How Silicon Valley should save the world

As a huge fan of academic magazine ‘Foreign Policy’ I came across the recently published article ‘Can Silicon Valley Save the World?’ [1] written by Charles Kenny & Justin Sandefur. In this particular article the current boom of start-ups in Silicon Valley is addressed whereby these particular start-ups attempt ‘to save the world’. New (information) technologies combined with huge amounts of venture capital are used to generate products and services which aim for improvement of the average living standard in the Third World. Although the idea of gaining efficiency and productivity, and thereby fighting poverty, is one which I personally strongly support, the outcome of previous projects seem to have epically failed. 

Technology, and especially IT, has contributed to breaking out bit-by-bit ‘forgotten’, isolated areas of this world by enabling them to participate in economic and social globalization. However, these areas have not (yet) benefited substantially of this participation. Improvements have been made, but as the article points out: “[M]ore than half the planet still lives on less than $4 a day, and 2.4 billion people live on less than $2 a day. And that’s after a decade that saw the biggest drop in extreme poverty ever.” Pursuing the idea of technology being able to save the world, Silicon Valley – rewarded and supported by the global community – finally considered itself to become an agent of change, and therefore came up with fancy technology-improving and information-sharing projects that in the Western opinion should be the holy grail to creating economic wealth and social welfare for the Third World.   

What Charles Kenny & Justin Sandefur correctly address is that those fancy projects are committed to the way that Western societies would solve the problems that the Third World is facing.  In countries where education, institutions, infrastructure, health care and basic nutrition are lacking, westernized knowledge and solutions do not cope well with adapting to this corrupt and poor (in every sense of the word) environment.  This is demonstrated by the failure of multiple projects mentioned in the article.

In my opinion, Silicon Valley – or not anyone for that matter – should give up on attempts to increase living standards in countries where poverty rules. However, the strategy for tackling poverty should drastically change. Instead of analysing defaults and inefficiencies from an American point-of-view (as is the case here), those should be approached with an African, Asian, Latin American or Middle East perspective.

IT should provide access to the global knowledge-based economy to those areas in need. Additional resources and educational tools should be provided on how to access the global knowledge network, subsequently providing the opportunity for developing countries to collect and process fundamental information on which they can base their own practical insights regarding problem-solving: from their own local and/or national perspective. Silicon Valley needs to provide seed to enable the Third World to grow their own plant, instead of providing a plant that does not acclimatize to its environment. 


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One response to “How Silicon Valley should save the world”

  1. nadinehild says :

    I absolutely agree that Silicon Valley tech firms and any other business creating solutions for the developing, should tailor their solutions to the specific needs of the respective target market. Many projects fail because Western companies approach developing world problems bottom-down instead of bottom-up. The fact is that the developing world mostly cannot make use of fancy technology with a wide variety of complicated features. They therefore need to get into these markets, assess prevailing needs, and work on innovations that are designed specifically for these customers but might be based on Western technology. Frugal Innovation is an important strategy in this regard. It means generating considerably more business and social value while reducing the use of scarce resources significantly, in other words ‘doing more with less’. This approach has already successfully been embraced by a lot of Western companies including GE and Unilever and should most certainly be adopted by others to pull those economies out of poverty.

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