Technological Revolution Changing Lives for the Poorest

Business News Americas
By Luis Ubiñas, Technology Investor and President of the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) Board of Trustees

Technology is taking us into an era in which the capacity to transform the lives of the poorest for the better will grow exponentially. Barriers of communications and power supply will vanish, enabling educational opportunity, health access and economic growth in unprecedented ways.

Across my career—two decades at McKinsey, more than half a decade as president of the Ford Foundation, and now in a broad range of work as a technology investor and advisor to global development organizations such as the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF)—I have witnessed the capacity of technological innovation to create change that I could not have imagined before.  

Not long ago, bringing even basic voice services to some rural areas was considered unaffordable. The wait time for a phone line in Buenos Aires, Lima, Lagos or Jakarta was denominated in years and the cost prohibitive. In rural areas, infrastructure costs made it impossible to wire whole regions. Phone service required the building of expensive, large-scale infrastructure, vulnerable to everything from natural disasters to domestic insurgencies. However, all that has changed. We now live in a world where that centralization and those choke points are vastly diminished and profound connectivity is readily available.

Communications and power: platforms on which unknowable innovation can ride.

Communications and power: platforms on which unknowable innovation can ride.

Today, you can find wireless services even in rural villages. The wait time for a phone is denominated in hours, not years, and the cost reflects the race to zero technology companies are engaged in. Wireless networks now extend deep into rural Kenya, the Andean Highlands, remote islands in Indonesia or the Caribbean and the devices required to access those networks are not only ubiquitous but also cheap.

An iPhone 6 may cost you more than $600, but a used iPhone 4, a marvel just 48 months ago, is now available by the hundreds of millions for as little as $10. I am often asked to advise start-up companies and non-profits seeking to build low cost phones for low-income communities. I always tell them the same thing: those low cost phones are already available in drawers and cupboards all over the developed world.

The same telecommunications revolution is now extending to electrification. Like communications, electricity is about to become vastly easier to bring to rural and low-income communities. This revolution starts with solar power. Not the giant corporate solar you read about, but its democratic cousin. Small, portable solar panels are producing enough electricity to provide basic energy, a light at night, the power to recharge a cellular phone. Now, vast dams and forests of power lines may still be needed for the auto plants and cities, but in low-income and rural areas, where inequality is most pervasive, and opportunities most scarce, distributed power for a house or a village is an existing reality. Just like mobile phones in the 90s, it is only a matter of time before every village has some source of power.

Infinite, frictionless communications and the distributed power required to make it work are a reality today and with good policy can be ubiquitous tomorrow. So, what does that mean? Why does this matter?

There is the obvious: Giving a child unlimited free access to nearly every book in the world; advising a parent on how to deal with medical issues by using materials and remedies readily available around them in places with no organized health care. All of these things exist; we have seen them and much more. But what I find most exciting are the applications just emerging.

As I write, I recall an event recently hosted by the Governments of Peru, Indonesia and Tanzania at the United Nations on inclusive finance. The event detailed how digital payments and cash transfers on mobile devices are transforming educational and health outcomes for low-income people in their countries. There are endless examples.  Putting telecommunications and power capabilities in the hands of the poor unleashes both their creativity and the creativity of the many Mark Zuckerbergs, Elon Musks and others whose names we do not yet know but whose brilliance will shape tomorrow.

Bringing together the processing power of nearly-free advanced mobile devices and the solar power required to run them, and putting those capabilities in the hands of the poorest, has the capacity to bring even the most rural poor into the world of opportunity we live in. Our collective mission needs to grow from alleviating problems to providing the bases for sustainable independence. Communications and power are two places to begin.