One last throw of the dice.

I’ve always found the global development system frustrating. It was the 1980’s when it first got my attention, with suffering and extreme poverty dominating my daily news feed. The Ethiopian famine in 1985 was the turning point, forcing me to seriously question why a sector awash with money and resources could have so little visible impact (and when it does, how it struggles to effectively communicate the change). While I still don’t have all the answers I think I know a lot more about what needs to be fixed.

A depressing reality struck me the other week as I pulled together a collection of my most popular blog posts for a new eBook. It dawned on me that I’ve been writing about the same stuff for over a decade. Some of my posts from 2007 apply just as much today, if not more. And that’s depressing. Seriously depressing.

I’ve always been my biggest critic and I constantly question whether anything I’ve done, or currently do, has or is making any kind of meaningful difference out there. Sure, I’ve spent the best part of my working life trying to figure out how I can contribute to a solution to some of the social and environmental problems that deeply trouble me, but because I’ve spent so long doing it doesn’t mean I’ve achieved anything. I wrote about this recently, too.

Tonight I watched a TED talk, provocatively titled “Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash“. It was wonderfully argued and delivered, and beautifully challenged many of the assumptions that underly global development policy and practice. In his talk, Rutger also highlighted a solution to a poverty reduction programme that actually worked but has since been largely ignored – the basic minimum income. (This is something I’ve seen time and time again in my work on the technology side of development (often called ICT4D), in that when ideas emerge that seem to actually work for unexplained reasons the wider sector decides not to adopt or support them. For a sector that constantly demands new and innovative solutions to everything, it’s perplexing.

With so much still to be done, I wonder whether I’m going to see the change that’s needed in my lifetime. I’ve been fortunate in my career, and have had wonderful support throughout. But the question I’m beginning to ask myself now is this. If there was just one thing I could work on for the next ten years – one thing I could throw myself at and have the greatest impact – what would that be?

I wonder.

Predicting Africa’s multiple futures

“Amid all the uncertainty surrounding disruptive technologies, managers can always count on one thing: Expert forecasts will always be wrong. It is simply impossible to predict with any useful degree of precision how disruptive products will be used, or how large their markets will be”

“The Innovator’s Dilemma”, Clayton M. Christensen

Predicting the future of one of the most disruptive technologies of recent times – the mobile phone – was precisely what Rudy de Waele asked twenty-eight mobile technologists to do earlier this year. And to make things a little more interesting, these predictions were meant to focus on Africa alone. Good friend Erik Hersman and I were asked to help ensure that people we felt were best placed to contribute – African technologists, or people with considerable practical experience working with mobile technology on the continent – were represented.

The result is here.

As Clayton Christensen points out in his excellent book, predicting the future is never easy, and almost always ends in failure. During a workshop at Stanford University back in 2006, it became abundantly clear that one of the biggest challenges facing predictors was “breaking the shackles of current thinking”. 80% of people get caught out here, and to a large extent this is reflected in Rudy’s paper:

1. Pick a technology or service currently in use.
2. Predict that in xx years time there will be more of it.

The easiest way to obtain a “shackles-free” out-of-this-world prediction is to ask children, and you’ll find they have just as much chance of being right as an adult (or an expert). Quoting a PC World article I wrote on the subject a couple of years ago:

Ask people what that mobile future might look like, and we’ll likely get answers that take us in one of two directions. Adults will probably be constrained by the parameters of what they see around them today, so predictions on what a mobile phone might look like in, say, ten years, would most likely center around smaller, lighter and faster. Children, on the other hand, would probably let their imaginations run riot and talk about phones that are invisible, implanted in our brains, or both

One thing that particularly struck me about Rudy’s “Mobile Trends 2020 Africa” exercise lies in the title. Are we assuming that mobile technology in Africa will have a very different future to mobile technology in the rest of the world? Perhaps so – I’ve previously argued that “many future mobile innovations will be borne out of the realities of the developing world”.

If that were the case then that would be a future I could get excited about.

