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Cutting-edge technology and developing countries

Developing countries have led development in mobile phone technology – and could be crucial for future innovation
Developing countries have led development in mobile phone technology – and could be crucial for future innovation

The latest technology doesn't just revolutionise life for people in developed countries, it has the power to address people's needs everywhere. Our guest blogger, Stanley Ellerby-English, looks at why cutting-edge technology should be made available for everyone.

I recently got my first 4G phone and have been amazed by how much faster the internet connection is when compared to my old phone, which was just two years old. This isn't meant as an advert for 4G, but it did get me thinking about how far mobile technology and the internet has come. I cannot even imagine going back to the days of dial-up internet, and the idea of only being able to call people when they are in their house seems bizarre by today's standards. Though smart phones and broadband have become mundane, they have drastically altered all of our lives.

Equally, the more general technological changes that came with industrialisation have totally reshaped everything about the way we live and work. Traditionally, this process is thought to follow a fairly standard path. First, countries develop heavy industry, primarily the machines that factories use, and then they use this base to start producing consumer goods, like TVs and PCs. This was the case for the early industrialisers, like Germany and the UK, and for more recent industrial powerhouses, like South Korea and China. However, new thinking suggests that starting at the beginning isn't always the best approach.

Lessons of the past

Many development experts now highlight the benefits of starting further along the path of technological change. This is not to say that developing countries, like Nigeria or Indonesia, wouldn't benefit from developing heavy industry, since it certainly offers a strong foundation for growth. However, in many cases it's actually more beneficial for them to adopt the latest technology immediately and they may even begin to lead the way in utilising these innovations.

Crowding round a laptop at the SOS Village in Kakiri, Uganda
Innovation in developing countries can lay a strong path for growth.
These kids are from the SOS Children's Village in Kakiri, Uganda.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with mobile phone technology. Rather than spending a long time developing an expensive wired telephone network, developing countries can benefit hugely from adopting the best possible mobile technology straight away; effectively skipping many generations of communications infrastructure. Not only can mobile networks be more quickly constructed, but in many cases they are a more appropriate way of reaching dispersed rural populations.

Many groups, both profit-making companies and NGOs, are already embracing this approach. For example, the M-Pesa service, which was pioneered in Kenya, allows people to use their mobile phones to make quick and easy payments, removing the need for formal banking infrastructure. Equally, maternal health organisations in Bangladesh are using mobile networks to offer advice to mothers in hard to reach rural areas with no local medical centres. Even Wikipedia, following Facebook's lead, is getting in on these developments and working with mobile operators to offer people in the developing world free access to the site.

Getting ahead

In each of these cases, embracing mobile technology has led to solutions to some of the most common problems in the developing world, such as access to financial services and health advice. However, adopting the latest innovations could be equally effective in a range of other industries, including manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing as it is often known, is set to shake up the traditional approach to production, which has existed since the industrial revolution. Whilst the standard method relies on production lines and favours uniformity, 3D printing allows products to be very individual and for materials to be used far more efficiently. This is already being adopted across the developed world and it could be equally effective in developing countries as well.

Of course this doesn't mean that older approaches should just be ignored, but the emphasis should always be on effectiveness. Rather than sticking to set development pathways, countries should be able to access the most up to date technology to help them meet their goals. In many cases developing countries have actually shown that they can lead innovation. Adoption of the M-Pesa service, for example, is far ahead of mobile payment technology in developed countries. There is no reason to think that people in the developing world wouldn't embrace other innovations just as quickly.

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