Phones, and then what?

July 21, 2005 § Leave a comment

Seattle, USA

Yesterday’s meeting with the Grameen Technology Centre in Seattle provided a good chance to ask the question: phones, and then what?

There’s been lots of talk from places like the Economist about how the real communication revolution in developing countries will come from the mobile phone, and not from places like telecentres. The problem with this argument is, simply put, that the world is a lot more complex than this. Sure, mobile phone phones are a cheap, scalable and important part of the communication revolution – we see that all over the world. But what else needs to be in the picture? What devices / systems / content / services / connections / etc need to be in place to feed into the simple, voice-based mobile economy, and evolve beyond it?


As a man committed to propagating the world’s most successful mobile-phone-meets-development effort (the Grameen Village Phone), you’d think Grameen Tech Centre director Peter Bladin would fall into the Economist camp. He doesn’t. Instead, Peter and his team are asking: what’s next? Where do we go from the mobile + voice + economic + empowerment model?

This provided a lot of juice for conversations about the connections between telecentres and mobile. There is huge potential with things like Asterisk voicemail, SMS broadcast, telecentre-based-local-content-to-mobile services, walking telecentres and so on. And, likely, there is an opportunity for the telecentre movement to learn from parts of the village phone economic model.

At dinner, I also had a chance to meet with Grameen tech board chair (and former Microsoft executive techie) Paul Maritz. We had a great conversation about the importance of global, field-level research in the rural and community technology space. In particular, there is an interest from Paul (and Grameen?) in looking at the nexus of what’s working now / where the impact is / where the future can take us. Right now, the picture we have is very local. We also need global, and contextual.

We’re going to collaborate with Grameen and the University of Washington on a small research project asking for ‘expert’ opinion at this field level. But clearly, we need to know more than an expert panel can provide (and, of course, there’s always reason to be suspect of experts in the first place :-)). My (possibly naive) hope is that the knowledge ecosystem catalyzes helps here, constantly connecting, synthesizing and aggregating little bits of knowledge about this space into a bigger picture. It will be interesting to see what the seeds we plant will grow into.

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