Reverse Innovation: A Two-Way Street to Global Tech Solutions

“More than 90 percent of the population lives within reach of a cell phone tower,” Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami pointed out during Thursday’s Four Peak Salon “Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Emerging Markets: What’s Good for Them, Is Good for Us.” And it is exactly the reach of coverage that makes simple mobile technology a feasible avenue for development. For comparison, only 2 billion people have access to broadband and with more than 6 billion people on the planet, most of the developing world has limited or no access to data.

Rothenberg-Aalami is a coauthor of “Technology at the Margins: How IT Meets the Needs of Emerging Markets,” and was invited to the April edition of the MCDM Four Peaks Salon to discuss the changing nature of the global technology business and the influence of emerging markets on technology providers.

Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami (left) with moderator Anita Verna Crofts, MCDM Associate Director.

The salon, moderated by associate director Anita Verna Crofts, discussed the concept of technology and innovation in emerging markets. The idea Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami brings up is that when emerging markets gain access to technology, they create and innovate solutions that are relevant to their needs. But the application and relevance of these solutions and innovations are not limited to the emerging markets where they originated. Increasingly, their ideas and technologies can find niches and fill needs in the developed markets as well.

“I’m excited by “reverse innovation” because it recognizes parallels that countries share – populations that have limited access to services – and in doing so, promotes a more equitable vision of world, as opposed to the categorization that terms such as ‘emerging markets’ underscore,” Crofts said to Flip The Media after the Four Peaks conversation. Crofts teaches several courses in the MCDM that deal with the global opportunities and challenges regarding technology and communications.

Thursday’s Four Peak Salon opened with a live webcast of the Media Space TV episode “Innovation and Community in Emerging Markets: Social Tools for Social Change” on UWTV where MCDM program Director Hanson Hosein interviewed Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami about her take on technology at the margins – how there is profit to be made in emerging markets on solutions that can serve their needs. Furthermore, if these technologies and innovations can be imported back to the developed world – that is a win-win situation. The Media Space TV episode will be broadcasted at 9pm on April 27, 2011.

Rothenberg-Aalami is a managing partner with the global organization Gobee Group – the name sprung out of the purpose of the team: to go between at sites of need and bridge the gap by partnering with organizations and donors that can work with the emerging markets.

“It’s going beyond charity,” Rothenberg-Aalami said, adding that it is not a quick process and that is where Gobee comes in.

“Collaborative organization takes a long time. Working with anthropologists, tech people, researcher, super-national organizations and local groups in academics – they all speak their own language. At the end of the day, very few of these are still collaborating. So there is a need for translators to help bridge those gaps and focus on the needs and problems you are trying to solve,” Rothenberg-Aalami explained.

Health, education, agriculture and money

Currently, Rothenberg-Aalami sees the biggest opportunities for innovation and technology solutions in emerging markets happening in the health care and educational segments, as well as banking services in areas where no banking exists or where most people don’t have bank accounts. Nokia pioneered this service a couple of years ago with Nokia Money. They just launched their pilot in India this year, partnering with Obopay and Yes Bank. It lets people add money to their SIM cards and then transfer money to recipients via text messaging.

Rothenberg-Aalami brought up an example from Uganda where Google partnered with MTN and Grameen Foundation AppLab to produce a mobile suite providing five different mobile apps related to farming, weather forecasts and health. Users could access real-time information from Google SMS search via text messaging. For instance, a farmer could text a crops-related question to the agricultural database and would get the answer sent to his cell phone as a text message. A mother could text a health inquiry to the health topics database, and would get a prompt answer back on her cell phone. Rothenberg-Aalami explained that this service was free for a period of time, and usage soared. But when the service providers wanted to monetize the service, usage plummeted.

“Access and free exchange of information are still huge issues,” Rothenberg-Aalami said, indicating that this is where donors come in and make sure the companies get paid. On the other hand, donors vanish over time.

“It’s complicated. Someone has to come up with these solutions,” she said.

Impressive interest

“I’m just impressed with how many people here are interested in the topic. That’s exciting,” Rothenberg-Aalami said after the Four Peaks Salon conversation Thursday night. “I learned a lot. The students here have looked at the issues more deeply. There are practitioners here who have a local perspective. There is just a lot of momentum for the topic and lots of points of intersection to demonstrate that, and they engaged with lots of great questions,” she said. “It was exceptional.”

After living in Seattle for three years Rothenberg-Aalami recognizes that Seattle is a unique community. The area combines a strong industry of technology and innovation with the interest for civic involvement that is higher than almost anywhere else in the United States, said Rothenberg-Aalami, a fifth generation Californian who has spent more time abroad than at home since the mid-1990s.

“But people are also pretty insular here. They are very local, and people don’t cross from Queen Anne to Bellevue to expand their horizons,” she concluded with a laugh.

Four Peaks events focus on the concepts of innovation, community, entrepreneurship and entertainment, and are designed to bring together a network of content creators, technologists, entrepreneurs and community leaders who collaborate on ideas, projects and platforms that support innovation, storytelling, sustainable economies and strong social capital. The Four Peaks Summit, scheduled for October 2011, will be the culmination of the project, in partnership with the MCDM program.  The next Four Peaks Salon event is scheduled for May, and will take place in conjunction with the Seattle International Film Festival.

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