in Interview, Research & Education

My fellow interview at the Berkman Center

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Inside the Berkman center

Last summer, I have been interviewed by Loren Newman from the Harvard Kennedy School on the impact of ICT policies on governments and societies. the original interview is here:

In bringing innovation and technical capacity to the developing world, how do you manage the challenge of teaching communities to be technically independent while implementing solutions that may be beyond the abilities of local populations. That is, how do you address the tension between capacity building in the developing world and allowing products and services to grow organically or sustainably?

I have been working for a couple of years on the challenge of teaching communities to be technically independent, and a good way to go is to build solutions with communities. That means we have to spend time with them to understand their needs, to identify leaders, to understand the context, to frame a problem then to bring an adapted solution. A good approach is to mix local and international specialists to design technical solutions adapted to the local populations. Somehow, this is what I did when I was based in West Africa. My first job there was teaching Computer Science in the public university in Burkina Faso. I spent two years teaching there and I had to adapt my courses to the local context where I had to deal with a sporadic Internet connection, frequent power cuts and a poor job market.

I worked on developing the first website for the university with my students and we faced technical challenges such as adapting web pages to a poor Internet connection or setting up the first local web server. I also spent a lot of energy pushing content creation and transparency. Indeed, it took 18 months, with my team, to build the first university website. Today, most of my former students are working for the government or left Burkina Faso to work in the West but some of them are starting to come back. West Africa is more and more dynamic, and attracts investors and entrepreneurs.

My second long-term experience in Africa was in Mali with Geekcorps to bring innovation and technical capacity. I was lucky enough to manage the office in Bamako where we had a lab and an apartment for foreign volunteers. By mixing Malians and Westerners, we were able to create an Open FM transmitter able to broadcast in the Sahara desert, a CanTV to share TV cables in remote villages of Mali, an offline Wikipedia to bring information to remote communities, a DIY Wi-Fi antenna, a DIY solar panel, a rural information center named Cybertigi or a digital kiosk named la Source. My years with Geekcorps were an amazing experience. We had carte blanche to create adapted solutions for remote Malian communities. We were able to start several companies in Mali from the Geekcorps program, the offline Wikipedia project is still alive, and we trained a couple of Malians who are proactive in the African IT communities.

About products and services, it is quite challenging to allow them to grow organically or sustainably but I saw successful experiences. To be effective, we need to be practical by adapting capacity building to specific needed services and building a proper business model adapted to the communities. They express needs such as having access to information, photocopying documents, taking ID pictures or having a local radio station and we need to start from those needs. From this context, we are trying to be creative by bringing adapted technical solutions, giving proper workshops and create appropriate business models.

Currently, I am following with interest an Internet Service Provider project where a Wi-Fi connection could be available for free for the end-users who will have to watch a video on their smartphones before accessing the Internet. NGOs and private organizations are ready to pay to advertise their messages and the money can be used to maintain the network and fund the Internet connection. To my point of view, it is a good business model while there is a real demand for broadband connectivity in the developing world.

You took an incredible overland adventure across Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and China in 2004. How has that experience changed you, and how does it shape your interests and goals in international development? Especially with regards to your firm’s branch in Burkina Faso.

I traveled quite extensively when I was younger, and I took a 10-month trip right after my graduation through Asia. It was one of my dream trips to go from Europe to Asia, and to feel the continuity between the different populations and cultures. I learned from this trip to follow my feelings, to understand other points of view, to be amazed by the beauty of our world, to talk truly to others, to share, to be thankful, and to be in love with the richness of our world. Travelling provides the opportunity to learn and discover everyday because you are far from your comfort zone and you need to readapt continuously. I knew a bit about Asia before taking that long journey while I did two internships in India during my study. It took me 4 months to go from Istanbul to New Delhi with one of my friends, then I kept going by myself for 6 months. Actually, I was never alone, I was meeting fellow travelers on the road and I was constantly sharing with the local people.

This kind of trips opens a door to international development because you want to stay in touch with the world, you want to keep exploring and learning. After this trip when I came back to France, the French Government offered me two job opportunities, one in London and the other one in Africa. I went to Africa while it was the most exciting to me at that time.

