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March 26, 2007

The Power of the Pyramid

As the GIO team prepares to head to Korea and China this weekend, we’re spending a lot of time discussing one of the themes that came up in the Mumbai deep dive on media and content. The idea was that by disseminating affordable technology – broadband, mobile phones, PCs -- to the hundreds of millions of Indian villagers dotting the countryside, many of whom are impoverished, that microeconomic opportunity could arise.

At first blush, it is classic “bottom-of-the-pyramid” type of thinking. Made popular by University of Michigan professor C.K. Prahalad, the theory states that there is a huge economic opportunity targeting the 4 billion people in the world that make less than $2 a day. Call it the long-tail of socio-economics. Click here to listen to Prahalad's thoughts on the democratization of commerce.

But it has been my experience that whenever a bottom-of-the-pyramid discussion arises, there is always a sufficient amount of skepticism in the room, a palpable fear that exploitation of the poor is not far behind. I suspect that this tension will be an important theme going forward, especially during the deep dive in Shanghai next Thursday, and the subsequent focus area of the GIO, Africa, which kicks off this summer.

So before we start to head down this road in earnest, I think it best to clear up a few possible misconceptions. The first is that this is all about “tapping into a market.” Most cynics would question whether the poverty-stricken are really in need of high-speed Internet connections. After all, when you’re struggling to put food on the table, is Internet access really that high on your list of priorities?

Fair enough. But consider this: in Southern India, a wireless technology that can transmit 5 million bits per second over a 60-mile span for a fraction of the cost of Wi-fi is bringing telemedicine to villages that previously had to travel several hours just to see a doctor. Eric Brewer, a professor at UC, Berkeley, has been trialing the technology, called Wildnet (Wi-Fi over long distance), in villages throughout India and other parts of the world. Using the technology, Aravind Eye Hospital, in Theni, has been able to treat 1,400 patients a month at five remote centers for costs as little as 13 cents a visit. An article on this topic appears in the April 9 issue of Forbes, but is not available online. Here is a link to Brewer’s research group at Berkeley, called TIER (technology and infrastructure for emerging regions.)

That’s the kind of transformative effect that technology can have on developing areas. As we think about this topic, it’s important to remember that it’s not about taking existing technology and applying it to impoverished people. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s more about considering what new technologies might make sense to address the problems of the poor, disconnected, and often forgotten people of the world. As Prahalad says, it's not just about creating "microconsumers," but also creating "microproducers." That requires real innovation.

It is also worth keeping in mind that when we discuss the issues surround “media and content,” it’s not just about entertainment, news, music and books. It’s about all kinds of content, like telemedicine, weather reports that affect farming habits, and educational programming, etc. The challenge is twofold: determining what kind of content impoverished people need the most (and this would vary from region to region); and how best to deliver it. Or as they say in the writing business: form follows content.

March 26, 2007 in Africa, Media and Content | Permalink


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This is a vitally important discussion thread and one definitely worth pursuing; here's my start.

Giving a bottom-of-the-line laptop computer (maybe even something like Negroponte's XO) and basic network access to a community of subsistence-level farmers in India (or in any other emerging region) would give them the equivalent computing power of a 1980s Research 1 University. Combined with access to the collected datasets of agricultural, medical, and economic databases these computers could very quickly give these communities the development knowledge necessary to become net producers in their microregion. Technological transformations of his sort should be done as a matter of course; a basic first step.

So what's next?

The discussants in Mumbai correctly cut to to the core issue when they address literacy.

As Picasso famously reminded us, a computer is almost useless because it only gives us answers. It's the questions that drive real progress. Until the user communities are literate enough to make meaningful queries, all that computing power will be for naught. That's the literacy that matters most.

Certainly there are other necessary pieces for this system. We need to get the world's researchers building standardized databases that can be queried from these icon-based browser systems. We need to re-align our ideas of foreign aid and development to smaller, more sustainable scales. But these are small and workable concerns compared to the transformations that are possible. Creating a literacy that can form the right questions is the logical next step and the foundation for meaningful--even monumental--change.

Posted by: Stephen Masiclat | Mar 27, 2007 6:19:04 AM

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