Thursday, November 15, 2007
Well, I’m happy to report that to a large extent this year’s IGF in Rio seems much less overtly political than last year’s meeting. The keynote delivered by a Brazilian Minister did start the meeting off on a strange note – he effectively called for the end of ICANN and its replacement with he-didn’t-say-what-exactly – but most of the sessions I’ve attended have kept the polemics manageable.
In Rio I’ve participated in a good session on how to increase the net’s linguistic diversity. I’ve heard some worthwhile discussion of approaches to increasing the participation of Emerging Markets voices in IGF discussions. I even attended one panel where NGOs and large firms talked – cooperatively, constructively – about how they could join forces to work on practical approaches to protecting human rights and privacy in cyberspace.
All of this stands in stark contrast to the sharpest critique I’ve heard in any of the sessions in Rio. It came not from the Cuban or Iranian delegates (as in Athens), but from a US lawyer who complained loudly of all things about the recent free trade agreements (FTAs) signed between the US and countries in Latin America and elsewhere. And, while I can’t speak to all provisions of the treaties (and it would be far above my pay-grade to say that I know better than the Presidents of a dozen or so nations who voluntarily chose to enter into these agreements), the argument did strike me as odd.
The panelist said, in essence, that the US government was forcing other countries to accept fairly strict Intellectual Property (IP) protections as part of these treaties. And that this was unfair.
It was unfair, if I understood correctly, because it helped enshrine US technical standards in Emerging Markets. It was unfair because it disadvantages local Emerging Markets tech developers and providers. It was unfair because it limits the independence and development opportunities of countries signing these accords. And since the opposite of protecting IP would, at least on some level, be not protecting IP (and accepting some level of IP piracy?), let me say that on all counts I beg to differ.
You can say what you want about the price of any good – from virus vaccines to virus scan programs. And it is true, not all firms – whether in the Yangtzee Valley, the Rhine Valley, or in Silicon Valley – play by the rules all the time in the ways we might want. Still, nothing in the FTAs that I’ve seen forces me to buy Guatemala’s coffee (even if it is some of the best in the world) or forces small businesses like mine in Guatemala to buy Adobe Photoshop, MSOffice or any other IP product from the US.
Moreover, if I walk out of the store without paying for my coffee – whether that store is in Guatemala or Washington – that’s called stealing. The medium or size of the firm providing the product doesn’t change the principle. The fact, for example, that it’s easier to copy my band’s CD than it is to grow coffee doesn’t make me any less deserving of reaping the rewards from my work if I wrote the songs. Nor does the size of the popularity of the band have anything to do with it. Britney Spears, as much as she makes me cringe, deserves the same rights we would insist on for the cool undiscovered indie group we hope will make the big time some day. It’s not hegemony to want to be paid for your work, no matter who you are. (Note: Thank you clients for sharing this belief!)
In fact, instead of limiting the options of economies, I would argue – as Rwandan President Kagame has over and over – that IP protection is crucial to development. I have heard many companies complain that the lack of confidence in contracts and in the security of their IP-based products – especially in Emerging Markets – limits their investments in these markets. It limits their local hiring, it limits the time spent developing products for these markets, it limits the taxes they pay in country. So if you want trade, and you want investment, doesn’t it just make sense to include IP protection in any trade accord?
There’s not a lot these days that I can say I agree with coming out of my government – either the White House or the Congress. However, in this case it seems we really do have it right. As a citizen and taxpayer, you bet I want to see the jobs, tax revenues and re-investment that flow to the US from music, movies, and software made in the US. And, as a friend of development I want to see it too, because I know that true integration into the “knowledge economy” is impossible without intellectual property.
I think its time we stopped intellectualizing about protecting the “developing world” in ways we wouldn’t think to protect ourselves. Charity is charity, but no Emerging Markets entrepreneur I’ve ever met would think of signing a contract that says they shouldn’t get paid for their work – whether their product is consulting time, a pound of coffee, or a DVD. Why should they? Why should we?
Monday, November 05, 2007
Monday afternoon’s marathon 6 hour session centered the process for approving new general top level domains or gTLDs. You know, the right side of the dot. How should ICANN manage the process if you want to have another word after the dot – instead of .com or .org, perhaps .amglobal? And while not that many people are clamoring for the chance to run the .amglobal universe, the issue is not trivial. In fact, as I learned, it’s pretty tricky in the end.
While many of the original gTLDs like .mil, .edu, .com etc. evolved from early networks on the web, a number of new gTLDs have been approved in recent years. While they may be less well known (like .museum) or nearly unknown (like .aero), there has been a slow, steady movement to open up the space. We have .biz, for example, and .info. And others have been proposed. No one really knows how much demand is out there, but no matter. Some demand exists, so ICANN decided to look into how they could address the issue.
The conversation started with a pretty basic question: What is out of bounds?
While there were a few loud voices arguing that anything should be permitted on “free speech” basis – as always is on any issue in any ICANN meeting – the general sense in the room seemed to be that we’d all prefer a world with some limits. Would the world be better place without a .hitler or .abortion or .pedophile? I’m not a purist. I think so. I can live without .pedophile.
However, when you take away some of the more obvious cases, then what do you do? ICANN is not in the business of making social policy, after all. Even if we know that there are some things over the line, how do we draw that line? Tricky.
