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22 May, 2018 00:00 00 AM

The new era and digital technologies

Despite many individual success stories, the effect of technology on global productivity, the expansion of opportunity for the poor and the middle class has so far been less than expected
Mohammed Abul Kalam
The new era and digital technologies

After the first attempt to launch was officially scrubbed early Friday following an auto abort, the Bangabandhu-1 geostationary satellite was blasted into the space early yesterday, taking Bangladesh into the history. With the launch, Bangladesh made history to become the 57th country in the world to have launched a satellite into the space. US satellite launching company SpaceX launched its Falcon-9 rocket carrying the payload of Bangabandhu-1 satellite around 2:14am Bangladesh time. Following a successful launch, SpaceX confirmed the first stage entry burn to be completed and a successful second stage engine cutoff. Falcon 9 Block 5 first stage also landed successfully on the ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ droneship following the launch. Hours before the launching, SpaceX wrote on its official Twitter page, “All systems looking good for Falcon 9’s launch of Bangabandhu Satellite-1. Weather is 70 percent favourable for today's launch window, which opens at 4:14 p.m. EDT, 20:14 UTC.”

Built on the new-generation Spacebus 4000B2 platform from Thales Alenia Space, the satellite is fitted with 26 Ku-band and 14 C-band transponders. Its coverage area includes Bangladesh and surrounding regions. Positioned at 119.1° East, the system will provide Ku-band coverage for Bangladesh and its territorial waters in the Bay of Bengal, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Indonesia. It will also provide C-band capacity for the entire region. Earlier yesterday, SpaceX postponed the launching of the rocket due to a "standard ground system auto abort at T-1 minute" on Friday Bangladesh time. SpaceX had earlier assured Bangladeshi officials that the satellite launching will resume around 4:14 pm (Florida local time) yesterday.

“Standing down today ( Friday) was due to a standard ground system auto abort at T-1 min. Rocket and payload are in good health—teams are working towards tomorrow’s backup launch opportunity at 4:14 p.m. EDT, or 20:14 UTC,” SpaceX said in a tweet yesterday. About the postponement of the launching process, Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) chairman Dr Shahjahan Mahmood told a press conference: “The satellite and rocket are in good condition. But after the failure to launch the satellite, the Spacex in-charge informed us that there are some problems at the ground system. Such problems can happen any time. He said it can be launched on Friday afternoon local time.” (The Independent, May 12, 2018).

Now the time has come to focus on Digital Technologies. The 4th Industrial revolution, broadly defined as the current and developing environment in which disruptive technologies and trends such as the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, virtual reality (VR), and artificial intelligence (AI) are changing the way we live and work and the preceding or underlying digital revolution (the development of computers and information technology), have raised renewed interest among development scholars and policy makers for the role of innovation and technology in development. For a long time, the dominant discourse has been that it is more efficient for developing countries and domestic firms to acquire foreign technology created in industrialized countries, because innovation is costly, risky, and path-dependent. The basic idea was that if innovations were easy to diffuse and adopt regardless of their nature and type, a developing country could catch up rapidly by absorbing the most advanced technologies through various transmission mechanisms including international trade, foreign direct investment (FDI), migration, international research collaboration, and integration in Global Value Chains (CVCs). In due course, many developing countries opened up their markets to attract FDI and to import the latest technologies, and invested in foreign education of students and international research collaboration.

The policies aimed to gain from technology diffusion and adoption met with several difficulties though. One is that technology diffusion and adoption is not costless and unconditional. The speed of diffusion and adoption depends on local firms’ absorptive capacity and complementary assets. And only in the presence of local innovation capacity will multinational enterprises adopt a more integrated innovation practice, which has greater linkages with the local economy and thereby enables greater opportunities of knowledge transfer. In addition, technical change is often biased in a particular direction; foreign knowledge, technologies, and innovations developed in industrialized countries may not be appropriate to the economic and social conditions in developing countries. Moreover, it cannot be assumed that private interests of multinationals coincide with the social interests of the host counties.

Part of the explanation as to why ‘catching up’ became such a popular and dominant discourse has been the underlying assumption that innovation in developing countries hardly or insufficiently took place, and that local firms were barely involved in innovation and technology development. For most economies and firms this may have been true for breakthrough, disruptive innovations; but more often than not, innovation comes from the cumulative effect of implementing small-scale ideas over prolonged periods of time, as we have also argued above. These sorts of innovation, which in developing countries predominantly take place in the informal sector, have – as we have also argued – for a long time been ‘below the radar’ in recent development studies. Still, mediating between foreign technology and indigenous innovation might be evident from country level perspective but maybe not so much from the perspective of local firms. On the one hand the North–South technology gap in several industries remains remarkably persistent, and hard for individual local firms to overcome. On the other hand, establishing links between informal sector firms and formal sector firms – either foreign or local – is not so self-evident. The consequence for local innovative firms might be a ‘locked in’ or path-dependent trajectory, which prevents them from embarking on trajectories for further innovation and growth.

