Saturday, October 20, 2007

Northwoods Alchemy IV – Africa is looking up.

Africa is looking up. Believe it.

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

Northwoods Alchemy III: Speed Kills, Slow Kills - Lost in Time in Camden, Maine

I’m rushing to try to put something down for a blog…

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 HonorĂ© 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, HonorĂ©’s personal story, in child rearing – built around going slower and appreciating more.

It makes sense. Eating fast gives you indigestion. And as HonorĂ©’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.

It sounds like a good idea. But I gotta go. No time to write more. Busy, busy, busy…

Northwoods Alchemy II: Save the bees

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

Northwoods Alchemy

If you are a regular – or occasional – reader of Andy’s Global View (, 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 ( 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: