Published on Digital Development

How to Deal With Technology's Moving Target

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When I first started working on rural telecommunications more than 15 years ago, it was all about satellite-based public telephony to connect rural areas. Mobile phones were a luxury, high speed Internet (64 or 128kbps connections) something you could only get at work (and mostly for work), and the sound of a 56k modem connection the epitome of modern technology. Broadband? What was that?

And then mobile exploded. As of January 2014, there are almost 7 billion connections and 3.4 billion unique subscribers in the world. In many countries, mobile networks already cover close to 100% of the population, and almost every adult has one. The global mobile network has become the largest delivery platform for many services, and entrepreneurs in many countries leverage it to create services that can be used across the globe (from Angry Birds in Finland to Ushahidi in Kenya).

Along the way, Internet speeds increased, demand for broadband at home appeared, and ADSL and cable modems allowed timely access to information and content in rich interactive formats. High speed internet, including FTTH (Fiber to the home) and LTE, are no longer exclusive to developed countries, and the digital divide (both between and within countries) is at the top in the agenda of many governments.

So many countries across the world are developing National Broadband Plans, mostly focused on infrastructure, including but not limited to the roll-out of national backbones, introducing fiber optic networks wherever possible, and creating incentives for affordable access to wireless broadband in low income and rural areas. Digital inclusion is a popular term, albeit focusing on the supply side of the equation.

However, as broadband infrastructure is rolled out, governments in some countries are starting to realize that it is not necessarily a "build it and they will come" scenario.  Broadband absorption is being realized as a critical component in any broadband plan: There is a link between broadband and economic growth, indeed, but in many cases it requires several enablers, mechanisms that allow people to transform effectively broadband into an increase in competitiveness and productivity.

Now, along the rise of broadband and mobile internet, social networks appeared and soon took over blogs and web portals, redefining the way people interact with each other (for better or worse) and providing a new channel to reach existing and potential clients. Businesses picked up on this almost immediately, and some governments are starting to do the same.

Quite some game-changing stuff, right? And what’s waiting around the corner? For starters, the  Internet of things is already upon us. Or as some are starting to call it, the Internet of everything (more dramatic, I guess). Every device in your house, in your car, on your clothes, and in the streets will have an IP address and will ( not could) communicate with you. Wherever you are. Just imagine it. Or what about Phone Sats once they are orbiting the earth? NASA already launched three smartphone satellites, and Planet Labs has four demonstration satellites in orbit and expects to launch more this year. 

It has been overwhelming out there this last decade. Governments that take 2 years to put a strategy in place find it outdated by the time it is approved. Some of the projects we have in The World Bank take one to two years to prepare and another four or five to implement. How to keep up? How to avoid staying locked in ideas (and technologies) that no longer apply by the time we start implementation? Can we somehow open a space to include technologies that don't exist and yet could completely change the landscape in a couple of years?

There is of course not a clear cut answer to the questions above, but technology itself now allows for a different way to do things. The traditional way of implementing technology projects is challenged, and “open” and "iteration" are key concepts to keep in mind.

The United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service Office has developed ten design principles that could be embraced by many. Here is the list (the webpage includes a brief explanation and examples for each of them).

1. Start with (user) needs
2. Do less
3. Design with data
4. Do the hard work to make it simple
5. Iterate. Then iterate again.
6. Build for inclusion
7. Understand context
8. Build digital services, not websites
9. Be consistent, not uniform
10. Make things open: it makes things better

Note that not specific mention to technology is made here. These principles go in fact beyond technology (a means to an end) and point us to what should be the objective: end users, and the data that supports decision making around them.

Related to this, the European Commission has issued its annual innovation yearbook with a specific focus on Open Innovation, highlighting among others, the importance and potential it has for job creation and economic growth at the local level in the smart city agenda. In its foreword, the report states that:
We need to move from having ‘perfect plans for yesterday’ to an innovation culture which fosters experimentation and prototyping in real-world settings.

Open innovation is all about iteration and learning by doing, very closely linked to the concept of design thinking I have praised before.

Despite the challenges, I strongly believe these approaches are key in allowing adaptation of long term policies to the changing environment that technology creates...

What do you think?


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