04 August 2006

Ubiquitous Connectivity and Pervasive Prosperity

Some of you may have heard of the "one laptop per child" initiative that aims to provide $100 laptops, powered by hand-cranks or foot-pedals, to children in developing countries. While such an initiative is laudable in its own right, it seems to come from a "ubiquitous computing," or computing-centric (or computation/device/gadget-centric) mentality. I've never favoured this view; from where I sit, it's ubiquitous connectivity that defines the dominant force that is reshaping contemporary society, through its concomitant effect of pervasive proximity. Connect two people who were not previously connected and magic happens (regardless of what this stupidity claims to say; as a contrast, this study asked the right questions).

Mobile devices have infiltrated deep into rural areas in developing and emerging countries, and the fact of connectivity has indeed changed lives for the better. Now, Treehugger reports that a new organization, Green Wi-Fi, is bringing the ability to connect all of these $100 laptops in ultra-low cost, solar-powered, mesh networks that can be provided anywhere there is sun.
Green WiFi is committed to providing solar powered access to global information and educational resources for developing nation K-12 school children striving for knowledge in a digitally divided world. There are approximately 3 billion people under the age of 15 living in developing nations. 42 percent of the developing world's population is below the age of 15. Green WiFi was founded on the principle that the welfare of our world is dependent, in large part, on providing these children with free and open access to the world's information.

As business people, we recognize the inherent infrastructure and associated cost challenges of providing free and ubiquitous internet access to developing nations. This is why Green WiFi has developed a WiFi solution that leverages low cost components, the latest advancements in solar power technologies, open source software and Java to deliver a self sustaining, self healing, WiFi grid network solution that is cost effective and easy to deploy.
This initiative is consistent with the post-industrial approach to infrastructure, called "leap-frog" technology.
"Leapfrogging" is the notion that areas which have poorly-developed technology or economic bases can move themselves forward rapidly through the adoption of modern systems without going through intermediary steps. We see this happening all around us: you don't need a 20th century industrial base to build a 21st century bio/nano/information economy.

Rather than following the already-developed nations in the same course of "progress," leapfrogging means that developing regions can experiment with emerging tools, models and ideas for building their societies.
One of my favourites in this category is the Light Up The World project, "the first humanitarian organization to utilize renewable energy and solid-state lighting technologies to bring affordable, safe, healthy, efficient, and environmentally responsible illumination to people who do not have access to power for adequate lighting." Think solar cells, "pico wind turbines," and 1 watt, high intensity, white LEDs (cheap, long-lasting and efficient; $20 for 50,000 hours of light, compared to $75 for compact flourescent that needs four times the power, or $1250 for the kerosene lamps typically used in rural villages).

The Slashdot commentary on this topic is mostly interesting (aside from the expected, simplistic, and uninformed response of "why buy them computing when they haven't got food or water"). Even more interesting is the evolution of Slashdot readers' awareness and sensitivity to issues of appropriate and sustainable global social development that I have observed over the last decade.

There's hope for this ol' world yet, I suppose.

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