by Nick Iannitti and Sean MacPhedran

Over the past decade technology has transcended poverty, race and economics to become a driving force in the lives of people across the world. More than two billion of us now have access to the Internet and five billion of us have mobile phones.

Children are growing up in a world where social media, mobile technology and online communities are fundamental to the way that they communicate, learn and develop. In recent years the speed, flexibility and affordability of rapidly evolving digital technology has helped slowly prise shut the digital divide between the haves and have-nots and enabled millions of young people in developing countries to join the digital world.

SpaceX and Google recently announced plans to deliver global Internet via a constellation of satellites, but even before that, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg began work on the initiative, a collaboration to bring the web to every corner of the planet. What does the digital landscape look like with millions of young new citizens from previously disconnected parts of the world? What are the impacts on global youth culture? How will the different cultures interact in digital spaces - will they even?

Cheap Internet access in emerging markets has been proven to drive the growth of knowledge workers in those economies, offering better jobs than in factories, farms, etc. With millions of young new kids who are deeply motivated to change their situation applying all of their creativity and work ethic to digital evolution, can the comfortable average North American or European youth worker even compete?

The Leapfrog Effect

Africa1-webAffordable tablets, phones, and laptops are reaching the hands of more people worldwide – consumers want these tools, and will innovate their infrastructure to get them. As developing nations acquire tech that wealthier nations have seen expand over the past few decades, however, nations are opting to forego the longer road used in the developed world.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with mobile phone tech. Rather than following the established path, and taking the time to develop a long an expensive wired telephone network, developing countries can and have benefitted greatly from adopting the best possible mobile technology straight away; effectively bypassing several generations of long-haul communications infrastructure growth. Mobile networks aren’t only much quicker to build, in many cases they’re simply a more appropriate way of reaching dispersed rural populations.
The results of such leapfrogging manifests itself in increased uptake of digital behaviors that are still relatively scarce in countries like the U.S. Remember reading a lot of hype about Apple Pay over the past year? Despite the great press, U.S. consumer uptake of mobile payment is moving at a sluggish pace at best. Compare this with Vodaphone’s M-Pesa technology which is spreading rapidly across the developing world. Pioneered in Kenya, it allows people to use their mobile phones to make quick and easy payments, removing the need for formal banking infrastructure. 66% of Kenyans are now using mobile payments every day, and large parts of the world will never know credit cards or physical banks. Research from Gartner indicates that Africa's transaction value is forecast to reach $160 billion in 2016, a figure that is way ahead of more developed parts of the world.

Scarcity as Stimulus

In many cases, the very scarcity of the resources developed nations enjoy is causing a deeper layer of innovation to occur. Instead of asking ‘how do we build that too?’ the question becomes ‘how can we improve on the methodology that achieved that result?’

A series of ‘innovation hubs’ in major African cities has shed light on creators doing just this. Hubs are being set up in an increasing number of cities, including Cairo, Addis Ababa and Dar es Salaam, acting as magnets for the local IT and creative industries – and the results are already highlighting the ‘trickle up’ effect: lateral-thinking creating technologies that can benefit the entire global community. Innovators, unbounded by traditional design pathways, and driven to make the absolute most of the resources at their disposal, are solving problems in ways that can inform developed countries as well.

For instance, where electricity production is still scarce, the solution becomes to create a better and less expensive form of solar thermal system to fill that need. Icecairo, an organization that sets up local hackathons for green tech in Egypt’s capital, is actively empowering young creators to learn, improve on, and produce workable solar water heating systems (among other tech) for implementation in poor communities across the region. The clear upshot? These functional systems are being developed at much lower cost, and are changing lives in real regions.

While markers like stability and safety are traditionally seen as good breeding grounds for innovation, the desire to better social circumstances is a powerful force as well. After Kenya’s violent upheavals following its election disputes in 2007, a group of social activists created a software platform to help crowdsource event on the ground. The resultant technology, Ushahihi, is a combination of social activism, citizen journalism, and geospacial tracking. Ushahidi’s ability to quickly track, map, and make sense of user input in real-time proved so effective, that it’s been deployed in first-world events such as the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in Louisiana, the earthquakes in Haiti and the Missouri River floods of 2011.

Perhaps one of the most striking stories of the past year is the story of Kodja Afate Gnikou, an inventor working in the West African nation of Togo – who built a functional 3D printer out of e-waste parts. Based on the popular Prusal-brand printer, Afate’s printer makes use of leftover parts gathered from old computers, printers and scanners found in local dumping zones. An impressive development regardless, but consider the larger reach of this type of thinking. Not only does it create an extremely efficient way of producing functional printers (making it much easier to reach the dream of ‘a 3D printer in every home’), it also has the potential to touch on a sustainability issue that affects developed and developing countries alike: the massive amounts of reusable waste that goes simply discarded.

A path to the future

In 2012, One Laptop Per Child stunned the world with an experiment in Ethiopia. The goal was to see if illiterate children with no prior experience with the written word could learn how to read on their own, given a tablet pre-loaded with the necessary teaching tools – games, e-books, alphabet training software – and zero instructions or training.

After several months, the children blew the minds of the observers. They were singing the alphabet song, spelling words – and using 47 apps on average per child. Not to mention, they had completely customized the desktop by hacking Android to get around the locked settings the OLPC workers had implemented.

The global community is proving it: given the right tools, and empowered to create these tools for themselves, children in less fortunate areas are showing that their motivation to innovate runs deep. With corporations and NGOs supporting the global goal of getting more kids online, don’t be surprised when the level of unexpected innovation begins keep to pace (and in many areas, surpass) the cozy pace of iteration, not innovation, present in so many of our stable industries.