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,┬ákindness, 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.

Future innovation: Threat or opportunity?

A year may have passed since this particular edition of the Economist hit the shelves, but I bet you could replace “April 2010” with “April 2011” and few people would notice. I kept this edition back because of it’s special report on business and innovation in the developing world. It goes a long way to explaining and describing what’s happening not only in the commercial world, but also the informal sector. I’d say that makes it a must read for members of the ICT4D community.

There are dozens of takeaways from the report. Here are a few of the highlights which resonated most with me:

“Most striking is the emerging world’s growing ability to make established products for dramatically lower costs – no frills $3,000 cars, $300 laptops and $30 mobile phones may not seem as exciting as a new iPad, but they promise to change far more people’s lives”

“Emerging countries are no longer content to be cheap sources of cheap hands and low-cost brains. Instead, they too are becoming hotbeds of innovation, producing breakthroughs in everything from telecoms to car making to health care”

“Innovation in the emerging world will encourage, rather than undermine, innovation in the rich world”

“Emerging economies are not merely challenging [our lead] in innovation. They are unleashing a wave of low-cost, disruptive innovations that will, as they spread to the rich world, shake many industries to their foundations”

“Multinationals expect about 70% of the world’s growth over the next few years to come from emerging markets”

“Old assumptions about innovation are being challenged. People in the West like to believe that their companies cook up new ideas in their laboratories at home and then export them to the developing world, which makes it easier to accept job losses in manufacturing. This is proving less true by the day”

“Because so many consumers are poor, companies [in emerging markets] have to go for volume. But because piracy is so commonplace, they also have to keep upgrading their products”

“General Electric and Tata Consultancy Services are doing something more exciting than fiddling with existing products – they are taking the needs of poor consumers as a starting point and working backwards. This approach has been dubbed ‘reverse innovation’, or ‘frugal’ or ‘constraint-based’ innovation”

“Emerging markets are far more varied and volatile than mature ones. Cultural complexities are confounding and tastes are extraordinary fluid”

“Indians often see frugal innovation as their distinctive contribution to management thinking. They point to a national tradition of ‘jugaad’ – meaning, roughly, making do with what you have and never giving up – and cite many examples of ordinary Indians solving seemingly insoluble problems”

“Because of the lack of brand loyalty, companies have to put even more thought into marketing than they do in the West”

(This image, taken on one of my trips to Uganda, shows ‘alternative’ advertising at work)

“To flourish in this atmosphere it helps to have a spirit of a frontier settler, not a corporate bureaucrat. A property company, say, might suddenly move into computers. Rather than worrying about synergies or core competencies, they see opportunities and seize them”

“The corporate go-getters love to explain that if you can make it here – despite the poverty, the dismal infrastructure and the unpredictable politicians – you can make it anywhere”

“Hostility to globalisation in the developed world is likely to grow as emerging giants disrupt one product market after another”

I find the whole topic of innovation, emerging markets and globalisation – and how the three intertwine – fascinating. What would our reaction be if globalisation, for example – which has long been accused of disadvantaging the developing world – turned on us? And what for the international development community? As more and more countries “emerge” less and less remain to be “developed”. A fully emergent African continent would leave a considerable number of international NGOs looking for a new home, and in dire need of a little innovation themselves.

Maybe that’s one measure of success they wouldn’t be so keen to find themselves meeting.