October 31, 2012
How relevant are national borders today? David Livingstone famously wrote in the 1850s that the innovation of railroads, steamships and telegraphs make the world one — national borders melt away and Africa could basically be integrated into Europe. The more modern version of those modes of connection — the plane, telephone, Internet — seem on the surface only to demonstrate the truth of Livingstone’s vision. We can be chatting with people on the other side of the world pretty much instantly, we can physically traverse the world in a few hours, what affects one part of the world inevitably affects the rest of us, and access to modes of connection is soaring, including for many of the world’s poorest people. Such global integration is no longer a novelty, or a luxury of the rich; it seems like it’s business as usual for increasing proportions of the world’s population.
However, I was intrigued to watch a TED talk recently by Pankaj Ghemawat, who has looked into the numbers and reckons all this talk of ‘globalization’ is in fact a load of ‘globaloney’ — just an assumption that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. He describes some fairly surprising statistics. Just 3 percent of the world’s population are first generation immigrants. Despite David Livingstone’s conviction that ‘capital, like water, tends to a common level’ across borders thanks to transport and telecommunications, a mere 10 percent of the world’s investments were direct foreign investments in 2010. International shipping and air freight account for under 5 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Only 2 percent of the world’s phone calls are international (6-ish percent if you count Internet calls). Only 10-15 percent of the average person’s Facebook friends live in a different country to them. When people are asked to guess any of these numbers, they apparently guess a lot higher, because with all this transport and telecommunications being technically available to most of us, we have the potential to be far more connected than we actually are. In fact, according to Ghemawat, we’re disconcertingly parochial.
At a Brookings Institute event recently on mobile entrepreneurship around the world, behind the praise of the doors mobile technology has opened in development, I heard the same message. Mobile solutions can inspire and enable entrepreneurship, empower women and those at the bottom of the pyramid, give people transformative access to information, to banking, to the world. However, I also heard about how it is harder than it sounds to scale up successful mobile solutions — be they financial, health, education, or farming — because from country to country not only are the regulations governing individual sectors/industry different, the regulations governing technology are different… and at the most basic level, the languages and even the phone companies are different. Alex Counts, CEO of the Grameen Foundation, put it well when he said “you can’t just throw mobile phones over the wall and assume they’re going to benefit the poor.” To be successful, mobile services need to be designed thoughtfully, meticulously, innovatively, securely, with buy-in from all the players involved for each specific country in which they’re going to be used. And it isn’t one seamless world; it is one demarcated by infrastructure and regulatory barriers that are drawn largely along country lines.
So it seems mobile innovation isn’t really dancing across borders in a dynamic whirl of globalization after all; rather, it’s patiently queuing and filling in passport forms while just across the border, other innovators try to reinvent the wheel. Perhaps it’s time to get mobile innovation a passport and help it move more freely. In three years, according to Alex Counts, we’ll look back on today’s mobile technology and facilities as ‘horses and bayonets.’ Entrepreneurs throughout the world are pushing through political, regulatory, and infrastructure barriers to get this right, and wherever they do, the potential for development is thrilling.