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The Low Technology Opportunity

Watching the news over the holidays and reading the inevitable “What’s to come in 2003?” articles in newspapers would lead the average person to believe that our planet is a humming technological wonder. A place where every earthling is videoconferencing with relatives over the Internet, taking notes on tablet PCs, double-checking their SUV’s speed and direction on a global positioning system, and debating what new biopharmaceutical treatments to request with the family physician.

These reports make indiscriminate use of phrases like “global biotechnology revolution” and “the global internet” apparently with great effect. When asked the question “how many people in the world are connected to the Internet”, surveys show that North Americans believe that a significant portion of the world’s population hears “you’ve got mail!” on a regular basis. Some people even respond saying a majority of the world’s population is connected, and (believe it or not) a not insignificant group responds saying-“everyone-after all it’s the global information superhighway!”

This is frightening for many reasons, but to me mostly because it masks what is a massive opportunity. What is it? It is the “low technology” opportunity or the opportunity to start a low technology revolution that will bring existing technologies to be overwhelming majority of humanity that lives without them.

Some examples of what I mean. Notwithstanding the remarkable progress and change the Internet has created in less than a decade, only 500 million people or about 8 percent of the world’s population is connected-mostly in the United States and Western Europe. It is more a rich world computer network than a global one. According to James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, New York City alone has more Internet hosts than the entire developing world (some 2-3 billion people) put together.

But if this surprises you it’s time to rethink your definition of low technology. According to the “Annual Report of the Global Digital Divide” released by the World Economic Forum in 2002, 80 percent of the people in the world have never made a phone call (this is worth thinking about for a moment…). Other sources put this figure at somewhere between 60 and 80 percent but the message is undeniable. An overwhelming majority of the people on this planet lack access to even the most rudimentary technologies of the rich world, technologies that we take almost completely for granted.

And what about the global biotechnology revolution? As former President Clinton noted in his speech at Harvard last year it is a revolution that is distant for the vast majority of people in the world. 1.2 billion people (4x the population of the United States) never get a clean drink of water and an amazing 40 percent of the world’s population lacks access to basic sanitation. This is part of the reason why if you are born in the developing world (~2.5 billion people) you are about 14 times more likely to die as an infant and why you will live about 20 years less on average than if you were born into the rich world. Access to even the most basic of medicines is a miracle for these people. Again the term “global biotechnology revolution” needs a blinking footnote to reflect these realities.

I believe that the continued high technology revolution is absolutely vital, and that it will make important contributions to solve many of these problems-particularly problems related to health in the developing world. Continued efforts and innovation again particularly in the life sciences will, in my view, make tremendous contributions to society everywhere.
Yet we must not overlook the massive low technology opportunity as well. There is a largely untapped opportunity to profit and more importantly to improve the lives of hundreds of millions by bringing existing technologies-medicines, communications, the Internet-to the developing world.

Interestingly I think the biggest thing we need to do to make this a reality is to shift our mindset. If you read much of the literature on technology in the developing world the main thrust is that entrepreneurs must wait until income per head crosses a certain threshold-usually said to be US$1500-before it becomes possible to even consider bringing modern technologies and other consumer goods to low-income areas. I think this is the wrong way to think about it. It’s certainly not the way we think about making technologies available in the rich world. In North America when new high tech medical devices, or new communications technologies are first developed they are extremely expensive-certainly beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest Americans. Of course we don’t stop there. We don’t say, “Shucks, we’ll just have to wait until average incomes in the U.S. pass the $150,000 threshold so that this technology is viable”. In fact we say and do precisely the opposite. We innovate, we adapt, and we experiment with the new technology and produce it in large quantities until it becomes accessible to the majority of people assuming current incomes.

We need to bring this high technology mindset-innovate the technology to make it accessible to the people now-to the low technology revolution.

We need to figure out how to deliver extremely low cost, basic telephone and Internet service in the poorest areas of the world in a way that offers very attractive returns for risk takers. We need to create innovative new technologies to provide clean water and sanitation to the developing world given their current low incomes. In short, we need high innovation in the low technology space. This will help to break part of the development “circularity problem”-people can’t access technologies because they are poor yet they need the technologies to be productive and to grow richer! There is no reason why this sort of entrepreneurial activity can’t be every bit as profitable and exciting-indeed I think even more so-than what is going on at the other end of the technological spectrum. The person who figures out a now-unthinkably cheap way to bring basic communications (or medicines or clean water) to the developing world’s billions will make a fortune and seriously change the world for the better.

The world isn’t a humming technological wonder-but with a low technology revolution it could be.

January 14, 2003
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