Even for supposedly non-controversial strings there is a chance of controversy in many cases. A number of people, for example, might like to own and run a possible .apple or .bank gTLD if it came available. But who would get .apple? Steve Jobs? The Washington State apple producers association? The town of Appleton, Wisconsin? Fiona Apple? Somebody else? Even the hard core free speech shouters agreed that there’s a real need for some dispute resolution mechanism.
Moreover, who would review these objections? And could they do it quickly and efficiently? Also, what mechanism would be used to make the final decision when there’s a conflict – an auction? A lottery? A panel of experts determining appropriateness? Who would sit on this little court? While ICANN has clearly put a lot of time and energy into reaching for consensus, a lot of unresolved issues remain.
Still, in the end, I kept returning to the beginning. The general debate seemed to be missing the point. As I listened to the back-and-forth at the microphone I kept thinking that the simple, underlying question was not really being addressed…
Even if some people want more gTLDs, do we as an Internet community really need them? Is my creativity truly being harmed by the lack of a .mack gTLD? And what role should a gTLD play anyway?
The way I look at it, my AMGlobal website is like a car on the road. If I don’t maintain my car well, it’s my problem. If it stops running, my issue. But gTLDs have a different role, and a different set of responsibilities. gTLDs function like the road itself. They are core to confidence in the entire system, and just as we don’t let just anyone build just any road just anywhere, we shouldn’t take lightly the idea of offering up a new gTLD.
The final process that ICANN arrives at for approving new gTLDs will no doubt be imperfect. It will strike many as arbitrary and without question it will be on some level. Some conflicts will be imperfectly resolved. And, in trying to avoid controversy it will without question limit the number of new gTLDs that are approved.
However, the Internet is more than just an inanimate tool, and certainly much more than a debating society. It is on some level a community. And, while it should provide ever growing levels of access and flexibility, we community members must demand first and foremost that it remain stable and reliable.
The conversation I heard on Monday convinced me that ICANN will be ill-equipped to resolve many of the issues presented if a large number of gTLD applications come forward. It also convinced me that any other current entity would do an even worse job in addressing the issue.
Country code TLDs (ccTLDS) – and the effort to build out Internationalized Domain Names (e.g. the .ru in Cyrillic script) – should get on the fast track, as there are few of them and they are crucial to offering access to new communities. These are real roads that need to be built, and have ICANN support.
However, based on what I saw Monday, it is very likely that getting a new gTLD will remain a difficult process taking months and requiring significant commitment and capacity from the requesting party. It will probably mean that there isn’t a .mack or .amglobal any time soon.
Considering the complexity of the issues and the risks to the system, that’s ok by me.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
So, you just got back from an exciting week at Pop!Tech 2007, tell me a bit about your expectations going in?
Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to think going in. I heard that
For most of us that can’t attend Pop!Tech, what’s the feel? The environment? The buzz like at Pop!Tech?
The Pop!Tech environment is built on lots of people who are (and fashion themselves) pretty deep thinkers. There’s a really wide range of attendees, from academics and artists, to inventors, NGO leaders and technology practitioners. The environment is over-flowing, in a good way, with people who really do big ideas for a living.
I also found Pop!Tech to be a place where people think of problems in unusual and unconventional ways. For example, I talked about Chris Jordan in my first blog. The guy is an incredible photographer who uses his compositions to capture the enormous quantities of waste that we produce here in the
Tell us about your Blogging approach at Pop!Tech
First of all, I took a slightly different approach to blogging at Pop!Tech than some of the other bloggers, in part because other top-notch posters like Rob Katz, from NextBillion.net and Ethan Zuckerman were doing such a great – and quick – job of chronicling events. My goal was to step back, looking for patterns and opportunities suggested by the different presentations. We called the blog series “Northwoods Alchemy”, and the idea was to take the presentations and mix them in a proverbial test-tube, to see what came out. I was pretty pleased with some of the pieces.
I also tried very hard to use the metaphors that were implied during the presentations. For example, looking at the speed of change (speed kills, speed saves), perspectives on
Was there one thing that really impressed you? An idea or individual? Something that you heard? Chatter in the halls?
There were many things that impressed. As we work a lot in and with technology, I was very interested in a couple of new technologies demonstrated at Pop!Tech that seemed to generate a buzz.
I was fortunate to have a chance to speak with Sheila Kennedy, who leads the Portable Light Project. Sheila and her team have developed cool, flexible solar panels which she is using with communities in
I also spoke with John Shearer, who presented his company’s radio-wave electricity technology ideas. The basic idea of John’s approach is to use RFID-like signals to send electricity without using wires. Imagine the thought of having a cellphone that was really, truly wireless – one where you also didn’t need to connect to the wall using a charger. My cell is always running out of juice, and I think that would be amazing.
One thing that made headlines was the introduction of the new “Pop!Tech Accelerator” What did you think?
Well, as Andrew Z. said, the Accelerator is still very much a program in development. The idea is to create a kind of project incubator that would help take good Pop!Techie ideas to scale, and of course I think that’s great. Generally speaking, my sense is that the big question on the minds of attendees was, “Is this cutting new ground?” To some extent it’s not – other groups (Ashoka comes to mind) are doing similar types of things. Still, the Pop!Tech community is uniquely high-powered, and in the end I expect work with the Accelerator could be slicker, smarter and better financed than other, more NGO-oriented efforts in the past. Not sure what will happen because one of the big questions about any incubator is how many eggs get hatched and how long does it take to hatch them?
One thing that made headlines was the introduction of the new “Pop!Tech Accelerator” What did you think?