Glimpsing into a mobile future

Few companies innovate with the intensity and frequency of those working in mobile, and today’s present is a future that only a handful of people would have predicted just a few short years ago. While most of us happily soak up rampant innovation as mere consumers, a handful of people in the hallowed corridors of mobile R&D labs are already working on the next big thing – the phones we’ll be carrying around in our back pockets in 2012 and beyond.

Very occasionally we get a glimpse of this future. A couple of years or so ago, Nokia went public with their “morph concept” phone – an idea which seems so crazy and off-the-wall it might actually be possible. Who knows, maybe it’s being field tested right now, although we wouldn’t know it. A morphing phone could disguise itself as anything from a watch to a handbag, making spotting one incredibly difficult.

As Alan Kay once famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”. While a handful of people do precisely that, the rest of us are left to speculate. Ask people what that mobile future might look like, and we’ll likely get answers that take us in one of two directions. Adults will probably be constrained by the parameters of what they see around them today, so predictions on what a mobile phone might look like in, say, ten years, would most likely center around smaller, lighter and faster. Children, on the other hand, would probably let their imaginations run riot and talk about phones that are invisible, implanted in our brains, or both. Maybe it was a children’s focus group that came up with Nokia’s morphing phone idea. Regardless, I’d go with the kids’ instinct over an adult’s any day.

Technology doesn’t evolve in a vacuum, of course, and it’s only when it finds its way into the hands of people that it really gets interesting. In order to understand what users need and want from their next mobile device, we need to get in the field and ask, as some mobile manufacturers do. Anthropology, with its human-centered approach to research, has become quite a trendy discipline in the mobile world, particularly when it’s done in exotic emerging markets.

The irony of this approach is that, perhaps for the first time, the needs of the consumer in the developing world are beginning to drive innovation and thinking at home. With concerns about global warming, energy dependence and the environment rising up the political agenda, mobile manufacturers find themselves tackling the very same problems as they design for the developing world. These markets by their very nature demand greener, recyclable, longer-lasting, energy-efficient mobile phones. Today technology transfer works both ways, and it’s increasingly heading in our direction.

The future isn’t all about hardware, of course. Some of the most exciting innovations we’ve seen in recent years have come from mobile services. Innovation for many is centered more around what you can do with a mobile device, rather than what you can make out of one. Financial services, for example, promise to “bank the unbanked” and provide unprecedented access for some of the poorest members of society in many developing countries. Mobile banking in places like the U.K. and U.S. lags some way behind.

My belief is that many future mobile innovations will be borne out of the realities of the developing world. In my “developed” world, where friends leave household appliances on standby for weeks on end, energy efficient mobile devices are seen as something of a luxury. For a mobile phone owner in, say, Uganda – with little access to mains electricity – it’s more of a necessity.

I also believe – along with many others – that as devices get smarter, faster and more powerful, the challenges of power consumption will continue to consume large chunks of R&D effort. A recent announcement from the Chinese Academy of Sciences of a highly-efficient solar cell that can effectively be embedded in plastic could give us a glimpse of a future where the entire housing of mobile phones become one large solar panel, along with our clothes. Advances in harnessing kinetic energy could also give us self-charging mobiles, akin to our already-present self-winding watches. Perhaps the challenges of keeping mobile devices powered up will lead to a convergence where a number of charging technologies are present in a single device.

Looking even further ahead, mobile devices may also be chargeable wirelessly over distance. Perhaps by a method of charging via the same wireless networks that carry our mobile signal. I’d hate to think about the health implications of this, or how inefficient these charging networks might be, but it’s not out-of-the-question that this becomes reality. Again, this technology would most likely emerge from developing countries, where vast numbers of potential customers are excluded from phone ownership because they lack of access to power to charge them. Whether this wireless charging future happens before the converged renewable option discussed remains to be seen.

Winding the clock back to my childhood, and returning to the original question of what the future might look like, a young Ken Banks might draw a picture of a single device that seamlessly docks, morphs or switches between fixed desktop and portable wireless device.

Despite the march of the integrated mobile device, we’re still some way off making them as easy and convenient to use as our old friend the computer. The fact that I choose to write this on my laptop is a case in point. Once I leave my laptop at home – assuming I own one – and start writing regularly on my phone, maybe I’ll finally know that my future has arrived.