When we think of new technologies changing our lifestyle, we mostly think of the developed world. But in truth it is in developing nations that new technologies are affecting more dramatically the fabric of society. From solar energy generators to cell phones, from mobile payments to delivery drones, all new technologies “point toward a decentralisation in production and distribution”, says David Orban, the founder of Network Society Project, a think tank in London.
We met him in October in Milan, where he was invited as a speaker at the State of the Net conference. New technologies, he argues, make it possible for business to flourish in African and Asian countries that lack traditional infrastructure. Thanks to drones, for instance, you can deliver goods in a timely fashion even in absence of good roads. Thanks to solar energy, you can operate machines in remote areas where a grid connection would be prohibitively expensive. Similarly, mobile payments allow bank transactions in areas poorly served by the mainstream banking system. According to Orban, the most crucial impact of new technologies lies in the fact that they allow poor nations to bypass the infrastructure that they cannot afford to build. As a result, he argues, “differential advantage” in using them is higher in developing countries.
Could you explain the concept of “network society”?
First of all, we have to understand that technology has always shaped society – for instance, the industrial revolution has shaped a new urban working class. Nowadays there are many new technologies, all pointing toward a decentralisation of activities: solar technology allows individuals and corporations to produce their own energy without relying on a centralised production; 3-D printing is making factory production more decentralised, while plant led and 3-D printing of meat are making food production more decentralised as well. What I argue is that this shift from centralised to decentralised productions will result in a “networked society” where nation States and corporations will be profoundly transformed and decentralised, while individuals will thrive in a new way.
In Africa there are quite a few rising economies. Did this “off-grid” model of development made it possible for African economies to emerge?
Absolutely. In the 1980s people predicted that Africa would never have phone services… because there wasn’t enough copper to lay down the cables in such a huge continent. Of course today we laugh about such prediction, because the mobile technology enabled African countries and African people to leapfrog. Indeed, in Nigeria there were only a few hundred thousands of mobile phones ten years ago, but today there are one hundred millions. Similarly, the electric grid that was built in Europe was never built in Africa. But it was bypassed by solar generators coupled with battery storage and direct current-based appliances (as opposed to alternating current-based appliances), which are perfectly functioning in a local, minor grids, without needing a major national or continental grid.
Can you make another example of off-grid development?
Drones. In Africa the roads are very bad, and paving the whole continent as we did pave Europe would be prohibitively expensive. The good news is that drones are increasing their range and their carrying capacity very rapidly, which means that transporting more and more packages with drones will soon be possible. Indeed it’s already possible to deliver pharmaceuticals to remote areas in Africa: they are light, very precious and needed in a timely fashion, so drones are the most cost-effective means to transport them. Another example would be mobile payments: Kenya is the world’s leader in mobile payments, as nearly a quarter the country’s GDP flows through the mobile payment system.
Because in Kenya the banking infrastructure isn’t very efficient, especially if we compare it to Western standards, so people turn to mobile payments. We often hear that there are many people without Internet access, but in truth there are more people without a banking account. In order to open a traditional bank account, you need a photo ID, in some cases even a birth certificate. However in remote and poor areas of the world there are many people that don’t have such documents, which means they don’t exist for the banking system and cannot open an account. Yet, they are still allowed to use bitcoins and, if they own a computer and a smartphone, can participate in commerce and trade.
So does the digital revolution have a more crucial role for isolated communities in the developing world?
The differential advantage is higher. If someone doesn’t use Wikipedia in Italy or France, they miss out, yet they can turn to many libraries and good encyclopaedias. But if somebody doesn’t use Wikipedia in a remote area in Africa or in a small village in Thailand, they lose a lot. Interestingly enough, the entire content of the English Wikipedia has been translated in Thai. It is mostly a computer generated translation, so the quality is not very high. But if you are a fisherman in a small Thai village, you have no access to a regular encyclopaedia, so the alternative is much worse – no information at all – and having Wikipedia available in your own languages makes a huge difference.