Often people discredit or discount what’s good in
Well, first of all, I would be foolish if I thought that this was going to be a straight line. Nothing happens in a straight line and especially in places and parts of the world that have characteristics like
First of all it’s a huge country – last I heard it was over 140 million people – meaning there is a lot of opportunity for business in
As far as space agency, I was struck by how Boroffice nonchalantly responded to my first question about demand. People around world and the continent are using this technology, and
The idea of a “Slow Warrior” came out of the presentation I saw which looked at our psychological responses to global warming as a looming crisis. Our typical response is to ignore slow moving issues – even if they’re urgent, as in the case of global warming. Then we sound the alarm. Still, after sounding the alarm we need to have a plan. Even Al Gore will tell you – the alarm is not the destination. If a problem is slow in coming and will take time to solve, and just ringing alarm bells may be counterproductive.
If our approach to global warming is just to sound the alarm, then donate a lot of money and hold a lot of conferences, my fear is that we will miss an opportunity to build the kind of long-term alliances – which would include you and me as consumers – that will be necessary to really change things. I remember last year’s focus on bird flu. Billions were spent and the issue dominated the airwaves. Now we hear nothing. Was it crying wolf? Is it still a crisis? Who knows?
A slow warrior, slow activism approach could actually provide greater chances for success long term. It might also help us create a more satisfying and more sustainable activist experience, one defined by long-term engagement (vs. panic), and fitting with the sense of appreciation that characterizes other “slow movements” like those proposing “slow food” and “slow exercise”.
Right now we’re stressed out, rushing to solve the various crises around the world, and not doing a very good job of it. Perhaps adding “slow activism” to our vocabularies would help.
For information about Pop!Tech and see photos from the event visit: http://poptech.com/conferences
Saturday, October 20, 2007
After years of being fed a constant diet of bad news about the continent, most Americans are all too ready to assume nothing but the worst stories come out of Africa. Sometimes it seems that CNN has a special slot reserved just for a weekly feature on pestilence, war and famine. At least in the US media, you really have to look hard to find anything approaching good news about Africa, anything you might think of “looking up” to.
So it’s not altogether surprising that most Americans might snicker if you suggested they talk with the head of the Nigerian Space Agency. To most US citizens – whose knowledge of Nigeria is unlikely to extend much past oil and email scams – Nigeria’s space aspirations might sound more like a skit from the Daily Show or an article from the Onion. Except that it’s serious stuff. Nigeria, I was told yesterday, is serious about space.
Don’t believe me if you don’t want. But there’s no denying the conviction of Robert Boroffice. Boroffice, who I spoke with at some length yesterday after his presentation at an afternoon Pop!Tech session, is Director General of NASRDA, the National Space Research and Development Agency. And he’s passionate about what space can do for Nigeria and Nigerians.
We started our conversation with something I suppose I should have guessed, but I never really stopped to consider. In a sense, Nigeria has been “in space” for a while already. Getting, using, analyzing satellite data; working to plan responses to natural and man-made disasters, training a cadre of local scientists and technicians to manipulate the signals bouncing down from above. Boroffice was clear: Nigeria already had experience in space.
But in recent years the program has really – apologies for the pun – taken off, with the launch of the country’s satellites. Nigeria now has multiple satellites in orbit and has plans for more, producing high resolution images for census mapping, and low resolution pictures to help plan the course of railways planned to link the north and south of the country.
Moreover, in addition to the more than 200 Nigerians from all parts Government, academia and the private sector that have received training in recent years, technicians from over 20 other African nations have studied as part of the Nigerian program in Nigeria. There is, as it turns out, a lot of interest in space science in other parts of Africa, and Nigeria is determined to establish itself as the continent’s “mission control”.
Boroffice was also quick to point out that the impact is not limited to Nigeria or even Africa’s issues. With no small pride, he told me yesterday about how a Nigerian satellite was the first to broadcast images of the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, data that was shared with the US Geological Service – data that should have been available to FEMA (though who knows if they were paying attention). Similarly, Nigeria’s satellite images helped the EU plan its response for victims of the big tsunami a few years back.
And while countries – especially the US – move to limit their satellite cooperation on national security grounds, Nigeria is pushing for more cooperation, to be a good “space citizen” if you like, to be a contributor to the global data pool.
So what’s the long term for this new agency? I asked Boroffice to paint me the biggest picture of the future, the success he dreams of. And he was quick to respond: “I want to create an agency that is sustainable, with a critical mass of its own engineers and scientists. And I want to help Nigeria make the most of its water resources – for irrigation, drinking water, and power.” He’s convinced Nigeria’s satellites can help. I was convinced too.
We look out at Africa from our positions around the world – both Africans and non-Africans alike – and it’s easy to look down.
We often see the continent in terms of earth and the things that flow from the earth – the focus on agriculture, mining and mineral resource development, forestry. We also think of the groundedness of life in the village, of a sense rootedness that hearkens back to a bygone era.
But Africa, where many people will never in their lives even see a land line, Africa is today the fastest growing cellphone market in the world. Internet cafes are booming and wi-fi, and wi-max are expanding at a breakneck pace. The continent is re-defining itself and its economic and technological options in ways we never thought possible before. And the continent’s future – in some significant ways – is tied to the sky. Which is just fine with Robert Boroffice.
Africa is looking up. Believe it.
Friday, October 19, 2007
Partly because we face big issues. Because we don’t have time to wait. But also because I’m only at Pop!Tech for a while. And because unlike many bloggers, it seems to take me a long time to crank out a piece. Time is short, and I’m on deadline, after all. So quickly to the work at hand…
Again this morning we heard about the planet in crisis, that we need to take action, now, today, immediately, if we’re going to save the earth. And if yesterday’s news was fairly optimistic – we have some of the tools to solve our problems – then today’s news gave me pause.
If you follow the first speaker Dan Gilbert, then we humans are uniquely, biologically unqualified to see a crisis like global warming coming up in our collective rear view mirrors. Thus, while I may be perfectly hardwired to see a baseball coming at my head and know to duck, say, or to identify the danger in an approaching man with a gun I may not be able to really “get” global warming.
To put it differently, global warming is like that big, heavy semi on the highway.
Slowly, slowly it creeps up on you – a gradual, non-philosophic, un-anthropomorphic tidal wave, one that flies under our biological radar. And then wham, like the semi, it will be upon us. And if you follow the metaphor, it won’t matter whether we’re driving a Mini or Hummer – since by the time we feel this as a real threat, we’re toast, or roadkill if you want
We face a slow killer, that because of its slowness, we can barely see. But here’s the paradox – we’re being asked to take fast action.
Naturally, the next session stood this first session on its head. The inside out of Pop!Tech.
Swiftly, almost breathlessly, the next speaker Carl Honoré talked about the slow movement around the world. Starting mostly in Italy, there’s this counter model emerging – in medicine, food and exercise, and my favorite, Honoré’s personal story, in child rearing – built around going slower and appreciating more.
It makes sense. Eating fast gives you indigestion. And as Honoré’s son taught him, reading Snow White as a bedtime story, it turns out, is better with no blackberry interruptions, when told as an interactive tale, told slowly enough to include all seven dwarves, leaving room for audience (ok, kid) participation.
So as I put the two together – the need to see and truly absorb the onset of a slow crisis (while trying to combat it) and the need to slow down to create richness in life – it got me thinking. There’s a slow food movement, a slow education movement, even a slow cities movement.
Perhaps the only real approach that will allow us to organize around an issue as big and yet as gradual as global warming is not a rapid, screaming “we must do something” – it just doesn’t compute for us humans – but instead a different way to organize our fast action through slow thought.
Can you become a Slow Warrior?
Perhaps to combat global warming what we need next is the creation of a kind of “slow activism” – one that would teach us to recognize the truck as it comes upon us, noticing the subtle changes in the brightness of the approaching headlights. Perhaps with this slow activism we could build the kind of broad-based coalitions we will need across sectors and around the world, without which all of our efforts will be in vain. Perhaps our slow activism will make our fast action work.
Thursday morning’s session had an audacious title: “The Human Impact”. And, of course this immediately appealed to me… A veteran of many soccer, rugby and an odd US football game, impact is no stranger. After all, we grow up – especially us boys – wanting to be “impact players”. As we get older, we try to keep in shape through our high impact workouts. And then, as we age, we look back at our legacies. Did we accomplish something meaningful? Did we have an impact?
Well, it appears that our impact has been all too great. However, as any old Grammy-Oscar-Nobel Prize winner these days will tell you, it’s pretty clear all of this impact isn’t exactly working out so well. Our planet (broadly) is a train following tracks that lead off a cliff, and we are passengers – rich and poor alike.
Sounds like an emergency, in no uncertain terms. Still, for most people – myself included – understanding an issue this big in more than intellectual terms, well – let’s just say an idea like this has a hard time sinking in. And so, our speakers this morning tried to paint a picture of today in somewhat unorthodox human terms.
The first presenter, artist Chris Jordan, used some both beautiful and shocking photographs to show just how much we use, consume and waste in the USA, and the images were staggering. His medium is grand, putting together a ream of paper, say, then creating a larger photo made up of reams of photos of the ream… A kind of crazy quilt of scale.
And the numbers he illustrated are beyond absurd: 106,000 aluminum cans used every second, 60,000 paper bags every 5 seconds, 30,000 reams of office paper every 5 seconds. What’s worse, we’re not just consumers in the USA. Think about it. If Chris’ numbers are correct, the US Army shot off 1.8 billion bullets last year in Iraq – just from handguns alone.
We shouldn’t, of course, get lost in the numbers or the images. They are a metaphor, a representation. His point, if you boil it down, is fairly simple: We humans – especially those of us that live in the US -- act as if we’re the only thing that matters, and that our impact on the world is trivial. In fact, we’re wrong on both counts, and it puts us all at risk.
Still, as we sat and had lunch after his presentation I pushed Chris to go deeper. “Be afraid, very afraid” may be an important first part of some sort of global 12-step Consumers Anonymous program, but at least for now, guilt and admonition clearly aren’t working as organizational approaches to the problem.
If we’re serious about dealing with our waste and saving earth (and ourselves in the process), what should we do?
“We need to think more like bees,” says Chris. “To think of others.”
“Hmmm. I says. Hmmm. Think like a bee. Can I think like a bee? I’m not sure.” And so I went off to the afternoon sessions, to – as it were – buzz around and think about it.
As seems to be the pattern here at Pop!Tech, happily some of the afternoon speakers came to the rescue, putting at least some of my fears to rest...
Lee Alan Dugatkin talked about altruism as a part of our common animal heritage – even if it isn’t that common. He reassured me that even Darwin had confidence in our capacity for sacrifice for the common good, citing the common honeybee as an example in the way it protects the hive. It may be that we are more inclined to help bees like us, but at least we have hardwired ability, the desire to think of others. In some measure, altruism could help us stop the train wreck.
Then Louanne Brizendine spoke about the development of chemistry and behavior patterns in men and women, and how we naturally approach problems differently. By extension, I extrapolated, we should have the capacity for many potential models of impact. Perhaps a slightly more feminine version of “impact” might help us change the direction of the track, leading to a saner, safer planet (or at least less trash on the ground at the end of the day). Certainly changes in our family roles and practices should give us access to more feminine thinking as we attempt to solve the planet’s problems... assuming, of course, that we’re listening.
And finally from Daniel Pink, we heard about the changing economics – and thus the changing social organization – we are seeing and likely to see, as we move from left brain to right, from a knowledge society to one more based on creativity. But will the move to a creative society be enough to solve our planet’s problems? Or will we need to graduate to the next level his diagram suggested to me, the economy beyond economy, the stage off the chart – some sort of spiritual, or other-focused economic and social set-up? In short, must we get off the train entirely if we truly want to fix things?
At lunch I was asking myself – with all my conditioning and chemistry and wants, can I really think like a bee? Putting all the afternoon’s speakers together I got at least part of a solution. We have the crucial tools. On some level, we might even happily find we’re bees at heart.
But by day’s end I was still left with too many unanswered questions, and some nagging doubts. If we’re on a train toward extinction and we want to get off… if in response to the emergency we declared Thursday morning we agree to work together… if we’re willing to re-organize to think more like members of the same family – like bees who would gladly sacrifice for each other – well then what exactly should we do?
The future may indeed be more altruistic, more accepting of feminine values, more creative. But even if we all agree we need each other, we still need a plan. Without more of a blueprint for our new socio-economic hive, my fear is that tomorrow will just look like a bigger, closer, scarier today.
So listen, Pop!Tech, lend a hand to a fellow bee here… I know you’ve got some solutions on the drawing board somewhere. Take it to the next level. As they say in the movies, “Show me the honey”.
The world is waiting.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Northwoods Alchemy I: Give me a cell phone, or give me death! – Does Tomorrow belong to the c-Citizen?
It’s been a long time since Patrick Henry made his famous speech in Virginia calling for liberty or death, calling for democracy and independence for what is now the United States. And a lot has changed since then.
A lot more countries are nominally considered democracies, and at least some of them claim to be interested in providing services and opportunities for their citizens. Around the world citizens are demanding a lot more from their interactions with Government and community. And then there’s technology, which is changing everything we know about the way citizens and Governments interact every day.
At yesterday’s Pop!Tech session we started at the base, talking about the primary piece of technology touching most of the world, the technological touchstone in Emerging Markets today, the cellphone. While much of the discussion was familiar, I was struck by the increasing use of cellphones in the political process. And so I ask myself – is tomorrow’s cellphone tomorrow’s vote? Is Nokia or Celtel crucial to the future of good Government?
Think about the ways the humble cellphone is and can continue to change the way people – especially people in Emerging Markets – interact with the state…
On the one hand, you have the cellphone as a tool of the political opposition, a way to keep Government in line or in the case of the Phillipines, to change the state. You remember how texting helped citizens organize the “people power” movement in Manila, right? And there are lots of other uses… helping poll-watchers report in on election fraud in Liberia. As a way of reporting corruption. As a way of building the support and even protecting NGOs as they work in the field.
But there’s also another side of the democratic cellphone movement, one that provides real opportunities for Government itself – the citizen satisfaction side.
Many countries are today looking at how they can harness m-Government as a way of extending their reach and doing more.
As I discussed later with one of the presenters, entrepreneur-professor Nathan Eagle of MIT, just think of the time you could save if you could pay taxes, renew your driver’s license, or check on your benefits over your cellphone. Think of the long lines you could skip. Certainly that time has value, economic value, “development value”. Certainly Government should be interested. And then there are the benefits of avoiding the kind of petty corruption that plagues small business and just plain folks in most countries.
Moreover, there are also potentially significant economic opportunities that might be made available for local firms who already sell similar kinds of interfaces to cellphone companies themselves. Would tech entrepreneurs like to sell into the Government market? And improve the lives of their communities? You bet.
But as we heard yesterday, m-Government could do more than help people save time or help small tech businesses. It could use the cellphone to share public health messages, to help people remember when they need to take their medicines or to explain a new Government project directly to the people who need the information most.
And it could even go further… During the session we heard about a project in Brazil where local Government was sharing its budget proposal with the community – getting feedback, even letting people to vote on their priorities – from their homes or offices, using their cellphones.
In countries where the choices can be stark – do we focus on education for tomorrow or on health today? – there would no doubt be challenges. But in nearly all countries, where the predominant dynamic is one where Government is organized to act on people (as opposed to working with them), the ability to provide real-time, aggregated input could be revolutionary.
No question, there would be some losers… the people who sit at the window and make you wait in line to get service, who sometimes get “facilitation” payments to move faster, these people would see their livelihoods shrink. Taking real advantage of the new technology will require bravery on the part of most Governments. In a world where trust is in short supply, they will need to trust their people more. But think about the economic dynamism you could create with nothing more than the time saved. Maybe, just maybe, Governments might win some friends in the populace.
