Of course, the operating system on a phone is just one part of it. Not only is our choice of OS becoming increasingly limited, so is our choice of “look”.

Take this image – a small cross-section of the handsets on the market today. We’re almost at the stage where you can have any smartphone you like, as long as it looks like one of these. Spot the difference? Not much.

This week, Apple took out another law suit – this time against Samsung – accusing it of stealing/borrowing/using its iPhone design for it’s latest range of phones. (Apple also claim the Galaxy is a little too close to looking like an iPad). The Register has a good article on all of this.

If being a consumer really is all about choice, then there’s certainly less of that today than there used to be. It will be interesting to see where all this goes – court battles included – and where the growing tension between innovation and differentiation ultimately takes us.