We Make Mobile Phones: Building Political Capital

India_Rural_politicsMobile innovations, like the financial tools discussed in a previous post here, are encouraging GDP growth in developing countries at twice the rate of developed countries, yielding a .6 percent increase in GDP for every additional 10 mobile phones per 100 people. Today, adoption of mobile technology is the most powerful tool to end global poverty.

As in the developed world, new financial power in the developing world can translate into political power. The virtual proximity that mobile phones grant developing and rural communities helps to eliminate a portion of social control and subsequent corruption or abuse of power, once the norm, as financial relationships are opened. In these corners of the world, mobile innovations are making it possible to circumvent state and local authorities and increase local political participation. For example, Ushahidi, an open-source software platform for interactive mapping and information sourcing was created to allow citizen journalists to upload and map violence and peace efforts in their communities via their mobile phones. In India, I Paid a Bribe acknowledges that rampant corruption was born from a failure of the political system, and serves as a reporting portal to record how many bribes are paid each day, under what conditions, and to what end.

Companies that seek to serve this growing and potentially lucrative need must consider this new reality while developing new products, and managing innovation. Mobile development companies, both hardware and software, have typically been designing products for users that fall into the traditional mold—educated, literate, and rich. However, the large developing market has higher rates of illiteracy, or has never owned a piece of high technology, making this approach not only useless. To address this, companies like MobilGlyph sent digital designers into rural areas to study how people use their mobile phones. In rural India, where 40 percent of the population is illiterate, researchers found that phones are often purchased second-hand, are text-based, and are a symbol of frustration and shame for those who cannot read letters or numbers – issues with huge implications for companies that seek to serve this increasingly important demographic.

These examples demonstrate the possibility for non-corporate entities to engage in mobile innovation when supported by preexisting infrastructural technology. This basic infrastructure is the first step to increase research and development. In 2007, Sonatel invested in Senegalese cellular service. Seven years prior, less than 700 of 16,000 towns had telephonic infrastructure. With no roads or transportation system, there was no outside world. SONATEL saw the profit in installing mobile access in remote regions where fixed-line providers never ventured, despite the government never incentivizing investment. Telecomm revenue in the country exceeded $1.4 billion USD in 2011, and by 2012, and overall mobile telephony contributed 13.6% of overall economic growth.  While emerging markets are benefiting from a relatively open playing-field to develop their mobile businesses, government cooperation is crucial. The Kenyan government has been acclaimed as a leader in developing mobile capacity in East Africa, where it has supported the development of broadband to rural areas by establishing infrastructure, implementing development-friendly tax policies, and facilitating market liberalization. Increasing competition in the telecommunictions markets of East Africa helps foster a range of pricing plans and prepaid options so that an increased percentage of the population has access to these important tools, increasing their economic viability and political capital.

The political capital gained from being connected on a mobile device is critical for empowering disconnected populations—urban and rural alike. It creates shared meaning and value for those whose voices have often been silenced by circumstance. Mobile connectivity is a very basic expression of a networked existence and is often mistakenly thrown into the mix of Internet-powered cyberactivism and networked social movements. Having a mobile phone, versus a robust cyberculture powered by in-home, café or school connectivity, has become a basic requirement for survival in some circumstances. It creates difference between the banked and unbanked, the rural and the diaspora, even the represented and the disenfranchised. Mobile connectivity grants access to a rapidly developing economic world, but often times lacks the power to send messages to a multiplicity of people that fosters social movement.

To increase the availability of both basical mobile connectivity and highly diffused Internet access, the social contract for basic innovation requires businesses and policy makers to execute research and development that provides a societal and economic good. Mobile commerce and learning are a result of the advance of modern human capital. The ability to create and distribute knowledge is more important to the economy than almost anything else. Innovation policy must therefore become more user-centered and demand-based. Incentivizing innovation, properly shaping regulatory institutions to provide safety nets for those who cannot keep up with the change, and increasing competition to enhance the uptake of ICT should be a priority for any organization serious about improving the global economy. However, in order to foster the competition needed to increase mobile penetration, governments, transnational bodies, and private organizations should encourage crucial invest in highly-skilled R&D, and improve opportunities for training abroad.