Do these conclusions need revision in the light of the new developments in the digital era? One of the biggest changes in the innovation landscape in the many societies in the Global South has been the fast spread of digital technologies. These digital technologies – the internet, mobile phones, and all the other tools to collect, store, analyze, and share information digitally – have spread quickly in developing countries. For example, nearly 70 percent of the bottom fifth in income of the population in developing countries owns a mobile phone, and it is estimated that more people in developing countries have a mobile phone than having access to clean water (World Bank, 2016). And the number of internet users has more than tripled in a decade – from 1 billion in 2005 to an estimated 3.2 billion at the end of 2015 (World Bank,2016). Strong regional and inter-country differences exist though with marked differences between developing countries and the LDCs and between Africa and other regions in the Global South. Although Africa is portrayed in the media as the continent where the spread of mobile and digital technology is currently the most spectacular, this does hide the fact that in terms of mobile subscriptions, computer possession, internet access, and mobile broadband subscriptions, Africa is behind other regions. Still, when comparing country figures, African countries like Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa show on average the same figures as India. The presented figures are only indicative that interregional comparisons are relative, and that digital technologies are unevenly spread across the Global South.

Besides the fast rise and spread of mobile phone technology and internet, the World Bank (2016) identifies five developments in digital technology which are expected to spread quickly to the developing world: Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, autonomous vehicles (including drones), the Internet of Things (IoT), and 3D printing. Numerous examples of applications of these technologies can be found throughout the developing world, for example in education, health, farming, and in banking and insurance. If we look at these technology developments through a frugal innovation and development lens, several features stand out. Many products and services can be made frugal because of the availability of new digital technologies. Instead of the high investments needed to develop ‘hardware,’ much of this hardware can be replaced by using software, with much lower fixed costs and investments involved. For instance, smartphone apps can be used to measure body temperature or eye deficiencies, instead of using thermometers or expensive eye measurement apparatus; digitalized weather stations cost a fraction of conventional measurement systems. There are still fixed costs involved in building the app or station, but the marginal cost of adding another one has become tiny. This gives rise to increasing returns to scale, which stimulate new business and delivery models, and makes products and services affordable and available to lower income segments of the population, also those living in remote areas.

In addition, the mobile and internet technology, but also the Internet of Things, have lowered the entry level for entrepreneurs in the Global South to become engaged in innovation. In many economic sectors, the costs of innovation have declined dramatically. Whereas in the past laboratories, staff, and expensive equipment were needed, nowadays one person with a laptop can design and develop innovative products and services and run his or her business likewise from his or her own location. Globally, there has been a rise in spaces where people can gather to build and learn with electronics, software, and digital fabrication. Known as maker spaces, FabLabs, iHubs, etc., these spaces have democratized access to tools, and empowered participants to build and learn on their own. These developments have opened new opportunities for entrepreneurs in the Global South to gain relatively easy access to technologies that could help them to embark on innovation-driven growth trajectories, and opened up new opportunities for those who aim to serve their own or foreign markets, and these trajectories will probably be different from the trajectories that have been followed in the Global North. The new technologies can allow for the creation and development of context-specific solutions, affordable, and with good enough quality, typically basic features of frugal innovation.

But we need to remain cautious. Some scholars speak about a democratization of technology across regions and societies. In contrast, the World Bank (2016) concludes that despite many individual success stories, the effect of technology on global productivity, the expansion of opportunity for the poor and the middle class has so far been less than expected. Digital technologies have been spreading, but digital dividends are not spread equally over the global population or several reasons. Nearly 60 percent of the world’s people are still offline and cannot participate in the digital economy in any meaningful way. Public sector investments in digital technologies, in the absence of accountable institutions amplify the voice of elites, which can result in policy capture and greater state control. And because the economics of the internet favour natural monopolies, the absence of a competitive business environment can result in more concentrated markets, benefiting incumbent firms. Not surprisingly, the better educated, well connected, and more capable have received most of the benefits while a majority of people lag behind. Given that many of today’s frugal innovations build upon digital technology and its various applications, this raises urgent questions and asks for critical research on who reaps the benefits of frugal innovation and who does not; and what will be done with these benefits? Frugal innovation research definitely needs to delve into these urgent questions if it aims to contribute to further insights on the developmental relevance of frugal innovations.

The writer is former Head, Department of Medical Sociology

Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR)

E-mail: med_sociology_iedcr@yahoo.com



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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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