It was 10 years ago this month that Southern Innovator‘s first issue launched in New York during the UN’s General Assembly week (UNGA). It focused on mobile phones and information technology for a reason: these connectivity transformations were re-shaping how people lived their lives, even in the poorest and remotest places on earth.
The content was based on global research, beginning in 2007, funded by the United Nations.
“What a tremendous magazine your team has produced! It’s a terrific tour de force of what is interesting, cutting edge and relevant in the global mobile/ICT space… This is great, engaging, relevant and topical stuff.” Rose Shuman, Founder & CEO, Open Mind and Question Box, Santa Monica, CA, U.S.A.
In 2010, as we prepared to launch Southern Innovator, the branding and website for David South Consulting was re-visioned by Icelandic graphic designer and illustrator Sólveig Rolfsdóttir. David South Consulting has been working with clients around the world since 1991.
In November/December 2000 I worked in Kiev, Ukraine for the United Nations mission on the strategic re-launch of the mission website as a portal, whilst also advising the UN Resident Coordinator/UNDP Resident Representative Douglas Gardner on communications strategy. It was an extraordinary experience on many levels. It was a time when the Internet was fast evolving and required quick thinking and an ability to innovate; it was also a key moment in Ukraine’s history.
But despite those dangers and clear threats from the government of the time, there was a flourishing and inventive Internet and digital economy. The magazine Internet UA (whose editor I enjoyed meeting) gave a great overview of the scene in Ukraine and its creativity. Just as now, the creation of Internet stars who can exploit the medium (in this case sexy videos: a very large online market today) was driving viewers and subscribers. But there was also a vibrant online news media, blogging, commerce and gaming presence as well.
According to ain.ua, the Ukrainian digital economy today is ” … ‘local’ only just figuratively speaking. Ukrainian startups are initially focused on international markets. Product companies are included into international industry ratings. Outsourcing works with clients from all over the world. Global players enter Ukrainian market, opening R&D offices, acquiring and investing into local companies. There are no boundaries.”
It is easy to take digital freedoms for granted now but there was great resistance at the time and, unlike today, many governments were openly hostile to digital technology, online communications and e-commerce.
The UN itself was evolving and embracing the communications and design revolution being driven by digital change. This was the first “dot.com” boom, which had begun in 1997. I had played a key role in pioneering online content for Mongolia (1997-1999) and could bring this experience to Ukraine. In particular, I launched an award-winning web portal for the UN Mongolia mission in 1997 (www.un-mongolia.mn) and also the country’s first web magazine, Ger.
Key content created and launched on the UN Ukraine portal included critical information on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Ukraine, UN Ukraine’s first online magazine to explore perceptions of volunteering and NGOs in the post-communist period, and content preparing for the visit of the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, by showing how Ukraine was engaging with global development priorities, for example the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and bringing together UN agencies and entities into a cohesive web and “One UN” experience.
The power of the Internet and the digital economy to engage people, especially the young, despite living in a country with significant political repression of free speech and even physical intimidation and murder, stuck with me. This work also contributed to laying the foundations for Ukraine’s growing freedoms and greater engagement with Europe.
The rapid spread of the internet around the global South is bringing with it new forms of work. One of these trends is so-called “gold farming”: making money in the virtual world of computer gaming by trading in virtual money, prizes and goods for busy gamers who don’t have time to do it themselves. This work now employs 400,000 people – mostly men and mostly in China, but also elsewhere in the South, according to a new report.
Working out of internet centres where they can get access to high-speed or broadband internet connections, “gold farmers” use the global trade in virtual goods for online computer games in the same way stockbrokers trade shares on the world’s stock exchanges. The trade operates similarly to the stock market, with prices fluctuating based on demand and changing by the minute.
And as the report discovered, this trade is acting as a gateway into the world of information technology employment, where computer-literate young men are able to earn an income they could not have done otherwise.
It is a trade that can provide gold farmers with US $145 a month in income. They are often given free food and accommodation to do it, and many have few other economic choices.
“You can probably think of two models,” said the report’s author, Professor Richard Heeks of Manchester University’s Development Informatics Group. “They could play as an individual at a local cybercafe doing their own in-game farming and then selling to one of the trading sites (that buy from farmers at one price, then sell on to player-buyers at a higher price). Or they could be organized into a small/medium enterprise by an owner, all working together in a room full of computers.”
There is a dark side to gold farming too: there have been reports of youths forced to gold farm by gangs who make them work 12 hour days. Crime gangs sometimes become involved and scams proliferate.
Heeks says the downside is the result of governmental ignorance. “The main problem is a lack of understanding about ICT and ICT enterprise generally in some governments in developing countries and in particular a relative lack of understanding about the spread and implications of computer games.”
Supporters see gold farming as a flourishing Southern economy that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and exposes participants both to information technology skills and the wide horizons of the virtual computing world. Its defenders say it shows that those who dismiss the expansion of IT infrastructure as a waste of time are missing the emerging economic opportunities it is creating.
Heeks said we still know too little about this fast-evolving sector, but that “gold farming does seem to be providing income/livelihood for young men who would otherwise be unemployed. There are claims that it has helped mop up youths who had otherwise been involved in crime, but we don’t yet know how generalized such claims are.”
The number of players engaged in online gaming has grown by 80 percent per year, and Heeks sees the rise in gold farming as linked to a bigger trend: “in both North and South, we will spend increasing amounts of work and leisure time in cyberspace. Couple that with the growing penetration of ICTs into developing countries, including into poor communities, and there will be growing opportunities for this kind of ‘virtual outsourcing.’”
