Synthesizing technologies and tradition

IN my last article, I wrote about the plight of a student  confined to her home in a remote part of my home state of Sabah during the coronavirus lockdown, who had to climb up a tall tree in order to capture “better” data signals that would enable her to log on to the internet in order to continue with her college studies online. I also wrote of a friend whose colleague was also hard put to “work from home” during the lockdown, as the data speed and accessibility at her suburban apartment was also very patchy and slow, prompting another colleague to jokingly suggest that she climb up to the rooftop of her apartment building to, well, also capture better signals.

I wrote of these anecdotal examples of poor accessibility of telecommunication data signals, which, of course, predated the pandemic lockdowns and was only accentuated by acute needs during the crisis, not so much to run down or witch hunt the responsible parties. I wanted mainly to highlight the still-very-serious lack of basic infrastructure that continues to plague many developing countries, even those supposedly at the cusp of making the giant leap into developed status. Hopefully, this would stimulate more brainstorming as to how we could combine traditional wisdom with more advanced technologies to address these recurring basic needs that would hopefully empower the livelihoods of more people in developing countries.

I recall also some illustrative cases from two decades ago, when I was working for some of the international organizations in the field of telecommunications and information technology. For example, I came across reports of telecommunications development in Africa. What intrigued me was that in some parts of Africa, which would have been considered developing, the telecommunication networks were actually more advanced than most parts of the United States, supposedly a developed country. This somewhat intriguing anomaly was simply because of the fact that as the US was one of the first countries to have installed telephone and telegraphic networks nearly a century and a half ago, its telecommunication networks would understandably need to be updated as time and technologies moved on and, sometimes, even often, “legacy” and costs would weigh heavily against these network renewals.

On the other hand, for some parts of Africa, the lack of legacy networks actually frees up their options for more up-to-date and better telecommunication technologies to be deployed more efficiently. In other words, these parts of Africa did not have to play catch-up in their telecommunications deployment. Their open-mindedness to experiment with the latest technological advancement actually put them way ahead of the data pack! And even back then when smartphones were still in their developmental stages, the more entrepreneurial lot in those parts of Africa were already utilizing their network access for some forms of electronic commerce, selling their local products. So, a lack of preexisting infrastructure does not have to be a hindrance to progress. Open and creative minds, coupled with responsible and sustainable planning, could actually place you well and even ahead in the market-oriented modern world.

Then there was my working trip on behalf of some of these agencies to a developing country frequently plagued by both natural and manmade disasters. I was supposed to lead the team drafting the emergency telecommunications action plan for the country. As part of our data collection efforts, we had to reach out and interview many different stakeholders, from both the public and private sectors. I still vividly remember that at least two interviewees told us with a straight face that, in their opinion and in the local context, the most effective and efficient way of passing along information pertaining to disasters would be by sending experienced human runners to literally run across the terrain to convey the relevant messages! This is partly because the traditional, wired telecommunication networks would, of course, often be destroyed in the disasters. Even the wireless telecommunication networks could be disrupted, for example, by power shortages or deliberate sabotage. And usage of satellite phones, at least at that time, was prohibitively expensive. Whereas a human courier, with his or her adroit knowhow, could more safely and securely pass along the relevant information.

After some admittedly amusing but equally serious discussions, my team and I decided to actually include this human-runner recommendation in the final report as one of the measures that should back up the country’s deployment of communication measures for disaster mitigation. But, of course, it has to be systematically done, with proper training and equipment requirements. Since then, the country’s manmade disaster in the form of outright civil war has largely dissipated, only to be replaced, in recent months, with bouts of terrorist incidents. Natural disaster continued to plague the country intermittently. I would hope that the action plan was actually put to use in mitigating these disasters. But the main point here is that in some circumstances, we do not have to always refer to the latest technologies in order to address some basic problems in developing countries. Instead, we could adapt some local, customary practices, sometimes just supplementing them with some more modern implements to achieve efficiency.

More than two decades have elapsed since then, and frankly I do not have a ready-made solution to address some of these inadequacies in basic infrastructure in both my backyards in particular, or in developing countries in general. I think it would require, at the least, an open-minded and creative combination of modern technologies and traditional or local knowhow. For example, electrical power shortage is a recurring problem in many remote parts of the world. With electricity, modern amenities, including more “powerful” telecommunications coverage, could be easier achieved. Yet development of hydroelectric power generation is not only expensive but nowadays somewhat environmentally controversial. So, how about wind power generation, as the residents of some of these regions would often swear by strong winds which, if scientifically measured, could perhaps be put to productive use? These are food for thought and the brainstorming could continue to search for ways and means to sustainably address many problems in developing countries.

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