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Development 16 June 2014

From Inspiration to Innovation on the Open Internet

By Michael KendeGuest AuthorSenior Advisor at Analysys Mason; Digital Development Specialist, IFC

Recently a young engineer in Togo, