Can Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) bridge the digital divide? Over this week and next, I will present a number of ideas which can help. Taken individually, they may seem like small, incremental steps. But taken together, I believe they can help developing countries like India and many of the small and medium-sized enterprises pull up to a level-playing field.
First, a brief discussion on the characteristics that the ideas need to have:
Cost: The price-points have to be affordable to the mass markets. This limits usage technology priced in the local currency equivalent of US dollars. Such technologies need to be shared but cannot be adopted by markets of one. Cost is perhaps one of the most critical factors which will govern adoption.
Integration: We need to think in terms of a “whole solution” rather than providing just the components. The whole has greater value than the sum of the parts.
Localisation: This becomes important because we are dealing with many markets. Each market has its nuances which have to be factored in. This means that we need to perhaps provide a significant part of the solution as a platform with room for some customisation for specific markets and verticals.
Low RD: One has to leverage the work done in the past by the developed markets. Spending on research and development is not something which is affordable – both in terms of time and cost.
Standards: These ideas should try and stick to established standards, rather than try and create new ones. A good example is the adoption of GSM in the East Asian countries for the mobile telephony business. This decision has helped these countries (including India) leverage off the work done by the cellphone companies in Europe and keep the costs of the phones down, leading to much broader adoption.
Technology may not be the only answer to bridging the digital divide. But it provides the foundation on which many solutions can be built. Writes the Economost (July 12, 2001):
The evidence that technology helps development is strong. The decline in mortality rates that took more than 150 years in the now-developed world took only 40 years in the developing world, in large part thanks to antibiotics and vaccines. Technological innovations in plant-breeding, fertilisers and pesticides have doubled the world’s cereal output in a mere 40 years, compared with the 1,000 years that it took English wheat yields to quadruple. More recently, the development of oral rehydration packets, a simple solution of sugar and salt that increases the absorption of liquids, has cut the cost of treating diarrhoea and saved millions of lives.
In these columns, my focus will be more on ideas with an infotech slant. Obviously, advances in other areas like biotech also can make a big difference. The aim is to spur thinking and seed entrepreneurial thinking. Many of us live in (or have come from) the world’s emerging markets. Who better than us to solve the problems we are most familiar with?