Sunday, April 6, 2008
The web widens its net
Imagine a world built on the premise that no single entity can accomplish an ambitious goal alone – a world where public and private institutions, businesses and individuals work together to create, sustain and enable ecosystems to flourish and grow. A world where computing abilities and internet access are available to people in the deepest, darkest corners of the world.
This is not an ideal world. In fact, if American technology firm AMD achieves its target, 50 per cent of the world’s population will have affordable, accessible internet connectivity by 2015.
Called the 50x15 initiative, the company plans to take this ambitious project on by promoting the economic progress of well-off markets in ways that can benefit developing areas and businesses and by utilising innovative technology solutions. The crux of the mission is to create a network of partners that are committed to bringing about global connectivity and empowering people to improve their lives
Dan Shine, who leads the charge at 50x15, is quick to point out that the programme is not about corporate social responsibility (CSR). The ability to make change, he believes, is not just by inventing new technologies, but by placing it in the hands of a greater percentage of people around the world.
“It has nothing to do with CSR. It is about giving access to technology to people and thus promote not only development and prosperity, but also peace,” he says. “Technological innovation has to be inclusive, it should never be a one off. If it is successful, it should be repeated in other places so it includes everyone.”
According to a study by UK-based internet consultancy Point Topic, by June last year only more than 1.1 billion people around the world had access to the internet. This, compared to an estimated global population of more than six billion, exemplifies a great digital divide. While more than 300 million people have access to a fast broadband connection, with the US and China leading the pack, countries such as Sudan were way below with 0.05 per cent and Egypt at 1.55 per cent.
From villagers in Mexico looking to preserve their native language to a skilled craftswoman in a remote village wanting to sell her wares to the global community, and a young boy in South Africa eager to engage with his peers in other parts of world, technology, says Shine, has the potential to be one of the most potent tools for empowerment.
“Education comes later. The first step is to try and promote access and build systems so such environments can exist,” he says. “Bandwidth is not nearly as important as persistency in connection. Access to unlimited resources through the internet will then act as an educational medium. Imagine, for instance, if all the information available on Wikipedia is trickled down to a computer in a remote place, people can learn so much.”
To felicitate its goals, 50x15 has partnered with a number of NGOs, governmental organisations and groups from India to Nepal and Russia to Brazil. Learning Labs, which are educational models promoting education and training, have been created to help people develop skills. From supplying computers to orphans in a remote east Indian village to providing internet communicators and monitors to rehabilitated streetchildren in Brazil, many of the organisations are not necessarily set up by 50x15 but are adopted or technologically aided by it.
“We needed partners to help us achieve our goal. It’s not just about getting a computer to someone’s house but improving their access to technology,” says Shine, who has previously worked with HP, Motorola and Walt Disney Imagineering in various capacities. “We have partnered with Microsoft, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems and even Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network.” Under the partner programme, 50x15 accepts assistance from organisations that already have regional expertise in areas such as power generation, connectivity, finance and content creation, creating what it calls the digital inclusion ecosystem.
But the mission, he says, has not always been smooth sailing. “We have to deal with politicians, religious leaders and sometimes even teachers who are resistant to change or who feel threatened that their students would know more than them,” says the 50x15 vice-president, who has come to Dubai to speak at the ongoing World Summit for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “Sometimes there are resistances we just cannot fight.”
While adding that the Middle East is a region where 50x15 has “not done quite as much”, Shine believes technology could be used to bridge the economic disparity among countries here. “While the [UAE] has become a centre of wealth and prosperity with advancements in technology, countries such as Egypt and Pakistan are still lagging behind,” he says. “There is a way to bring them in the circle. We have had significant investments from this region in our company and we are currently meeting officials.”
Although he denies his company’s ambitious project is a CSR stunt, Shine admits the 50x15 project creates a lot of goodwill for AMD.
“It helps in our long-term business strategy. It has opened doors for us and led us to more places,” he says. “And we are aware that community goodwill can accelerate your profile.”
1.1bn people have access to the internet globally
6bn: The estimated global population
3,000 people have access to broadband internet in Sudan
Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.