If you had to forecast how technology and relevant policy will evolve in the developing world over the next ten years, what would you predict? What do good and bad scenarios look like, and do you incorporate these predictions into your projects with various organizations worldwide?

It is a bit difficult to predict the future but I can try. I have the feeling that the governments of developing nations are going to turn to Open Source. I worked last year on the Open Source policy, strategy and action plan for Mauritius. It was a big step for them, and Mauritius is a strategic influencer for Africa. South Africa also has its own Open Source policy, as do Malaysia and Venezuela. Open Data is becoming an important movement in the developing world while the World Bank has been pushing it for years. Policies need to be adapted to sharing and open economies, and Open Data is going to have a central rule. Some people in the developing world, as in the West, are starting to realize the power of a sharing economy and we need to design proper policies, strategies and action plans to boost local markets and empower citizens.

Another current challenge is to build Internet infrastructures in the developing world and especially in Africa. Today, we still need to adapt solutions because the connectivity is poor in a number of developing nations but it is going to change. Indeed, sub-marine cables are reaching most of the coastal countries in Africa and the next challenge is to bring connectivity inside the continent.

The best scenario could be installing proper Internet infrastructures covering major cities in Africa with a proper regulation benefiting the end-users. The private sector could be boosted by the dynamism of this digital economy and create more jobs as a result. The worst case could be to face some difficulties in installing proper Internet infrastructures because of instabilities, wars and conflicts. It is sadly what we can see in South Sudan or Democratic Republic of the Congo. Political stability is a prerogative for development and a good policy can change the future of a nation. Mauritius is a good example of successful country where they had a clear political vision and they were able to develop their economy.

I am incorporating these predictions in my various projects supporting public sector reforms by pushing the creation of an open and sharing economy based on the philosophy of Open Source. Indeed, the Open Source Software movement, through the development of GNU/Linux, has launched a new way of collaboration able to build cathedrals in a record time and we need to pursue and adapt this movement in order to guarantee transparency, participation and accountability.

As your roles have straddled the public and private sectors, what are the strengths of each, and does that familiarity allow you to be more effective across disciplines?

Public and private sectors are two different worlds even if they are trying more and more to work together. Public sector, in the international development field, focuses on its political interests and expects to control everything. Private sector expects to make money by exploring new markets. We learned from the last decade that the private sector can be very creative and launched huge companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon. We also learned that the public sector takes more time to organize itself but they have been able to take the control back from private companies. From my point of view, we need to have distributed control between the private and the public sectors to make them work together. This is what I am pushing through my work. I am always trying to distribute power and find room for private sector, public administration, NGO, civil society, etc. In a more and more connected world, we cannot allow having a central power, we need to distribute authorities and the Internet is a magic tool and a good way to do it.

What’s next for you and for Soukeina? (And where in the world?)

About Soukeina, I would like to develop the African office and propose new services, especially focuing on security engineering. Few companies in Africa are able to monitor their network and they need the right tools and workshops.

About me, I am looking for new challenges, perhaps in Southeast Asia. I spent a couple of weeks in Indonesia and Malaysia last June, and it is quite exciting what is going on there. Connectivity is pretty good, they are all connected through smartphones and there are still tons of services to create locally. I am also thinking about visiting South America and improving my Spanish one of these days!

Anything else you’d like to share with the Berkman community and the world?

I am very glad to be part of the Berkman community and I am looking forward to working with my new teammates to explore and develop cyberspace. I am also quite into meditation and I think that mindfulness could be an interesting subject to share with the Berkman Center. Indeed, I discovered meditation when I was living and working in India 15 years ago in the IT industry. At that time, most of my coworkers were meditating in the morning before going to the office and the atmosphere was relaxed and peaceful. Today, meditation sounds to be a growing subject in the tech industry, some labs in Harvard are working on the topic and I will be interested to learn more about the effects of mindfulness on creativity.

Loren Newman is working on his Masters degree in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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