Science and Technology
Developing World - mobile communications, open source software, distributed infrastructure, economic growth, globalisation, poverty
Distributed and wireless technologies may precipitate innovative strategies for economic growth in poor countries enabling the rapid development of economic infrastructure.
Conventional approaches to economic development in poor countries have focused on slow but steady transformation through the development of open markets and civil society. Growing nations have been expected to follow a path to industrialisation similar to that of Western nations -- first exploiting natural resources through trade and then moving up the value chain into production and services. A key component of this route to transformation is heavy public investment in large infrastructure networks for transportation, water, and power. However, developing countries in the 21st century rarely have the resources for such large infrastructure investments, and they face unprecedented population pressures quite unlike the Western experience of a century or more ago.
What the 21st century does offer is miniaturisation, wireless communications, and embedded computation. These technologies could permit the rapid deployment of distributed infrastructures in developing countries. Thus, they could radically change the approach to development aid and the way the West understands how to lift nations out of poverty.
Perhaps the best example of new development strategies is the way Grameen Telecom in Bangladesh has coupled new techniques for micro-credit lending with a modular, rapidly deployable cellular wireless network to widely distribute shared mobile phones managed by small-scale entrepreneurs. Strategies such as these will help a growing number of nations enjoy significant gains in economic productivity associated with a freer flow of information. (One recent study of Africa(Vodafone, 2005) claims that "a 1 per cent increase in mobile penetration rates is associated with 0.5-0.6 per cent higher rates of FDI/GDP.")
As distributed "leapfrog" technologies for computing, communications, power generation, water purification, and health care provision enter the market, they may spur development economists to rethink the traditional development model and create new frameworks for growth.
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