Currently, more than 300 million people worldwide have access to the internet through fast broadband connections (mostly in developed countries, although this is changing quickly), and more than 1.1 billion of the world’s estimated 6.6 billion people are online.
China is working hard to capture the economic power of the internet. The country’s economic boom has helped create an affluent urban middle class clamouring for the social aspects of internet access like chat rooms, while the government has been driving the roll-out of internet access in rural areas.
China’s most ambitious digital media industry development is the Beijing Cyber Recreation District (CRD), a collection of digital media academies and company incubators spread over 100 square kilometres, creating the world’s largest virtual world development. It is already home to more than 200 game and multimedia content producers in western Beijing.
And even in Africa, where broadband penetration rates are very poor, countries are now looking to the mobile phone companies to provide their populations with access to the internet, as they struggle to find a place at the digital table.
Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean strategically close to Africa and better known for tourism and luxury hotels, wants to become the world’s “cyber island”, and Africa’s e-gateway. Armed with the first 3G network in Africa (the third generation of mobile phone technology – offering high-speed internet access and video telephony), Mauritius is moving fast to make good on this advantage. And it is even moving to the next level of mobile-phone speed, High-speed Download Packet Access (HSDPA) – allowing even greater quantities of information to be exchanged.
Mauritius joins a select few countries, including Japan and South Korea, at the forefront of access to 3G. Wireless – or wi-fi – computer access is available in three-quarters of the island.
Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.
The deluge of data gathered by the digital revolution underway in the global South continues to offer a significant economic opportunity. How this data is harvested will forge the successful Internet business models of the future.
As the Internet spreads its way further across the global South, many are forecasting this new surge in web users and the data they generate will radically reshape the way people engage with and use the Internet. Unlike previous generations of web users, most of these new users will be accessing the Internet primarily with mobile phones and other devices, rather than computers. Many will not be native English speakers.
Argentinian philosopher and digital publisher Octavio Kulesz says “the digital experiences undertaken in the South suggest that new technologies represent a great opportunity for developing countries … but on the condition that local entrepreneurs seek out original models adapted to the concrete needs of their communities.”
In a report for the International Alliance of Independent Publishers, Kulesz said we “must ask ourselves how useful it would be to reproduce the prototypes from the North in the South.”
According to the Cisco Visual Networking Index Forecast (2010-2015), by 2015, there will be 3 billion Internet users in the world: 40 percent of the global population. Internet Protocol (IP) traffic is growing fastest in Latin America, where it is forecast to grow by 50 percent from 2010 to 2015. Next are the Middle East and Africa.
There are already as many networked devices – tablets, mobile phones, connected appliances and smart machines – on the planet as people. By 2015 – the year of the Millennium Development Goals (http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals) – they’ll outnumber people by two to one.
The potential of the Internet revolution is especially compelling in Africa, a continent neglected for so long in the global communications revolution. The 10,000 kilometre-long East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy), connecting sub-Saharan Africa with Europe and Asia, has joined other cables from the continent. Gradually, the infrastructure is coming in to place to connect Africa properly to the world.
The first batch of Internet users came from the United States, home of the Internet which grew out of the US military’s Arpanet system (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARPANET). This first wave of the Internet’s history was very much an American phenomenon. The priorities and content of the web were driven by the cultural and economic concerns of its American users. And the big brands of today’s web reflect this: Google, Facebook, eBay, Twitter, Yahoo, WordPress, to name a few.
As the web expanded across wealthy, developed nations in Europe, users mostly mimicked the priorities of the American approach, using the web to express themselves, be entertained, share files, access government services and sell and market products and services.
But the spread of the Internet across the global South is already showing itself to have a different character and set of priorities. One change is in the way people are accessing the web: through mobile phones and other devices, rather than through laptops and personal computers.
In the future, the trend is towards a global mobile world, in which the communications medium will favour video and audio over text, according to Fast Company magazine (http://www.fastcompany.com). Information is being shared across boundaries on a vast scale for the first time. People around the world are gaining access to data and information never available before, and all of it is nearly instantaneous.
Kulesz said countries of the South face a profound and difficult decision: follow the lead taken by the technology pioneers of the South, or try and replicate what was done in the North?
“Sooner or later, these countries will have to ask themselves what kind of digital publishing highways they must build,” his report said, “and they will be faced with two very different options: a) financing the installation of platforms designed in the North; b) investing according to the concrete needs, expectations and potentialities of local authors, readers and entrepreneurs. Whatever the decision of each country may be, the long-term impact will be immense.”
The costs of trying to replicate the technological infrastructure of the North makes little sense, when it is technologically possible to bypass this costly infrastructure with even newer work-arounds.
“Of course, it would be extraordinary to obtain 80 percent Internet penetration in Africa or make huge investments in infrastructure throughout the developing regions,” continues Kulesz, “but that may never happen. And in the event that it does occur some day, by then the industrialized countries will no doubt have made another technological leap, meaning that the disparity in infrastructure would still persist. So the most effective option is to start working right now, with what is available.”
2) Cisco Visual Networking Index Forecast (2010-2015): The annual Cisco VNI Forecast was developed to estimate global Internet Protocol traffic growth and trends. Widely used by service providers, regulators, and industry influencers alike, the Cisco VNI Forecast is based on in-depth analysis and modelling of traffic, usage and device data from independent analyst forecasts. Website:http://newsroom.cisco.com/press-release-content?type=webcontent&articleId=324003
3) Digital Publishing in Developing Countries: A report by the International Alliance of Independent Publishers. Website:http://alliance-lab.org/etude/archives/date/2010/01?lang=en