Recently featured in the news was a 35 USD version of Apple’s iPad that the Indian government hopes to mass produce by 2011. India also hopes to bring the unit price down to around 10 USD. If successful, this initiative could bring an affordable, mobile, multiple application device within reach of lower income families in poor countries. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria expressed the opinion  that a fully-functioning 10 USD computer “could change the world” similar to the way in which satellite dishes and mobile phones have in the past. I think implicit in Zakaria’s point is the belief that information and communication revolutions have the potential to increase productivity and enhance human development. But this potential rarely leads to an actual breakthrough. Due to a host of factors in addition to price (see, for instance, Michael Trucano's post ), what might perhaps be called “socio-technological epidemics” tend to be few and far between, especially in poor countries. There is a difference, of course, between a predominantly commercial success and one that really contributes to development results.
A flurry of responses, ranging from skeptical  to supportive, followed India’s announcement. Worthy on note is a statement issued by Nicholas Negroponte , co-founder and director of the MIT Media Lab and founder and chairman of the One Laptop per Child Foundation. Negroponte offers the Indian government two things: collaboration and some advice, gleaned from years of struggling to get as many XO laptops as possible into the hands of poor children in developing countries.
Just in case the Indian tablet computer turns out to be one of those socio-technological epidemics and/or a commercial triumph, a few of Negroponte’s points bear restating, as they can be instructive toward helping the innovation also become a success story in terms of human development:
• Focus on children and (non-rote) learning.
• Focus on enabling users to make things, not to simply consume media.
• Make sure that hardware is fit for the physical environment, especially that of a developing country.
• Make sure that the software allows for collaboration and participation.
• Make the product “desirable, lovable, and fun to own” and put the best design teams behind it
Incidentally, I noticed that Negroponte's core messages can very well be applied to a wide variety of development initiatives. We’ve all heard, perhaps ad nauseam, of the need to work toward longer time horizons, empowering citizens, enabling meaningful participation, and respecting local preferences and realities. But in so doing lies our best hope in making development processes and outcomes more “desirable, lovable (why not?), and fun to own”!
Photo credit: Flickr user Frerieke