26 Jun 2013 When internet access becomes a basic human right, you know the world has changed
I recall in the late 1990’s, I claimed that access to to the internet would soon be seen as more than a convenience, more than a useful tool but a fundamental human requirement. A bit of an exageration you might say and when I said this at conferences people took it that way – as a joke. I wasn’t joking. I was guessing but I wasn’t joking.
Today there are more people with access to the internet than there are people with access to running water. There are parts of the world today where people need to walk 2 km to get water but they can get a mobile signal. What we think of in the developed world as basic infrastructure like electricity and water on tap hasn’t reached corners of the globe that the telecommunication infrastructure has.
You could jump to the conclusion that it’s all about money. The Telcos’ business model is more lucrative than the utility companies’. But you’d be wrong. David Meerman Scott tells a great story about a village called Cangandi in the Guna district of Panama. A remote part of the world by any measure, in 2010 the inhabitants moved their whole village – huts and all – 1 km to the top of a hill – because that’s where they could get a mobile phone signal.
Before mobile phones, if a villager needed to go into the big city, a two week journey by a combination of riverboat, horseback and bus, family and friends would wait anxiously for their return. What if they got ill, died orsimply decided not to come back? They just had to wait. Now, they just give them a call.
But it’s not just convenience that motivated the villagers to move and it has now completely transformed their local economy. These people farm maize, plantains and casava roots. Without the phone, they’d take their produce to other islands locally to sell. If they were lucky they’d come back after a few days with an empty boat – if they weren’t, they’d return with their produce unsold. Now, they can phone ahead. They can take orders and farm and harvest according to demand. They even sell futures.
It is tales like this that reveal the fundamental change that has happend in the last 20 years and this is why I’m amazed when organizations remain skeptical about embracing the digital economy. They find it hard to accept that ways of working that have stood us in good stead for hundreds of years are changing – not incrementally – fundamentally. Many of the traditional business practices that we use today were developed over 500 years ago in the coffee shops of Amsterdam and London to accomodate the burgeoning world trade in spices while our basic conventions for trade finance and credit were being fine tuned by Venetian merchants. All of this around about the time that the printing press was developed. And there’s the clue.
Today, Cangandi villagers are trading casava roots online but big business in the Metropolitan sprawl of Europe or North America still can’t get their heads around electronic invoicing and payment. Companies pay in 90 days even though the time to complete a financial transaction (send invoice, match with P.O., approve for payment and pay) is measured in milliseconds.
I think it’s time to think about redefining what we mean by the developed world.
Pete Loughlin can be found on twitter @peteloughlin