Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Leapfrog Technology: Cellular Phones and Microfinance

Cell phone tower in Pakistan. Image via Telecom PK.

The cell phone is an example of trickle-down leapfrog technology. In the past several years, the development of mobile technology has reached such ubiquity that it's use transcends social, economic, and in many cases, physical stratification. It has done so for two main reasons; innovation and cost. Through the development of traditional communication systems (telegraph, landlines, etc), cellular technology has seen mobile telecommunication devices replace the need for expensive and labor-intensive hardwired infrastructure. As the technology advanced, the cost of production and implementation dropped, and thus, reached a level of economic viability. It is these two factors, innovation and cost, that have allowed mobile phones to take root in developing societies. As
WorldChanging notes:
It's easier and faster to put in cellular towers in rural and remote areas than to put in land lines, and as a result, cellular use is exploding. As we've noted, mobile phone use already exceed land line use in India, and by 2007, 150 million out of the 200 million phone lines there will be cellular.
In this case, cellular phones begin their new life in developing countries as a piece of highly specialized technology that has a history of industry investment and technological refinement. The result of it's advanced stage of development is a technology that trickles down through social and economic systems and allows for it's wide-spread use.
Kiva is an organization that helps find donors for microfinancing projects in the developing world. Image via Kiva.

Microfinance, however, is an example of the potential of trickle-up leapfrog technology. Though newer than cellular technology (and not "technology" per se), Micro-finance is an economic tool that allows for banking and financial transactions to occur at a "local" level, where large capital institutions and systems are not needed. In this case, however, the technology was developed not through industry and capital investment, but through a social and economic response to a need. In places where micro-finance thrives, most of these economies generally don't have the financial backing or institutions necessary to provide large-scale lending. Of course, investment in industry, individuals, and social infrastructure is still needed for economic prosperity and development, so micro-finance responds to this need by allowing small scale loans and investment to local users for local projects and needs. It is being found that micro-finance works well in developing countries because it is a simple solution to a wide-spread problem.

Here is the potential for a leapfrog technolgy through the trickle-up effect. Where cellular phones are an example of a technology that moves from a complex process to fulfull a need in developing societies, micro-finance is a technology that is created from a response or need that has the potential to move to more complex markets and economies.

At a time when the largest and most "established" financial institutions and systems in the world are reeling from debt and irresponsible investment and loan practices, it is ironic to think that the systems in developed countries could be revolutionized through a leapfrog technology currently being sown in countries throughout Africa, India, and South America. In the United States, where such malpractice has caused a constriction of large scale investment and lending (resulting in a global financial downturn), it is being discovered that restricting finance within the system is not a viable solution to the problem and that it is still neccessary, just as in developing societies, to invest in industry, individuals, and infrastructure. It is possible that a system of micro-finance in developed societies might allow for a leapfrog oppurtunity akin to the advantage that cellular phones are bringing to developing countries.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Renewable Energy and Future Political Strife

The worlds largest renewable energy producing installation is a project by the DESERTEC Foundation that will see 100GW of solar energy to be harvested in the Sahara Desert throughout Northern Africa. It will be one of the largest networks of photovoltaic arrays in the world. According to Inhabitat:
The project will link multiple solar concentrating facilities around coastal North Africa and transmit most of the renewable energy through high-voltage DC lines to Europe. Additionally, desalination plants will be coupled with the solar concentrating plants to bring fresh water to people in Africa.
The potential is obviously great. The environment of North Africa is ripe for solar collection. Since the power is being sent to Europe, there is also a viable consumer base to tap into, which, in the end, will create an economy based around the technology and its delivery. Unfortunately, this also means that there is much profit in the venture. If it is not integrated into the political and social landscape as well, the struggle could result in an instance of instability. If a large foreign entity attempts to create and legitimize a blossoming energy economy throughout several countries that struggle for economy, and not take steps to integrate the system into the local political and social systems, future strife is inevitable. You only have to look at the current struggle in the Niger Delta of southern Nigeria for example.

However, the project holds the potential to be an instance of leapfrog technology within the region. The DESERTEC solar belt is scheduled to produce 15% of Europes power needs. This is an incredible amount of energy being transmitted OUT of countries that are lacking in viable energy production. If that amount of energy production and economy could be put IN to the countries of North Africa, the stability and infrastructure of the region would improve drastically. What better leapfrog technology than solar energy in North Africa? The $555 billion price tag could easily micro-finance thousands of local operations in a place where people are literally fighting for economy. If the money and technology are incorporated locally (rather than through a state), the result is infrastructure being designed, used, and sold by the people designing, using and selling it.

Seen on Inhabitat. Images via Inhabitat and DESERTEC Foundation. Niger Delta image from George Osodi AP and the Guardian.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Of Tuna and the Oceansphere

Tuna are one of the ocean's most magnificent fish. Some of the larger species, such as the Bluefin, Yellowfin, and Pacific Bigeye are the top predators within their ecosystem. Yet they are also the one of the most overfished stocks in the sea, and action is needed to stop irreversible harm from being done to the species. Enter the Oceansphere. Invented by the Haiwaiian company, Hawaii Oceanic Technology, the Oceansphere is essentially a huge sphere suspended in the Pacific where the species will be raised naturally. According to National Geographic:
Each 162-foot-wide (49-meter-wide) aluminum-and-Kevlar cage would be completely untethered to the ocean floor and self-powered by a system that converts the ocean's thermal energy to electricity. The spheres lie about 65 feet below the ocean surface, and the company says they are designed so as not to be a hazard to whales, sharks, or other marine life.
State regulators in Hawaii have just approved the companies plan to build and operate three of the Oceanspheres two miles off the coast of Hawaii's Big Island. If these three test models are successful, the State Board of Land and Resources has granted the company the right to construct nine more. If, or when, all twelve Oceanspheres are operational, the fish farms will produce approximately 6,000 tons of Pacific Bigeye Tuna a year, which equals the amount of Tuna lawfully harvested per year by the Japanese.

As there are consistently reports that many countries, regularly overfish the lawfully regulated amount, the Oceansphere could be a responsible way to farm a vital food source for the world. It may also set a precedent for innovative ways to utilize the natural environment as incubator for production rather than altering the envirnoment for production processes.

Seen via NatGeo News Watch. Images via Hawaii Oceanic Technology.