Mark Beckford

The Top 5 ICT4D Trends for 2010

The year started with the Mother of All Disruptions as the world teetered on economic and financial collapse. The technology industry withered in general due to lack of demand. Intel, for example, reported its first loss in 21 years in the second quarter. As we head in to 2010, things seem to be on the mend, albeit slowly.

I thought I’d jump on the new near “top trends” bandwagon and provide some observations of my own for information technology’s role in development (ICT4D).

  1. Netbook-fever and 1:1 computing in education begins to fade into the background. Ever since Nicholas Negroponte launched the One Laptop per Child project and Intel followed with the Classmate PC, the buzz has been about netbooks for classrooms, or 1:1 computing (one computer for each student). The reality is that the majority of netbooks sold are not sold to schools, but to middle class consumers who are looking for a smaller notebook form-factor. In my 2009 travels, Ministries of Education in Latin America seemed to be the most notebook centric. Peru had purchased 150,000 XO laptops. Chile wouldn’t even consider anything that wasn’t mobile. As governments budgets come out of lockdown, I predict that they will look for more affordable and realistic options, such as PC labs and desktop computing.
  2. Alternative computing models “cross the chasm.” A desktop PC or notebook computer has typically been the primary way people in the developing world get exposed to computers and the Internet. That is changing rapidly with the introduction of solutions that significantly lower acquisition and maintenance costs, and provide increased energy efficient over a standard PC or notebook. For example, the company I currently work for, NComputing, sells a product that allows up to 30 users to share one, inexpensive desktop PC by hooking up additional monitors, keyboards and mice to small access devices that costs about 75% lower than a PC and use 90% less energy. In 2009, NComputing reached 15% of the US market desktop computers in K through 12 education. Microsoft has also embraced “shared computing” for education, announcing a new product called Windows Multipoint Server that will be available later this year. Many developing countries, such as India, Brazil, Pakistan and others, now allow these type of solutions to be bid in addition to standard PC’s and notebooks. Just as shared access will prevail over 1:1 computing, virtual desktops will become an increasingly popular option given the tremendous cost savings over traditional desktops.
  3. Creative capitalism takes root. It was just two years ago that Bill Gates presented the concept of creative capitalism at the World Economic Forum at Davos. For the last two years, venture capitalists, social enterpreneurs and non-profits have gathered in San Francisco for the Social Capital Markets conference to discuss ways of driving social change through profitable means. In 2009, attendance was twice the previous year, and they lured Sonal Shah, the director of the new office of social innovation in the Obama Administration. These conferences are going regional as well. The Social Enterprise conference for Latin America will be held next week in Miami. I argued on Next Billion in December 2008 that the economic crisis could be “the catalyst for social entrepreneurship.” Four months later, BusinessWeek did a special report titled Social Entrepeneurship Takes Off. While it is hard to measure if and when this will start happening, if BusinessWeek does a special report on a topic, that topic is clearly hitting the mainstream.
  4. Mobile money comes to mature markets. I have long argued that given the nature of a disruptive innovation (low cost, easy to use, etc.), emerging markets are a perfect breeding ground for new business models. One innovation that started in emerging markets and will likely come to developed markets soon is the use of mobile phones for exchanging money or making payments. In the Economist’s special report on mobile phones in emerging markets, the lead story was “The Power of Mobile Money,” arguing that “Mobile phones have transformed lives int he poor world. Mobile money could have just as big an impact.” The report references Safaricom, an early pioneer of mobile money in Kenya (I gave Safaricom’s CEO my rare “Disruptive Leader Award” in September 2008 for exactly this type of innovation). In Kenya, there are 7 million users of mobile money of a country population of 38 million. People can send money to family members, pay for school and even taxis. It could hit serious hurdles, though, in mature markets, as regulators and banks make it harder for this to happen. But meanwhile, it is creating new opportunities and development for those at the bottom of the pyramid.
  5. Mobile health. Another mobile usage model that could make an impact in the developing world is mobile health. I personally haven’t followed this particular trend closely, but I continue to see more and more evidence of mobile health gaining traction. Vodafone’s CEO gave a keynote at Informa’s Mobile Healthcare Summit saying that the question is not whether governments SHOULD use mobile health, but HOW they should use it. Vodafone has a slew of mobile health pilots going on, from SMS tracking of appointment reminders and medication availabilty and mobile apps that enable data collection and monitor trials. The Economist report mentioned above also calls out mobile health as one of the new innovative usage models for the mobile phone, mentioning text alerts and speeding up the transfer of information by moving away from paper. Education was the hottest topic in ICT4D in the last decade. Mobile health could be the new one for the next decade.

The final trend to watch is whether one form factor will win out over the other in ICT4D–the mobile phone or the computer. With smart phones providing most of the capabilities of a computer, some argue this will be the ICT device that prevails. But is it really a zero-sum game?

My opinion is that the computer and the mobile phone will coexist for the forseeable future. Sometimes you just need a full-size keyboard and monitor for an application. And sometimes you just have to be truly mobile (and by mobile I mean being able to transact on the move vs. sitting somewhere with a laptop). At Intel we often talked about “three screens” … the small screen (handheld), the bigger screen (computer), and the biggest screen (TV).

But all of these five trends should lead to increased development through access to innovative ICT solutions and services that could be created and driven by social enterprises. I’d love to see a special report from BusinessWeek and the Economist on the convergence of these trends and its impact, but if not, we can always blog about it.