Open innovation, digital inclusion explored at European Development Days

open innovation
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Digital innovation needs to be open in order have a social impact that can drive growth in developing countries.

Can open innovation be an answer to development challenges? This was a question asked at the European Development Days held on 18 and 19 June 2019, aimed at exploring inequalities in developing countries and what implications new technologies can have for the future of these countries.

As the modern world enters new stages of digitisation, disruptive technologies, quantum technology and interoperability, a large part of the world is being left behind; with many having no access to the internet and no knowledge of how to use digital devices. The session explored the potential of policy to give technology the push it needs to benefit the developing world, along with incorporating human centred and inclusive design.

Mark Kamau, Director of Human Centred Design at BRCK, the largest public wifi company in sub-Saharan Africa, spoke on how technology must have a social impact in order to meet the targets of Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development:

The digital experience should be for everyone

When you look at inclusion there are many different components and one of them is digital inclusion. The 21st century is the digital economy – for example, there are ride sharing companies not owning any cars, or the biggest hotel not owning any hotel rooms. What has happened so far is that we have created these amazing experiences for those of us who have access to the digital infrastructure.

However, studies have shown that we are leaving more and more people behind. Right now, four billion people cannot afford to be connected to the internet; and of those four billion, 800 million are in Africa. The question is, should we continue to create these amazing experiences for ourselves whilst we leave behind parts of humanity? BRCK thinks that is unacceptable and that’s why we focus on trying to make internet connectivity and digital tools available to people, without having to go into their own pockets to pay.

Elon Musk has spoken about satellites that allow for people to connect to the internet; and so have Facebook and Google with balloons and satellites. However, the challenge we find is not just infrastructure, it is a challenge for affordability. Africa is the biggest smartphone market in the world, yet 80% of people with smartphones in Africa cannot afford to be online. So, when you talk about inclusion, the question is, are we talking about inclusion from the point of privilege, where we are able to connect with the internet and access all of these stages of infrastructure, while we leave the rest of humanity behind? That is one of the areas where we focus our energy. We are providing internet connectivity for free for up to 500,000 people every month.

Digital tools for teaching

From a human centred design perspective, different people learn in different ways. Traditional ways of teaching young people have been with books and a teacher-centred education experience. The challenge with this is that you have a lot of schools in Africa who cannot afford books, as well as a shortage of teachers. Secondly, there is a lot of power in education in digital deliveries for education, such as video play courses – it’s important for children to play as they learn. Recently, schools achieving new support have seen their results increasing by supporting the teacher with digital tools that help students. We’ve seen this in schools across the world from the Solomon Islands to Mexico to African schools – we see that when people have access to all this digital content, their learning possibilities increase and they improve their learning outcomes.

Digital inclusion, open innovation and access to technology

Right now, BRCK is doing a project where we are putting together Long Term Evolution (LTE) towers in places where there has been no internet connectivity in the past. In those situations, we are encountering populations of people who have never used the internet in their lives. We have embarked on a project together with GIZ where we are designing experiences for people who have never used connectivity before. There are studies that show that even before affordability and even before infrastructure – people’s inexperience using the internet is the number one barrier to success, in addition to being able to access the internet. It’s because of the way things are structured and the way these things are designed. They are not designed for people who have never used the infrastructure or digital tools and so we are having to go one step beyond just installing 4G towers.

We are working with populations in very rural places where we are having to figure out how they understand what the internet is, how they understand digital tools. We work together with them so they can take maximum advantage of digital infrastructure. A lot of young people, because of their lack of prior knowledge of what the internet is, use it for sports betting and end up losing money because it is an experience that is much more relatable to real life experiences. So – how easy and relatable experiences are has a huge influence on how people adopt different paradigms of digital tools. Sometimes it can get young people into trouble.

Importance of local language in digital projects

The way we look at the world is informed by the societies we come from and how we are raised, and language is a very important component of that. One of the ways we have been able to improve education outcomes is by taking difficult concepts and putting them in local language. African culture is a very oral culture where knowledge is learned and passed on, not through books, but through language and stories. So, a lot of these concepts of social studies and so forth are implanted into stories in local language. We have done some experiments with this with young people where we have actually put content into one of our kits and created a narrative – so language is a fundamental aspect of how people learn.


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