In the future, will the cellphone be the best way for opposition to reach out to new voters, rising above constraints like Government controlled media? Will it be the best way for Government to deliver personal services, to make real connections with citizens, building real support (and winning over people who might vote for those opposition types)? Who knows?
What seems increasingly clear is that as this decentralized model takes hold – especially in Emerging Markets – we could some day soon find ourselves in a world divided not just by location, class and ethnicity, but also in a new way with two new kinds of citizens: those “cellphone enfranchised” c-Citizens, who can every day more easily manipulate their Government using the airwaves, and those who can’t.
Monday, October 15, 2007
If you are a regular – or occasional – reader of Andy’s Global View (www.amglobal.blogspot.com), you’ll know that one of my goals is to try to think over the horizon a bit, looking at technology and development issues in new ways, focusing on Emerging Markets.
Well I am happy to say that our world just got bigger. This week I will be attending the Pop!Tech (www.poptech.com) conference in Camden, Maine as a “guest blogger” –covering the conference as combination commentator and gadfly, and bringing our well known sense of “why not” to the north woods.
For those of you that have not heard about it, Pop!Tech is unlike other conferences – in fact it is in a class by itself. Described last year by the New York Times as “Davos for Cool People”, Pop!Tech is aimed at bringing together speakers from private companies, the NGO world, and the arts to consider “what’s next?” in the way we use technology and absorb new ideas. Presenters at Pop!Tech 2007 range from Jessica Flannery, the Founder of Kiva to Grammy Award Winner John Legend, and Robert Boroffice the head of Nigeria’s Space and Research Program. From the tech industry, we have the likes of Yahoo! and Nokia.
As part of my participation, I will be blogging extensively, covering sessions and interviewing speakers and participants. For this week the blog will take a slightly different form – more posts, more topics, perhaps more informal - so I’ve decided to give this series of dispatches a title all its own in honor of our surroundings: Northwoods Alchemy.
So get ready, get set. Stay tuned for some musings about what happens when some of the smartest and most creative people around come together to talk about technology and the future.
P.S. Even if you can’t make it to Pop!Tech tune in live by visiting: http://www.poptech.com/live
Monday, September 17, 2007
Incremental or not, what Africa needs is Entrepreneurial Infrastructure
By Andrew Mack
In his piece last month about “incremental infrastructure”, Ethan Zuckerman makes a number of excellent points about the recent development of infrastructure in Africa. Using his example of the entrepreneur who put up cell towers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he rightly observes that there are opportunities to think beyond the traditional, top-down structures of infrastructural development.
He cites the logistical and budgetary problems of many nations as they seek to build out not just the famous “last mile”, but in cases like DRC, many of the basic earlier miles that need to be in place if a country wants to be connected – by road, by power grid, or by wireless. And, while he doesn’t dwell on one of the real reasons for this failure – Government disorganization or outright corruption – he hints at it as a driving force which creates both the space and the need for other approaches.
However, while the idea of incremental infrastructure is interesting, I would argue that at least to some extent, Ethan’s argument misses the larger point. It is not incremental infrastructure so much as “entrepreneurial infrastructure” that Africa needs and has shown it wants.
By focusing on the example of cell towers in DRC, Ethan may have chosen the one item best suited for incremental infrastructure. But consider roads... if a community – or a firm – decides to build an incremental piece of road, and who pays? Who maintains the road? Who sets the safety standards (as road accidents are an epidemic in many African countries today)? And what if the road doesn’t connect in to a larger grid? Clearly, while cellphones may not need coordination to function, most other pieces of infrastructure – roads, energy, etc. – do. And they need standards.
Moreover, there are issues of economy of scale and policy. Consider the case of neighboring Uganda. In Uganda, cellphone licenses were bid out, encouraging competition, and cellphone use has grown from some 5,000 lines in 1998 to more than 2.6 MILLION today. The major carriers have invested – and made – millions, and I would argue, have done more for Uganda’s development than most of the major donors over the last decade. A licensing regime that favored incremental providers might have brought service to a few villages, but today, CelTel is the largest taxpayer in the country, serving the entire nation and recently, offering no-roaming service across the sub-region – in Kenya, Tanzania, and recently also in DRC. An incremental approach would not have been able to provide this service, pure and simple.
What we need to do is re-orient our thinking, I believe. Rather than focusing on the challenges – and there are many – we need to step out of our past frame and see the markets as what they are: big and underserved. What we need is not so much small (incremental) infrastructure as infrastructure that is constructed by people with an entrepreneurial mindset. If the Government of Kenya is prepared to invest in wiring classrooms and has both the scale and technical savvy to pull it off, that’s great. If the private sector can do it better, then the Government should act as facilitator. In some instances, a public-private approach will be the best.
Without question, Ethan makes a good point about the effectiveness of many large projects in Africa, especially famous dam projects and the like. Still, this is not unique either to Africa, or to energy. Corruption and a lack of oversight will ruin a project, whether it’s managed by a poor African Government or Halliburton. Especially in infrastructure, the key is getting value for money. Everybody – Governments, the private sector, and consumers themselves – all need to think entrepreneurially.
In the end, while small may be beautiful in many things, I wouldn’t want my own water system in Washington, DC any more than my friends in Lamu would want their own. What they want is a water system that works. Based on my observations from more than 20 years work on the continent, I would argue that a focus on the incremental could – while providing solutions in some areas – actually hurt efforts to build a more complete and more robust African infrastructure with the policies and investments to make it sustainable.
