Pondering the mobile innovation divide

Vanderbeeken has an interesting post up on Putting People First today, one that made me think about the possible reasons why mobile services and application areas in the developed world (read the United States) are a bit behind the rest of the world. Putting aside issues of regulations, restrictions and service provider and handset restrictions, all tangible elements that restrict innovation, I’m wondering whether there’s another aspect involved as well. Bear with me while I circumlocute for a bit in order to grasp the whole. Here’s the snippet from the article linked to,

In reading recenly about a bank sponsored program to help the “unbanked” poor in San Francisco open up banking accounts, I was struck by how far behind the curve we seem to be in America in leveraging the same mobile opportunities that are coming online around the globe. Rather than spending a lot of energy trying to do outreach to the unbanked in an effort to get them to open a physical bank account, wouldn’t it be smarter to make mobile banking more prevelant and accessible? The fact remains that mobile phones are used by everyone these days, from the urban poor to rural illegal immigrants. Getting these same people to come in to a bank branch to open a bank account, while worthwhile, seems unrealistic – particularly for folks on the margins who may have only a handful of dollars at any given time.

I’ve made bold the question that struck me. I do wonder if this partly because of the established infrastructure and systems already in place? What we are accustomed to doing and how we are accustomed to thinking influence our choices and decisions to a far greater degree than we realize. Its almost like a filter, one could say, one that makes it very difficult for someone who is immersed in one way of life or within a certain environment to conceive of and think of what it would be like in a diametrically different environment or infrastructural situation. This sounds a bit simplistic and yet complex in a way, so let me attempt to explain using an example.

Back when the internet first grew into prominence as a potentially lucrative new space wherein to do business, there was much that was debated and discussed about ‘bricks and mortar‘ and ‘bricks and clicks‘  and how would business models from the real world translate or rather transmute  into formats that would work effectively and profitably online. Amazon was much debated not even a decade ago and its stock price followed as zealously as Google’s is today. What does this imply for the mobile platform?

That in the US, in San Francisco, where the systems already long established are such that the unbanked must be encouraged to open physical bank accounts, it is difficult to conceive of, much less, implement the SMS based or mobile payment systems that the author mentions. These m-banking solutions like M-Pesa in Kenya or Wizzit in South Africa arose in the vacuum of the lack of existing credit and banking infrastructure to fill an unmet need. They seem simpler and easier to use and access for the homeless or the poor or the migrant worker without the papers and credentials that ‘brick and mortar’ banks require. And the reasons for this primarily are that the ‘unbanked’ have been unbanked for a reason – literacy, steady job or income, home address or other traditional requirements for opening an account.

This ‘innovation’, that of an easier, simpler, faster way to conduct cashless transactions evolved from the needs and constraints of the local environment, as well as jugaad or makeshift payment schemes that had already organically evolved. Jan Chipchase says it well in his TED talk about Sente, the informal payment scheme using airtime minutes that he observed in Uganda – that he believed that no system that they [Nokia or any technologically adept first world service provider] could have designed could be as elegant, as simple to use and as relevant and appropriate to the local culture and needs as what had emerged intuitively as a response to an existing need through the community of users.

This missing link or need is not prevalent enough in the developed world for such systems to have evolved – starting with the difference between the use of prepaid SIM cards and contractual service provider requirments down to an established communications network and existing infrastructure for credit, money transfer and cashless payments. When you already have a means to do something, thinking of solutions to do the same thing but without the existing means or solutions can be difficult to conceive of, imho.  Nathan Eagle brings up this very point in his post I linked to earlier. He says,

I don’t believe it is wrong for these mobile phone executives (or press) to hype the potential of the mobile web in the developing world; however I am doubtful that forcing inappropriate, expensive, and fragile technology on these billions of mobile phone users is realistic or beneficial. Instead, I believe we need to start thinking about how to leverage the existing infrastructure of phones present throughout these regions to serve as portals to the internet for the masses.

Whether its banking the unbanked or whether its bridging the digital divide, the real hurdle is how we perceive the problem statement rather than the way we’re attempting to solve the problem – the key to the answers lie in challenging our assumptions that the answer must be the very same answer in order to achieve the same ends, when its not the same end result that might be required so much as the same benefit to the user.

A start might be by reframing the question to be “how can we get similar benefits viz., access to relevant and timely information, connectivity, commerce and communication in a manner that suits the limitations, abilities and needs of those we wish to reach” ?

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