Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Business models for changing lives

The field of information and communication technologies for development (ICTD) is a relatively new field with enormous potential to change the world by empowering the base of the economic pyramid through technology. I work for a research group at Carnegie Mellon University called TechBridgeWorld that operates in this field. Our interpretation of ICTD is collaborating with developing communities around the world to create relevant and sustainable technology solutions that address their unique challenges.

Currently, most ICTD projects are in the pilot stage. As a result, two major challenges our field faces are scaling these projects and evaluating its impact, as recognized by Bill Gates during his keynote speech at the ICTD 2009 conference. TechBridgeWorld is currently tackling these challenges.

In reading, “Reinventing Your Business Model,” I thought: The entire ICTD field needs a business model. A pretty wild thought, I know. And the five strategic circumstances that recommend business model change probably do not cleanly apply to a largely academic field. But in reading through the circumstances, I realized:

1. We have the opportunity, through “disruptive innovation” to address the needs of large groups of potential customers – the base of the economic pyramid. These customers are excluded because current technology solutions are not relevant and accessible.

2. We have the opportunity to capitalize on a brand new technology by wrapping a business model around it. People often think that when working with the base of the economic pyramid, technology solutions need to be “dumbed” down. On the contrary, technology solutions need to be highly innovative in order to meet their needs given their constraints.

3. There are tons of jobs to be done in the developing world. One example is TechBridgeWorld’s Braille Writing Tutor. Pilot studies show that visually impaired students in developing communities need a low-cost and motivational way to learn and practice Braille writing.

For circumstances 4 and 5 (the need to fend off low-end disrupters and the need to respond to a shifting basis of competition, respectively), I believe this applies to industries with at least a few competing companies. Since this is a young field with very little companies specializing in ICTD, I think we should revisit circumstances 4 and 5. Plus, I’d like to think that since the overarching goal in ICTD is to help and empower people, we should compete for customer impact and sustainability, not necessarily profit or market share.

It’s not really feasible for a field to have a business model, but it’s important for research groups to seriously consider pairing innovative technology solutions with equally innovative business models to not only meet needs but to change lives.

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