Connecting the curves of the micro-everything revolution

Today, there are two kinds of curves shaping technological progress. Their interplay will frame the micro-everything revolution for decades to come – and with it, our efforts to alleviate poverty, build resilience and drive social change.

The first kind of curve is one we’re well acquainted with here in the Global North: the accelerating, upward trajectory associated with many forms of advanced technology. Whether measuring computer processing power, data storage, network connectivity, bandwidth, gene sequencing, or solar panel efficiency, many technologies are undergoing a continuous growth in the upper bounds of their capacity. In the process, they are continually enlarging what we might call the Scope of the Possible.

When we hitch a ride on this kind of curve, the effects can be self-compounding. When the U.S. labor market was linked to the ever-accelerating World of Bits, for example, huge increases in productivity, knowledge and creativity followed. These increases fed on themselves, further fueling the upward tilt of what has become an (almost) perpetual motion machine of innovation. Yet, while dramatic, there is nothing inherently magical about the U.S. experience: stop by a place like Nairobi’s iHub today, and you will see a thriving community of African entrepreneurs and technologists who, like their Palo Alto peers, are busy inventing the future, and with it, one suspects, significant future wealth.

  1. The Curve of the Possible and the Curve of the Accessible — representing a continuing increase in capacity and decrease in cost (respectively).
  2. The iHub in Nairobi, Kenya (Image: Thomas Roessler/Flickr)

Sarah Fortune, TB expert, and Lukas Biewald, CEO of the crowdsourcing start-up, Crowdflower, pair up through PopTech to crowdsource a task best done by the human eye: cataloging TB’s bacterial cells.

Traditional crop insurance relies on farms visits, a proposition which doesn’t add up for small farms. Kilimo Salama, run by Rose Goslinga, uses creative, low-cost methods, such as weather stations, to remotely determine whether drought conditions justify payout.

Slightly less well-appreciated is the second kind of curve: the plunging per-unit cost of various forms of technological functionality, which in turn has enabled access to technology across much of the Global South. The cost of say, wirelessly transmitting a gigabyte of data, sequencing a human genome or detecting a novel pathogen is decelerating rapidly. This is because, as the underlying technologies increase their capacity, they also become more efficient, in terms of materials, energy, economics, space and time. What yesterday took a million dollars and a machine the size of a school bus to achieve, will just as likely be done tomorrow in a millisecond, for a few pennies, in the palm of your hand.

It’s this second, decelerating price curve that has already put mobile phones into the hands of five billion people on Earth, along with $25 learning computers, $0.10 point-of-care diagnostics, affordable solar microgrids, and countless other innovations aimed at the global base of the pyramid. In so doing, this second curve continues to expand the Scope of the Accessible and power the micro-everything revolution.

When we link these curves together, powerful things happen.Last year, Harvard microbiologist Sarah Fortune and computer scientist Lukas Biewald, of CrowdFlower, launched a microwork initiative designed to enable citizens in communities in the Global South, which are adversely affected by illnesses like tuberculosis, to do paid lab work, over the Internet, for biomedical research labs in the Global North. This approach makes the labs more efficient, accelerating their search for a cure, while the communities receive a social benefit: employment. A true win-win.

Or, consider Kilimo Salama, the mobile-based agricultural microinsurance program pioneered by Rose Goslinga and her colleagues in Kenya, which we’ve referenced in this Edition. By harnessing a host of low-cost technologies, including a network of wireless weather stations, mobile devices, and mobile payments systems, Kilimo Salama is able to bundle together contracts from many smallholder farmers and insure them against climate change-induced crop loss – backed up, ultimately, by major reinsurers in Geneva. Without low-cost-enabling technological platforms, it would be both financially prohibitive and logistically impossible to deliver this service.

Now push the model a little further. The meteorological “data exhaust” from Kilimo Salama may be used to compute – remotely – ever-more powerful regional climate models on which the insurance itself is predicated. And these, in turn, could shape real-time mobile information services that make the farmers themselves more resilient to disruptions.

This intertwining of advanced capacity and new kinds of access is just getting started. One day soon, new technologies, such as low-cost, Internet-enabled microfabrication platforms like FabLab and RepRap will do for atoms what cellphones and computers have done for bits, enabling entirely new forms of making, sharing and selling among previously excluded communities.

Of course, these kinds of solutions face enormous hurdles – and only a few of them are in engineering. To succeed, new technologies must have the right cultural fit and the right frame of reference; they have to deliver relevant, immediate and tangible benefits; they have to have healthy ecosystems of technical support and social support around them; they have to be trusted.That is what great social innovators do: they make room for new forms of social practice, and facilitate the uptake of new tools and approaches.

Unfortunately, even if they deeply understand the communities they serve, few social innovators really understand the power of today’s best tools. Many live in a kind of self-imposed technological ghetto – they are simply not aware of what’s happening with the upwardly accelerating edge of Curve of the Possible, so they’re not able to harness new tools at rapidly decelerating edge of the Curve of the Accessible. And so they work with yesterday’s tools and yesterday’s mindsets, wearing their sweat like a badge of honor.

Bureaucracies have to be overcome as well. In the U.S., the 1990’s dotcom revolution produced ‘killer’ apps, services and businesses that acted as the ‘lure’ for many people to get online. The more people did, the more opportunities there were for entrepreneurs, kicking off a virtual cycle that produced enormous wealth and social benefit. That revolution was aided greatly by the fact that nobody had to ask for permission to start up an online business – you could just get started. Yet in today’s mobile space, which plays such an important part in the micro-everything revolution, gatekeepers still rule. Because of the nature of the network, it’s virtually impossible to start an SMS-based information service in many parts of the Global South in this closed system. Imagine the economic and social benefits that would be unlocked if we were to make it as easy to start an m-business as it once was to start an e-business.

In the meantime, social innovators need to form much deeper partnerships with the technologists – with the hackers, coders, data scientists and engineers who are expanding the edge of both capacity and access. The revolution is just getting started, and the biggest opportunities are still ahead of us.

Andrew Zolli

Andrew Zolli is the Curator and Executive Director of PopTech.