John Paul

More Innovations at the Edge

Al Hammond recently finished posting his series on ?Technology Innovations at the Edge.? The full series is now available as a downloadable PDF file here.

One of the premises of the report is that technologies created for developed countries may actually be more useful and financially successful in developing countries. In fact, a recent informal survey of patents granted to Cornell University revealed that 50% of them had potential BOP applications.

I came across a couple of interesting articles today that illustrates the point nicely. The first piece discussed the increasingly well-known wireless broadband technology WiMax. Sometimes referred to as “Wi-Fi on steroids?, it can provide high speed connectivity at a distance of up to 30 miles or more. More than 400 companies are backing the technology, including Intel which expects to begin selling WiMax-enabled processors within 2 years. Although there is some debate over how quickly the standard can be commercialized, demand from Asia and Africa might push up the timetable:

“In developed economies, where cable and DSL infrastructure is reliable, where there are lots of subscribers and it is widely deployed, WiMax does not have a great advantage,” explains Charles Golvin, principal analyst with Forrester Research Inc. “Certainly in markets like Indonesia, India, Africa and some parts of Latin America, where wired infrastructure is poor, WiMax provides a huge opportunity. There already is demand.?

The second article discussed the successful test of a Wi-Fi connection provided by a stratospheric balloon floating 24,000 meters above the Earth. The balloon was able to provide data to the ground at 1.25 gigabits per second – thousands of times the capacity of a home broadband internet connection. Along with solar-powered aircraft capable of circling at high altitude for long periods, the device could be used to provide low-cost internet access in the developing world.

“You could rapidly put communications infrastructure where it doesn’t exist,” says project scientist David Grace. “In developing countries it could be a cheaper way to roll out, and you could do it incrementally.”

Finally, I read that researchers at German electronics giant Siemens have developed a printable interactive display with a similar thickness to paper. It is simpler and cheaper to produce than “electronic paper” devices, and can be powered by a very thin printable battery or a photovoltaic cell.

“A pillbox could display instructions for how [the pills] should be taken and provide this information in several languages with the push of a button,” says Siemens spokesman Norbert Aschenbrenner. “Admission tickets for trade shows could indicate the booths where various exhibitors are located.”

But what about applications at the BOP? MIT is already planning on putting a $100 laptop into the hands of every child worldwide, but what if this same printable technology could produce an even cheaper alternative for schools? Attach a small wireless transmitter, and a teacher could instantly send their lesson plan and reading materials to an entire classroom, eliminating their reliance on costly or out-dated textbooks.

I know I’m just scratching the surface here. I imagine a good portion of all new technologies may have some potential for use at the BOP, where a lack of alternatives or competition provides fertile ground for deployment. Any other ideas?

World Resources Institute