What the Developing World Needs From Tech Right Now

The majority of the developing world did not participate in the adoption of technologies that drive developed economies today — from access to industrial jobs, education, food, and water.

And only around 65% of the world’s population is connected to the internet, which nowadays means they don’t have access to the technologies that come with it — from 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and advantages to digital health records.

Yet these technologies are a force for good — transformative and sustainable — according to António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations (PDF).

Key Takeaways

  • A panel at CES 2024 calls on technology leaders to focus on developing countries where a majority of the population lacks access to transformative technologies such as internet services, 5G, artificial intelligence, and IoT.
  • Whether leaders enter new markets with altruistic purposes or not, substantial global welfare standards can be lifted over the next few decades – and new markets can be unlocked.
  • Technology can reduce the cost of funding the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by $55 trillion and triple the average citizen’s per capita GDP.
  • While technology can improve the world, there is also recognition of the risks, including geopolitical conflicts, cyber threats, and ethical concerns surrounding the deployment of AI.

The technology sector is among the world’s largest and most valuable industries, with an estimated $5-10 trillion in annual revenue and around 80 million employees — which is expected to rise to half a billion employees by 2050.

That provides it with global power and influence as an innovative force for change.

To enable access for billions of people around the world, technology leaders need to pay attention to developing countries, a view echoed by panelists at the CES 2024 Conference in Las Vegas, which we recap here.

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Walton Stinson, co-founder and CEO of technology integrator and retailer ListenUp, said: “I think the primary need is to get the developed world to understand that the developing world is a different world.

“There’s a world that isn’t benefiting from technology. I see that in education needs, agricultural needs, water needs, and in healthcare needs.

 

“These are all areas that can greatly benefit from technological innovation. Some of the things that we take for granted that are actually pretty cheap and easy to implement are not being implemented in the developing world.

As the cost of various technologies has fallen over time, from mobile phones to radios, people in the development world who did not have the resources to be customers of big technology companies now have a chance to become customers, noted Ketan Patel, Chair of Force for Good and chief executive officer (CEO) of Investment firm Greater Pacific Capital.

“If you could teach people how to utilize the technological opportunities and tools that we have and make it relevant to their development so it becomes a part of their lifestyle and their life, they have a much better chance of getting all the information they need to increase their opportunities, said entrepreneur Stedman Graham.

CEOs of manufacturing companies should pay attention to the developing world as these markets will be future customers — perhaps not next year but in the long term.

As Stinson put it: “There’s a saying in our industry that we tend to overestimate what’s going to happen next year and underestimate what’s going to happen in 10 years.”

“One of the things that we need to understand is that the developing world really has a lot of needs and should be getting more attention.

“There should be products that are designed specifically for the developing world, and that takes a little bit of effort because it may have the people, but it doesn’t have the dollar market share.

“But to go in there and create a brand in a country like Indonesia, for example, which is going to be a big one, or India, for example, which is going to be a big one, I think makes perfect sense.

“So we can push these technologies out there, and it doesn’t have to be in an altruistic way—it just requires visionary leadership.”

Money is Not the Only Way to Meet Targets

The United Nations created the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, and they are so far falling short of fulfilment. But there is a growing realization in the industry that technology can help close the gaps.

Stinson added: “Traditionally, we just look for more money, more taxes, and so forth, to close that gap. But what we’ve realised is that tech can close that gap — perhaps better than money can and faster than money can — because tech is developing exponentially.

“And the tools that we have available to close the development gap are developing exponentially—AI being a great example of that.”

Technology can reduce the cost of funding the SDGs by $55 trillion, according to a report by the Force For Good Initiative. Driving global connectivity and deploying digital technologies could solve as much as 20% of the SDGs, and rolling out digital solutions can enhance the impact on the goals even further, perhaps taking the total SDG targets addressed to around 40%.

Investing in innovation and technological breakthroughs could also boost global gross domestic product (GDP) by threefold by 2060, raising the average per-capita income globally to the level of South Korea today.

South Korea’s per capita GDP was £32,422.60 in 2022—compared with a global value of $12,743.90, according to World Bank data.

The drive among technology companies to monetize their products will drive them to new markets in the developing world, looking for new customers to keep selling their products, Patel said.

