Friday, July 12, 2013

My Response to Can Silicon Valley Save the World?

The Foreign Policy magazine article "Can Silicon Valley Save the World?" has created a debate about the role of technology and entrepreneurial thinking in the development sector. The article had some valid points about the unrealistic view that technology is a stand-alone panacea for solving the world's problems. It also mentioned the issue of distributing products and services to a market (the poor in the developing world) that do not have a say in the products and services it is receiving, which is a serious problem across the field of development.

I took issues with several of the key ideas in the article. There was a clear fear of risk taking- seemingly because of the expense that failure creates. A culture of caution stifles creativity and the willingness to think big. Poverty is a massive challenge and we have not solved it with the models we've tried so far. We need bold ideas to hit the Millennial Development Goals and make meaningful progress. We have spent millions in aid knowing that a large portion of those funds will be grafted by corrupt officials. So why are we so uncomfortable with failure when the potential benefits are huge? Also, most of these solutions work to provide direct access to the people that need it most, bypassing corrupt systems.

I was also disappointed to see the focus on "innovations" that cost more and provide fewer benefits than the tools that they were meant to replace. What kind of innovation is that?

Technology is not a panacea- some of the most effective development interventions are as simple as providing iodised salt. And no one is discounting the great work that has been done to eliminate disease, improve maternal health and reduce infant mortality. But why deny the opportunities inherent in technology and shun the brightest minds from Silicon Valley from bringing their out of the box thinking to the challenges that need it most? We need more innovation in the development sector.

New models (like USAID's venture capital arm) have the potential to involve entrepreneurs and the private sector in a meaningful way. I hope we decide to embrace these types of opportunities and not get territorial about "their" role and "our" role. Can Silicon Valley save the world on its own? Probably not. But if we embrace the Valley and this type of thinking across the big international organisations, we will create meaningful change. The Millennial Development Goals need to get back on track. Silicon Valley's input on those and other development initiatives will be beneficial for everyone.

No comments: