Tim Berners-Lee gave us a wonderful thing in the world-wide web, yet the full extent of it’s capability remains a long way from realisation. Tim sees the web as the great leveller, the means by which equality will finally be realised, the place where an African farmer will have as much say as a Wall Street financier, but sadly this has not been the case.

Rather than level the playing field, the Web and the technology that it has spawned has widened the gulf between the haves and have-nots and it’s all about links in a chain. The web might connect you to the world, but if you can’t connect to the web it makes no difference to you.

Worse still from the web perspective is that those who are able to connect to it already have the considerable advantage of a Western education, which, by definition, means that they are better-able to leverage the advantage that technology gives them.

Even this wouldn’t be so bad if humans were a bit more supportive of the notion of equality, but we are not. Mankind is largely still very primal. When you achieve a position in life your instinct is at the very least to stay there and sadly for us all, the response of many I encounter ignores the fact, or even revels in the thought, that their success may be at someone else’s expense. Sure, every corporate website now includes a social responsibility page and yes, I frequently hear talk of the contribution organisations make to worthy causes, but frankly it is rarely more than lip-service. It’s fashionable to have a social conscience these days and appearance is everything.

Critics point to those in the developed economies as being the major culprits in the exploitation of technology, but this hasn’t been my experience. Despite claimed religious or social leanings I see far more evidence of exploitation, by locals in the developing markets of the Middle East and Asia than I do in the West. Perhaps, for some people at least, there is such a thing as “enough”, but I suspect it is the education that technology faciltates that teaches us the meaning of “elegant sufficiency”. Though I hate to generalise, I find I am arguing the social cause far more frequently in the Middle East than London, but I can’t remember the last time I was charged anywhere with an objective that prioritised social issues. Doing good it seems is acceptable to most of us only as a by-product of self-interest.

But there is hope. Despite all of this, it seems the exploiters haven’t entirely neutralised the influence for good. Over the past few years, contrary to the claims of critics and lobbyists and despite having widened the wealth gap, technology has moved a considerable proportion of people out of poverty. What is more, although the recession saw some resurgence of self-interest, this trend has accelerated significantly in the past five years and one of the key drivers of the steepening of the curve has been the smartphone.

As technology has become mobile, accessibility has increased, enabling the benefits to reach people for whom it could literally mean the difference between life and death. Projects have sprung up all over the developing world that have enabled farmers to increase productivity and get better prices for their produce and artisans to raise awareness and reach a market. The impact it has had is probably far greater pro-rata for these people than a merchant banker.

What Western businessmen too often fail to understand is that social responsibility makes commercial sense. It may not bring a short-term return, but it will certainly go a long way towards securing you a place in the market for years to come. We already have too many offers and too few active customers, so growth requires the change in one or both of these figures. Smart businesses will hedge their bets and look to grow the consumer base as well as steal customers from their competitors. That means taking a long view and doing something to drive growth in developing economies. If you are really smart you’ll find a way to establish a short-term advantage by so doing, but nevertheless, you have to do it.

There are businesses already that are breaking with traditional short-termism. It’s tough, I know, when the benefits you may bring will only be realised years after you have departed, if not this earth, certainly your job and that’s why things like our approach to remuneration and rewards have to change. That’s a corporate responsibility that no business can afford to overlook.

I was delighted to hear Klaus Kleinfeld the Chairman and CEO of Alcoa emphasising on the BBC today that his organisation takes a view stretching into a hundred years or more on the businesses it invests in. He also emphasised that economic and political changes that still influence the decisions of many executives are far too short-term to be guiding your decision-making. In the same BBC World Debate from Davos, Mohammad Younis, inventor of Micro-Credit expressed his concern that unless we radically changed the way we conduct business and finance societies would “Blow up”.

This brings me to the obvious point. If the Web is our future and access to it critical to survival, what things could we do to help this process along? Top of my list would have to be “invest in broadband infrastructure”. I’ve had more than my share of disagreements with telcos over the years and I think that it’s a sector rife with the kind of exploitative attitude I mentioned earlier. Coming, as I do, from a country with a very good and still improving infrastructure nothing riles me more than governments and telcos that are sitting back and either milking an old investment for all its worth or just doing nothing.

Dubai is a case in point. Here two telco’s with the same owner, play out a game in which subscribers are both pawns and victims to their greed. The service is pathetic and the cost extraordinary. Another nation currently shooting itself in the foot is the Czech Republic where, despite that fact that their future depends on generating at least some home-gown businesses the government are doing nothing to overcome the main obstacle – the lack of suitable mobile broadband infrastructure. Meanwhile fat-cat operators are calling the shots and, unbridled, raking in the returns on ancient investments that are both inadequate and nearing the end of their credible shelf-life.

So my message is focus on infrastructure and let free enterprise do the rest, because even despite the self-interested minority, mobile technology will save the day and possibly the world!

First published on LinkedIn January 2015

Phil Darby
August 2, 2018

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