CNN on anthropology and innovation


“As trained observers of how people in a society live, ethnographers can help companies figure out what people need and then work with designers to meet those needs with new (or more often tweaked) products and services. In a world in which ever more people are using technology products on a daily basis, such skills are increasingly in demand. For ethnographers, anthropologists, and other social scientists, the upshot can be intriguing work around the globe”

Read more about the role of field-based research and anthropology in the identification and design of mobile tools, products and services in this latest CNN article. There’s more in our PC World column, published last July. And an interesting new course in Digital Anthropology at University College London in the UK.

Interesting times. Get out in the field, or study anthropology. That seems to be the message.

And the winner is…

Few would dispute that we’re living in an age of tremendous innovation. It’s hard to believe that the PC has only been around for 20-odd years, and the mobile phone half-of-that. The personal computer may have blazed the original consumer IT trail, but what is happening today with the mobile phone is potentially hugely more significant. Let me explain.

Successful companies understand their customers better than unsuccessful ones, at least that’s what we’re led to believe. Back in the early days of the personal computer, customers were medium- to higher-wage earners, or at the top end the early adopters. It was the same with the mobile phone, considered toys for executives in the early days and only more recently essential devices for the masses. What’s different today is, unlike the PC which stalled price-wise at the lower-end of the developed western markets, mobile manufacturers have very quickly begun looking at the very bottom of the pyramid, the emerging markets, the billions living in poverty in the developing world. The rationale behind this is two-fold, at the very least. Firstly, the developed world (if we can call it that) has reached saturation point in terms of mobile ownership, so it is natural to look towards new markets. Secondly, mobile phones are incredibly, and perhaps uniquely, empowering socially and economically, so people don’t tend to see the move into emerging markets as an exploitative one.

For me, most significant is the interest that mobile manufacturers (and operators, come to that) are taking in development issues – poverty, gender, health, literacy, infrastructure, economic empowerment and so on. Just take the MOTOPOWER charging kiosk (pictured, courtesy of the Mobile Gallery), rolled out in Uganda earlier this year. Not only does it solve a major charging problem for mobile users (it runs on solar power, by the way), but it creates opportunity for micro-enterprise. Many women now run these kiosks.

This is just one example of how manufacturers and operators have quickly understood that poverty – in all its forms – are barriers to ownership, and as a result they’re making significant efforts to understand it. This, I believe, is a potential revolution in how big technology business views the developing world. Think, only recently have there been wide scale (global) attempts to build affordable laptops for the worlds poor – OLPC, for example – but it’s taken decades to get there. Mobile manufacturers are already on the ball, in less than ten.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but there may well end up being more than one winner. And the world’s poor may just be among them.