Thursday
August 27
2009

Phil Larocco

Platforms and Stuff

If you have not read the three (1, 2 and 3) related “platform” posts by Francisco Mejia and Manuel Bueno please do. I actually cut and pasted these and put them in the proper sequence so my steam powered, uni-tasking (on good days) brain could organize itself. So, if you haven’t read these, read them now and then come back here…

pause…pause…pause…

OK, thanks for coming back… Their short typology of “platforms” -channels of distribution of information and product, a pitiful summary that greatly understates their more inclusive and elegant descriptions- make a significant contribution to the brain food we all need…desperately.

Most explanations and typologies in the development business have an undercurrent of “we have all the answers…any questions?” And these explanations tend to offer really limited options (Nuclear War, Unconditional Surrender and Whatever Is Being Touted*). To their credit, Francisco and Manuel take the more difficult and brain cramping path of “not only are there lots of answers, there are many paths” and invite the rest of us to add to the typology and think beyond it.

I was particularly struck by the two classifications described as utilities and microfinance institutions (You still haven’t read their blogs? Go back now!). Each of these categories has information (jealously guarded and appropriately protected) that could serve so well as a platform for so much other life expanding “stuff”. But there are, uhh, problems…sorry, hurdles.

Today I would like to write about the utility platform.

For me the stuff that could be grafted onto the utility platform begins, duh, with more modern energy. (Why, you might ask? Three reasons: 1/ with modern energy so much choice can be realized in individual lives, while without it very little can be achieved; 2/ it is the business of most utilities whether public or private sector so it is a safer bet than say asking them to open karaoke bars; and, 3/ it’s the only thing I know and I promised NextBillion to do a blog every two weeks).

Utilities are in the energy business and the energy customer services business. IF ONLY they would expand not just their geographic reach but their technological one, what a difference they could make. To do so, however, requires leaving the comfort zone of large networks of wires and pipes and central station power and embracing decentralized electricity and heat solutions as core businesses. This has not shown itself to be an easy transition –after all there are reasons traditional utilities are called ” traditional” utilities. BUT, the power of long-term financing and asset recovery, if applied to de-centralized populations, is very enticing to explore (better than Unconditional Surrender, at least).

Add to that the power of life-line subsidy administration and we have got to give this model a closer look. (Digression-How come if I live in a city and am truly poor I still have access to a $500 plus capital investment spread out over decades and lots of electrical plugs, but if I have the same level of poverty but am off the grid, I am expected to absorb or finance that entire cost myself?). So imagine (cue John Lennon sound-track) if every household was entitled to, say a $500 public purpose infrastructure investment, rolled into the nation-wide utility rate base (yeah, that’s cross subsidy… so what?). And now imagine if utilities, who often admit to being clueless on rural energy, simply outsourced this chore to locally based enterprises. Would we break the bank? Would we violate the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics? Would we annoy all those who have a different answer? No, No and Probably.

Most important, what we would do is take the best features of something that works -kind of- and blend it with some other features of the classifications described by Francisco and Manuel (features such as the those of the informal consumer goods, women-oriented product platforms) and, voila, maybe have something new that really works: a 21st Century Utility-That-Outsources-Rural-Energy. That could be a very cool platform & model. (By The Way-I have heard of numerous examples that pretend to be this but have never really bumped into one that actually does it. It would be great to hear that I have lived in my cave too long and that this is happening in fill-in-the-blank.)

Maybe next time I’ll ramble on about microfinance institutions and their connection to energy-like stuff. Anybody out there know anything about that?

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