Want a Global Economic Recovery Plan? Try Mobiles for Everyone

Gadi.mobile.2 Once upon a time people talked on mobile phones. Then along came the Blackberry and asked, "Sir, would you like some email with your phone, to go?" Before long, the tech savvy discovered texting, which was even better: No need to answer or spell check!

Then came the music player, and the sling-player, and your entertainment was in your back pocket. When iPhone debuted, we saw the impact of a true mobile Web tablet. Now we read books on our mobiles…and soon we will have our desktop virtually anywhere we go.

Under the radar, without a clear declaration of intent, the mobile phone became the real personal computer. It is the true embodiment of digital life and as such it comes in a variety of flavors and hordes of passionate followers.

Many in the Blackberry crowd would never touch an iPhone and the iPhone crowd would not touch anything else. The bejeweled Sidekick and the top-end Virtu each has its fan base.

Mobile phones are humanity's global communication devices, bringing together all people without boundaries of borders, income or age. Still, amazing as it may sound, mobiles (don't call them 'phones!) are still under-utilized and possibly the least understood objects of our times.

Gadi.mobile.1 So, here is a big idea: why not mandate a mobile for everyone?

It may sound expensive, yet for roughly $100-200B, we could guarantee that all of humanity is connected, accounted for, and enjoying digital life, regardless of gender, race or national origin. With about 4 billion subscribers estimated by the end of 2008, most of the investment is already there, paid for by people all around the globe and by governments and companies who are by-passing old land-line systems. India is adding 10 million subscribers a month, as the developing world adopts mobiles even for users with incomes barely sufficient for a modern life-style.

Consider the following advantages:

  • Government. Mobiles will provide governments with a real ID card for each of its citizens, and assure the accuracy of voting. A census will never be doubted again. They would also enable more efficient management of social services. Worried about Big brother? Don't. In many societies, mobile subscriber numbers are higher than the population, with many people having more than one mobile number. (For example, in Italy you will find over 150 mobile subscribers for any 100 Italians). Combine these numbers with GPS and you get the picture: At any given time, someone can find you, 24/7/365.
  • Social policy. A few years back I was engaged in an "emerging market" study of computing. One of the most interesting findings was that even India's poorest citizens would invest $200-300 in buying a nice phone by a brand-name like Nokia. Why not a cheap emerging-market phone? They were willing to pony up for the tonier model, since often their mobile was the only thing they could somehow afford that let them look like everyone else. It is the great equalizer in a digital society: Show me your mobile and I know who you are!
  • Emergency. Anybody who's ever had a flat on lonely road, or had a medical crisis, knows how unthinkable it now is to be without a mobile for emergencies. But even more amazing stories come out of places where there have been natural catastrophes. For example, RISE-PAK (Relief and Information Systems for Earthquakes Pakistan) was established 10-days after the devastating October 2005 earthquake on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. For several weeks, the system's SMS was the only reliable communication system in the region, and was used to rescue thousands of people.
  • Medical. Information can be stored or retrieved through the Mobile ID. Feel a heart attack coming on? Push the red button. We have been debating digital medical records for years—by using Mobiles to store your personal records we can ensure the end-user's control over their sensitive information while providing medical institutions concrete data at the most critical of times.
  • Education. The problem-plagued OLPC might have gotten more traction, had it been designed to be a mobile "phone." If connecting the poorest-of-the-poor to a real source of education is the goal, mobiles are the only way to reach a widely distributed population.
  • Commerce. We've been talking about e-Money for a generation. It is already a reality in Japan, where you can instruct the vending machine to give you Coke through your mobile. In Tel Aviv, you park and SMS your parking fee to the city. Geo-location is a budding industry that may change the cityscape, driving commerce to locations never addressed before.
  • Global economic recovery. Given all of the above, imagine the global impact of a $200B "Marshal" plan to make all of us equipped with mobiles? Let's do it!

Gadi.mobile.3

Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.

Read more of Gadi Amit's The New Deal blog

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3 Comments

  • Mobile Cup

    Truly inspiring article. Let's call this mobile social entrepreneurship =)

    Incidentally, we are hosting a (not for profit) competition where the theme is "mobile services that will change the world", where you can compete in the categories economic development, mobile health and mobile learning.

    Read more at mobilecup.se (we are based in Sweden, but everyone can join)

  • Chris White

    A great post about the benefits of connectivity - thanks Gadi. I blogged recently about "Connectivity: The Great Hope" at http://csr4ceos.typepad.com

    Don't get me wrong, I am an advocate for connectivity. Two thoughts though:

    1. Be careful what you wish for! Such unpredictable cultural and environmental challenges would be unleashed on the world alongside all the benefits you and I have outlined. After all, many parts of the world don't have a recycling program for plastic soda bottles, never mind cellphone batteries! And do we really want all the world to share our bad habits of ignoring the people we are with while we check our email constantly on our Blackberries and iPhones?

    2. You suggest a Marshall Plan for cell phones... why not do it more organically through good old business? Grameen Phone reaches millions of people throughout Bangladesh - and makes profits of $40M a year from it!

    Any other thoughts?

    Chris