Leaps and Bounds

Today I read two great articles, one from the Next Billion website, via a Twitter link, and the other in the May 2014 print edition of Smithsonian.

Next Billion is a website and blog bringing together the community of business leaders, social entrepreneurs, NGOs, policy makers and academics who want to explore the connection between development and enterprise.” (www.nextbillion.net/About.aspx) The article I read today discussed how cell phone technology skipped so many steps, especially a vast (and expensive) phone lines infrastructure:

“Few land lines were ever built in the rural parts of less-developed countries. There were no protracted deregulation battles. But there were, suddenly, cell phones, and their use mushroomed at a pace unmatched in the history of technology, leaving billions of people connected, their lives changed forever.” (www.nextbillion.net/m/bp.aspx?b=3838)

The breathtaking pace of change in the 21st century means skipping steps we’ve come to believe are necessary. Not long ago folks thought a country needed a national telephone system (and a decent national airline!) to call itself developed. Cell penetration in Africa and Asia shows that developing countries can skip the rural phone lines, to their great benefit (especially cost). Nowadays, innovators–entrepreneurs, tinkerers, do-gooders, NGOs, faith-based organizations, etc.–have so much technology at their fingertips that once daunting start-up costs for complex enterprises can now be managed with very little, even just a smart phone and a few staff. (If you think people in the US and Europe have their heads glued to their smart phones, go to the developing world and follow an entrepreneur through her day.)

The smart-phone-turned-diagnostic-Swiss-Army-Knife was the theme of the Smithsonian article I read. If you’re a Baby Boomer or Gen Xer from the States, you probably can recall the slumpy shouldered Dr. McCoy from Star Trek breaking out his Tricorder, an all-in-one diagnostic device. Today tech tinkerers are trying to get as many diagnostic tools onto smart phones as they can. The article, “Inventing the Real McCoy,” describes the efforts of Aydogan Ozcan and others to get smart phones to detect mercury, allergens, bacteria and viruses. Ozcan has been lauded for promising work that may lead to cheap phone attachments that can test blood for HIV and malaria, and water for pathogens like E. Coli.

I hope that in ten years every small clinic on the planet has the diagnostic capabilities that few doctors offices in the developed world possessed in 2000. The efforts of Ozcan and others–as well as the explosive changes cell phones hath wrought–bode well.

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