As the Clinton Global Initiative came to a close yesterday, there emerged a stark thread of commonality running through all of the areas that CGI works in…a near-universal agreement on the three tools that the developing world needs to solve its problems in sustainability, health, education, and economic development:
- Mobile devices
- Mobile devices
- Mobile devices
The stats are staggering: More than 80 percent of the earth has mobile phone coverage; More than 50 percent of people on the planet own a mobile device; 75 percent of refugees have access to a mobile device. Google CEO Eric Schmidt put it this way:
“The starting point [for addressing social and sustainability issues] is the mobile device. These inexpensive devices empower citizens to take control of their lives…Development of mobile devices is the single most important technology development in the last 20 years.”
So now that we know mobile devices can help build sustainable, healthy and thriving societies, we just need to figure out how to arrange and organize the tool in a way that empowers the consumers to use it, shape it, and build their lives from it. Here are some examples of how CGI members are doing just that:
- Google and the Grameen Foundation USA are working with telecommunications providers in Africa to bring apps to local farmers that provide information on sustainable and productive farming practices, health, and weather forecasting.
- Refugees United’s app helps refugees find family members that have been separated from them because of war or natural disaster. Think of it as a super-super-private Facebook: Users create an online profile (typically anonymous, because of personal safety concerns) and input information that only other family members would recognize. Users do keyword searches, hoping to come across nicknames, or private phrases that only someone in their family would use. With the mobile provider Ericsson, the local telecommunications company MTN, and the UN High Commission on Refugees, the mobile app was tested in Uganda and was hugely successful by connecting thousands of refugees who had no idea where their lost family members were or whether they were even alive. The app will be scaled up to other countries across the continent, ultimately reaching 120,000 users by 2011. (This service had been available as a web-based app, but only 2 percent of refugees have interest access, compared to 75 percent with access to a mobile device.)
- Freedom from Fake Drugs began after an Interpol study in Lagos, Nigeria found that 80 percent of the drugs for sale in shops and on the street were fake. This is a huge barrier to development; those who are sick can’t get access to the drugs they need or end up not trusting the health system because the drugs they took don’t have any effect. So the organization worked with pharmaceutical companies and the Nigerian government to create a scratch-off section on all drug labels. Consumers scratch off the label, revealing a code underneath that they text to a database. They get an immediate response back letting them know whether the drug is real or fake, based on the ID code. Since this effort began last year, 115,000 text messages have been sent and the NGO plans to add thousands of more users each month.
It boils down to the fact that mobile technology and access to this information has become a necessary building block for developing areas. It’s as important an infrastructure piece as electricity or roads. But among these great success stories, the issue of waste also came up: What about the materials used to create mobile devices? Isn’t there a lot of waste created because they become obsolete so quickly? In some cases, the answer is: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. These devices are helping people launch businesses, get an education, and live healthier lives. It’s a tool that lets them do this all on their own and take control of their lives. But the mobile device manufacturers know this is a concern: Hans Vestberg, CEO of Ericsson, explained that his company is working on more efficient phones and on cutting carbon emissions from their manufacturing processes. Also, Ericsson and other phone manufacturers are in discussions to develop a universal charger: if people can share chargers or use the same charger when they get a different device, that will help remove a lot of material from of the production process.
This mobile revolution is fundamentally different than the technology of the past: Rather than companies creating technologies that they think consumers want, the power is in the hands of the consumer to demand and shape exactly what it is they want. In the context of CGI, that powerful consumer lives in the developing world. They are the ones adapting technology for their needs: to build successful businesses, lead healthier lives, get an education, and build a more sustainable society.
Photo: Bobby Bank/Getty Images via PicAPP