“That should lift the world. But it does require policy, and it does require people to respect different cultures and understand how to apply their technology in those cultures.”

Political security has a role to play, as without stability, developing nations are unlikely to have responsive governments that address the need for electricity, water, and internet connectivity infrastructure.

“We’ve got some big problems that defy easy solutions, but what tech can do is drive the cost down,” Stinson said.

“Clean water systems can be developed less expensively. Clean energy solutions can be applied on the village level. A technology like Starlink can provide Internet access without any expensive infrastructure. We’re at the cusp of perhaps a breakthrough in tech that can turbocharge the developing world and provide equal opportunities.”

The sheer need for housing and agriculture in developing countries will drive technological innovation and adoption—”market forces will take care of so much”—according to billionaire environmentalist Trammel Crow Jr.

Agricultural industries in developing countries are making use of technology such as drones to enhance efficiency and increase crop yields.

“It’s not as high-tech as big agriculture in America, but it’s starting to get there. Big environmental philanthropists are focusing on the developing world for the solutions.” Crow said.

The Role of Fintech

The intersection of finance and technology in introducing financial services to the unbanked has a central role to play.

Force For Good found in a study that “the private sector had huge amounts of fintech to offer” to promote financial inclusion around the world, Patel said.

The gold standard case study is India, where the government created a biometric digital identification system called Aadhaar—which is Hindi for “foundation”—to access a range of services.

When citizens register their ID, they can also automatically open a bank account, through which they can receive an insurance policy for accident cover, critical healthcare, and access to other financial services such as a soft loan.

Almost 90% of India’s 1.3 billion population signed up in eight years, and 500 million people of all levels of literacy and income were able to open a bank account.

Rapid Employment In Aadhaar Digital ID
Source: IMF

Technology as a Destructive Force

Tech leaders need to be aware that while technology can be a force for good in many ways, it can also be damaging to certain vulnerable groups.

The Force For Good report stated: “The fundamentally strategic nature of technology makes it a potential source of geopolitical conflict, with competing nations and blocs looking to maximize their own progress and limit their competitors’ access to and ability to develop advanced technologies, thereby risking broader conflicts.

“Further, as the world becomes increasingly digital, the destructive power of cyberweapons is growing exponentially, with the ability to disrupt or even destroy markets, economies, governments, and even nations potentially.

“And the use of technology to these ends is not just limited to state actors but is open to other organized groups and individuals.”

Artificial intelligence has the potential to “turbocharge” the global economy, Stinson said, resulting in “a blossoming of standards of living and productivity and wealth that we can only imagine.

“That is going to open up a vista of possibilities for humanity that offers a full spectrum of positive and negative aspects to us.

“It has some very profound ethical and moral implications that really need to be answered as it’s deployed, and it requires global cooperation to do that.

“Right now, the US is competing with China, Europe is in the mix, and India’s certainly going to be in the mix as well.

“As we compete, we have different visions about what AI is going to do for our future. Is it going to be our slave, is it going to be our peer, or is it going to be our master? All three of those scenarios are quite plausible.

“Human security for all is a paradigm that we need to utilize in order to guide us in the development and the deployment of AI… Bring everybody together to address those problems effectively before they turn into existential threats.”

To watch the full 45-minute CES Las Vegas 2024 Panel, click here.

The Bottom Line

Technology leaders should view developing economies as potential new markets for their products.

By designing products specifically for the developing world, tech firms can profit from enabling the rollout of clean water, clean energy, and internet connectivity. The need for mass construction and advances in agriculture are driving technological innovations, while fintech services are opening up access to previously unbanked individuals.

Big Tech’s motives may not need to be altruistic, but the end result may be the same: an increasing standard of living, health, and opportunity for people across the world.

At the same time, tech and government leaders need to be aware of the dangers of tech as a destructive force — whether through geopolitical conflict, cybercrime, or unfettered development of AI — and move to protect citizens’ security.

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Nicole Willing

Nicole Willing has two decades of experience in writing and editing content on technology and finance. She has developed expertise in covering commodity, equity, and cryptocurrency markets, as well as the latest trends across the technology sector, from semiconductors to electric vehicles. Her background in reporting on developments in telecom networking equipment and services and industrial metals production gives her a unique perspective on the convergence of Internet-of-Things technologies and manufacturing.