The yawning gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” has become, alongside climate change, one of the major challenges of our time. Like climate change, we ignore it at our peril. The signs are clear: the longer that the majority of our global citizenry are denied access to the economic engines that drive a world of abundance for the privileged elites, the greater the risk of a dysfunctional world that drags us all down with it.
Over-dramatic? Not really. As Nick Hanauer wrote in a widely-quoted Politico article in 2014, the problem isn’t inequality per se – it’s that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. “If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us,” wrote Hanauer. “No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality … You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.”
In today’s economy, the best tool to access the bigger global economy is undoubtedly the Internet. For most of us reading this, the Internet is a global utility that is indispensable to our economies and lives. We, and the citizens of most developed countries, are always connected through fast broadband services, and using the services that the Internet unlocks has become second nature. Online banking, Google Maps, cheap or free communications, social media – they’re simply an everyday feature of life. When we travel, we’re often more concerned about having Internet connections than we are with our hotel rooms.
Imagine, if you would, the inconvenience and dismay of not having access to a working Internet connection. Imagine that continuing for a day, a week, a month. This is a daily reality for more than half the people on Earth. The best guess from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is that nearly 4 billion people have poor, or no, access to the Internet.
This 4 billion is not a homogenous group: they include rural communities, poor city dwellers, refugees, and many other marginalised people. They are the people who have not benefited from the last century’s growth in telecommunications, and especially not the explosion of the Internet over the last 30 years. They have been failed by systemic imbalances, and this failure is implicit in many of the geopolitical risks we see around us today.
There are many reasons for this. A lack of electricity in many parts of the world, which is needed to power telecommunications equipment. Prohibitive costs, in a world where return on investment drives most decisions. Geographic distances or peculiarities. Often, political or cultural constraints. Whatever the reasons, the consequences are devastating for entire communities and even countries. This lack of Internet connectivity is not simply an inconvenience, but cascades into an inability to gain access to a host of other services that are difficult, if not impossible, to tap into in any other way.
At the non-profit organisation I work with, the Ammbr Foundation, we’re working on a new frontier of economics that puts the focus on people rather than capital. The question we ask is: how can we use technology to bring about fundamental change to the way infrastructure, services and products are created, managed and distributed? How do we push the benefits of digitisation and sophisticated financial tools available to the currently served members of society, to beyond the four billion people that are regarded as the “bottom of the pyramid”?
We’re by no means the first to ponder these questions. Nor are we unique in being certain that modern technology will play a major role in easing this staggering problem. What we do propose goes beyond aid and subsidies to offer real empowerment. Giving people the tools to change their own situation is important. Reliance on governments and large corporations has worked for many, as we know from seeing and experiencing the advances enjoyed by those that live inside the walled garden of relative privilege.
However, our solution is not aimed at moving more people into this walled garden – but at moving the wall beyond the people. How do you do this, where so many other have tried and failed? How indeed. Our approach is to develop a telecommunications network that is not owned or controlled by any single entity, but rather owned and operated by a vast community, consisting of the users and the infrastructure owners. Experiments along these lines by many community networks have shown, on a small scale, what can be done. Networks like Guifi in Catalonia, Spain, provide connectivity to many people through shared infrastructure. However, there are challenges in growing these networks to a larger scale, both technical and social in nature.
We believe we have found the formula to scaling out the network to address a significant portion of the excluded population. It uses three key technologies to form the foundation for connecting all of humanity to the Internet: self-sovereign digital identity (where people and businesses can store their identity data on their own devices, and provide it efficiently to those who need to validate it); blockchain (an online ledger that records and verifies information); and mesh networking (a network which allows all parts of the network to share connectivity with each other).
The end results of better digital access could literally be life-changing: dramatically better delivery of education, healthcare, government services, and financial services. Real progress towards the UN’s 17 Sustainability Goals, which were highlighted just this week by UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who says “ the pace of progress is insufficient.”
Each of our three technologies, in its own right, offers a powerful proposition. Together, they can be downright revolutionary – and right now, revolution is what we need. Or, in Hanauer’s words, we can sit back and wait for the pitchforks.
Derick Smith is the Managing Director of the Ammbr Foundation, a Singapore based not-for- profit organisation, that is driving the development and implementation of the Ammbr Network, a global mesh network and Edge Computing platform.