This week I had the opportunity to participate in the eG8 Forum with world technology leaders and France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy to examine policies that foster technology innovation and economic growth. It was truly a privilege to join in discussions with some of the brightest minds in technology. But there was a glaring omission — voices from the developing world that make up more than 80 percent of the world’s population.
Representatives of emerging markets were scant: Sunil Bharti Mittal, the chairman and managing director of the India telecom company, Bharti Airtel Ltd., was in attendance. I also saw HTC’s CEO, Peter Chou, from Taiwan, and several leaders of big Chinese tech players, including President and CEO Charles Chao of SINA, and Chairwoman Sun Yafang of Huawei. But overall, the panelists and audience were overwhelmingly American and European.
It’s no surprise then that the discussion focused on the needs of developed countries. While panelists observed the potential of the Internet to transform societies, little time was committed to the developing world. A lone voice from the crowd posed a question to President Sarkozy about how developed countries might help African governments to develop the needed infrastructure to bring Internet tools and opportunity to this region.
This is the exact question we should be asking: What is the fastest, most-efficient way to bring technology to the developing world, and who should lead this effort? It’s in these countries that technology holds the greatest promise to modernize communications, drive growth, and lift people out of poverty.
McKinsey & Company presented the results of a breakthrough study on the impact of the Internet that illustrates its power to transform societies. The report found, “statistically that the Internet correlates positively with net per capita GDP growth and therefore to increasing standards of living in the countries we examined.” And more importantly, it finds that infrastructure is a crucial starting point:
Infrastructure, the backbone of the entire Internet ecosystem, is an irreplaceable prerequisite. It creates the platforms upon which users, and organizations experience the Internet, and upon which entrepreneurs and businesses innovate.
It’s clear that much of the world lacks this basic access point. Wireless technologies have helped fill an important gap — reaching 90 percent of the world’s population, according to the International Telecommunication Union, the UN agency on IT and communications. Mobile phones provide low-cost Internet access, but are insufficient to helping countries realize the full potential of Internet technologies. With only 21 percent of the population in emerging countries online, the need to develop this infrastructure is clear.
I applaud President Sarkozy for beginning this important discussion, and now I call on the participants to continue the conversation and open it up to governments, business leaders and entrepreneurs in the developing world.
Too often conferences produce interesting ideas, but who is charged with taking action?
A Coordinated Approach
The scale of this global need calls for a comprehensive, coordinated approach with contributions from both the public and private sectors. Google CEO Eric Schmidt was right when he said that private companies “move a lot more quickly than one of the governments, let alone all of the governments.” Business can move faster and bring technical expertise, but governments bring the scale and resources to channel aid and investment in emerging countries into this vital infrastructure.
I propose that we expand the eG8 to the eG20. Like the G20, it will include more countries in the developing world and will focus on technical needs and opportunities. But it shouldn’t be limited to government players, global technology leaders should also contribute.
Viadeo is ready to play its part. I’ll readily acknowledge a selfish interest in improving Internet access in emerging markets. I am focused on growing Viadeo’s professional network in places like China, India and Brazil, where we already are the number one or two player, and expanding in Africa, where we were the first professional network to open a local office. It’s technologies like Viadeo that can help area businesses capture the value of the Internet.
The eG8 was incredible in that it brought together all the right people from the private sector in one room. Let’s not let it end here.
Dan Serfaty is co-founder and CEO of Viadeo Group, the number one social networking platform for professionals in Europe, China and South America with more than 35 million members worldwide on its Viadeo, Tianji, and ApnaCircle networks. A serial entrepreneur, Viadeo is Serfaty’s third successful venture. Serfaty earned an MBA from HEC (Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales). He was born in Strasbourg, France, and lives with his wife and three children in San Francisco.