While there will always be underserved areas where other options might not be possible, incremental infrastructure would be a poor substitute for the kind of top shelf, state of the art infrastructure Africans are looking for, the kind of infrastructure that could help them compete in the global economy.
Andrew Mack is the Founder and Principal of AMGlobal Consulting, and a former World Bank official. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday, September 07, 2007
During the march ICANN meetings in Lisbon I happened in on an interesting presentation. Around the hall sat a group of Africa’s true Internet leaders – entrepreneurs, Government representatives and NGO heads. They were intently listening to a plan aimed at creating a special domain for the continent –.africa. And as I listened and learned more, I came to believe that .africa is an idea whose time has come.
While we here in the United States and Europe are typically focused on the more widely known, content-based, “generic” top-level domains – .com for companies (like www.yahoo.com), .org for NGOs, or .edu for universities to name a few – in recent years there has been significant growth in the number of options “after the dot”.
Many country-specific domains (or ccTLDs as they are called) have become popular in larger markets like Germany (.de) and the UK (.uk). In South Africa, a large number of companies have chosen .za addresses to emphasize their connection to the country and the local economy. In fact, nearly every country or similar geographic entity, large or small, has its own ccTLD – from Russia to Christmas Island.
So I suppose it was only a matter of time until someone decided to focus on the opposite trend – the coming together of countries for economic and political integration. It was in this context that new pan-European (.eu) and pan-Asian (.asia) domains were launched, with an eye toward companies and organizations that wish to work with those entire continents. The domains are organized on a non-profit basis, with an aim of enhancing regional identity and regional dynamism on the net. And it is in a similar vein that .africa is being proposed.
However, in Africa I would argue that the idea is even more important.
Why .africa? There are a number of reasons. First and foremost, there is the increasing trend of economic and political integration. What started more than 50 years ago as a dream of leaders like Nkrumah, Senghor and Kenyatta is now becoming more possible than ever, in part because of the web. Cross-border communications are simpler. E-commerce and e-banking is now possible. And at least in theory, the chance to work together, share knowledge and avoid misunderstandings is at our fingertips through the Internet. If we are serious about real political and economic integration, we will need to use technology like never before, and .africa could play a big role.
At the same time, for investors – whether Africans or others interested in investing in Africa – there is power in the idea of having an African address. The way I see it, Google.africa would be more than a website. It would be a statement of intent, of the desire to build a real Africa-oriented business on the continent. And since realistically it would be impossible for all but the largest corporations to have websites covering all of the 50-plus African ccTLDs (many of which are still in development anyway), .africa could provide an Africa-oriented web presence perfect for firms with regional or continental growth aspirations. A .africa address could provide a one-stop entry point for vendors interested in selling to and working with the African market.
Finally, .africa would be run as a non-profit with a strong focus on building an African Internet community, and I can see tremendous benefits for Africans – both on the continent and especially in the diaspora. A .africa domain could be a meeting place aimed at promoting trade and skills development, a place to build cultural connection and help preserve traditions, and a way to bring Africans together wherever they live around the world. It could provide a safe place to discuss and ultimately tackle crucial issues of gender, ethnicity and development. And, looking at early evidence from the .eu experience, it seems unlikely that a new .africa domain would significantly reduce demand for African ccTLDs – in fact, .africa could help the ccTLDs over the long run by bringing more eyes to the “African Internet.”
According to Sophia Bekele, an Ethiopian/US IT business executive and initiator of the project, already the program is moving fast. The UN Economic Commission for Africa has come out supporting the initiative, as have a number of Governments. Three large registries – companies that might “host” a .africa domain – have come forward to express interest in bidding on the contract to provide finance and service. The initiative is likely to be voted on by the ICANN Board (that would need to approve the new designation) within six months, and you can show your support by sending email to email@example.com, or participating at an online discussion at http://dotafrica.blogspot.com/.
Some will no doubt say that this is a pipe dream, or worse, a waste of Africa’s time. They will argue that the Internet doesn’t matter on the continent since infrastructure and access are limited. But I would argue just the opposite. ICT is growing in Africa like few places on earth, even with the infrastructural and political challenges the continent faces. And the future is coming, ready or not, and a big part of that future – especially if we have any hopes for regional integration – will be taking place on the web.
Within the year we could see the start of a new Internet era in Africa, the .africa era. Now is the time.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Earlier this summer I spoke to a group of young telecom professionals from around the world at the United States Telecommunications Training Institute (USTTI), in a meeting here in
My topic was “Intellectual Property in the Digital Age.” And if this sounds like weighty stuff, well I guess it is. When I first went into this process I was thinking that this was an abstract, almost academic talk. But through the discussion, what I realized was just how much it could mean to Emerging Markets like the ones my group represented.
Now, let me say off the bat that I am not a complete authority on IP law. This was actually the first time presenting to this kind of audience. Naturally, I was eager to engage in conversation and debate with these professionals, because I am more convinced than ever that IP must be protected if Emerging Markets are to develop their own knowledge-based industries like software development. But, I didn’t always think of IP in this way.
Flashback to 1999….
Like many of you reading this blog, I was in college in 1999, the year Napster was born. I definitely remember when I met Napster in a college dorm room in
Fast-forward to 2007….
Since college I’ve traveled a bit more, and visited places where people live on $1 a day, where everyday life can be a struggle. In these cities and countries I have met with young entrepreneurs who write, produce and market their music, art, film and books. I met and heard people with things to say and beautiful music to offer, people who might some day be the Coltrane, Dylan or Mingus of a place like
So, back to the USTTI presentation. After introducing myself, I asked the group, “What is copyright infringement?” Hands shot up without hesitation and a gentleman from the
Similar to what I’ve found during my interactions and work with African and
And, while there are many new avenues to promote and gather information, but this also creates new challenges. From broadcasters to content providers, to technology pioneers and Government, it’s increasingly difficult to protect IP. Even if you aren’t a policy maker or broadcaster this does affect you. After all, at the end of the day we’re all consumers and quality matters.
You may be thinking, “So what? I’m still going to sign into a File Sharing P2P, because film and recording studios are raking in the dough…”, but hear me out. Now, maybe it was the fact that I was reading “The Wizard of Menlo Park” (about Thomas Edison) at the time of the presentation, but in our session in
And so I thought… WWTED (What Would Thomas Edison Do?) What would
So, yes, this is what I think it takes… building a network of pioneers of different ages, and from many sectors who can raise awareness, influence policy-makers and encourage creativity and innovation in Emerging Markets. This means collaboration between business, Government and consumers. Not just those in tech, but the young people who are filmmakers in Cameroon and artists in Uganda whose livelihood depends on selling original works that have taken months and years to complete.
It all comes back to
IP protection made
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
By Andrew Mack
This, of course, is not completely new news. Initiatives to get urban and rural African cities on the grid have been going for over a decade – things like USAID’s Leland Program spring to mind, but there are many others. However, in today’s Emerging Markets ICT world, especially in
The first difference is Leadership. African leaders, including Presidents like Kagame, Kufuor and Johnson-Sirleaf, are more ICT-focused than their predecessors, offering high-level support to projects and policies that will really (not just rhetorically) help the spread of ICT. Countries from
African leaders are even adopting the language of ICT, building Government around the needs of what they hope will become a new class of “eCitizens”. And to make this a reality, they are implementing institutional reforms. As just one example, according to
The second difference is the increasingly active private sector, and its willingness to work with Government and civil society on all manner of partnerships. Some of these efforts are primarily philanthropic. A good example is the NEPAD e-Schools Initiative, which works with more than a dozen countries and major tech firms like Intel, Oracle, HP, Cisco, and Microsoft. The initiative aims to equip African youth with in-classroom technology and ICT skills to participate in today’s information society. It’s an approach that is innovative in the way that it brings together multiple companies and countries and is a long-term commitment.
And there are other examples – risk taking by private sector actors large and small that recognize the opportunity presented by technology in the re-building in places like
However, today it’s simply not enough to raise the flag for enlightened Governments and innovative companies. Why? Because tech today is reaching only a small fraction of the people that it should. Specifically, tech is reaching only a small fraction of the youth and young adults that need it most, the citizen-consumers that are the heart and soul of tech-centered innovation and commerce in the “more developed world”.
What will it take for ICT in
The answer is as simple as YouTube, the same as anywhere in the world – DEMAND, specifically demand from networks of fearless, innovative tech-friendly young Africans. And what will it take to bring African youth and young adults more into the global chat room? Why not start by building bridges – and programs – to work between young techies in
There are already good models that can be leveraged and groups with much to teach us. Perhaps the largest is GeekCorps (www.geekcorps.com), with more than 3,500 technical experts in developing nations around the world. Another group is Kabissa (www.kabissa.org), an international NGO that trains African NGOs on the use of ICT. In addition, there’s the International Education Resource Network or iEARN (www.iearn.org), an organization that enables teachers and young people to use the Internet and other new technologies to enhance learning.
We should build on these examples but we can go further, with broader reach and a broader focus on creating sustainable businesses. Imagine young African and American TechCorps members paired to work on technology projects, providing training aimed at youth, taught by youth, with an end goal of building not just friendships and skills but legitimate, lasting young business networks. Imagine some day soon – projects currently being outsourced to international firms could instead be “in-sourced” to TechCorps teams on the ground with support from the TechCorps network around the world.
Naturally taking this idea to “the next level” would involve investment. It would require close collaboration with the ICT development plans of participating countries. However, many parties – from donors, to Governments, to universities, the private sector and people themselves – are eager to make this happen. And think of the opportunities…
…TechCorps hubs in secondary cities like Gulu or Makeni that might start as a collaborative aid project, but morph from Peace Corps-type activity to legitimate corps (as in corporations) – creating an ongoing commercial relationship with Gulu TC members wherever they are in the world, something made possible by today’s technology.
… Partnerships with suppliers of hardware and software, bringing the latest technologies and training to young adults who will run the new e-gov programs and service the back offices of growing companies – after all, a country unfamiliar with the latest technology can hardly demand it.
… real business-focused training aimed at creating real businesses, directly addressing issues of project sustainability and employment that have stymied the growth of these markets and opportunities for years.
… a way for US young adults to get to know Africa and its future – today’s real Africa – in an organic way, giving future US business leaders a real, on-the-ground understanding of technology’s next frontier, something that today only European (and increasingly Chinese) companies have.
Is this a big idea? Perhaps. But it could be closer than you think. The projects are out there… Consider the ICT hubs program recently proposed by
The future is rapidly approaching, one in which the Government is no longer the prime provider of jobs for young Africans entering the workforce. When
The best thing that we in the West can do regarding tech in
Send us your thoughts.
-Written with Jeremy M. Goldberg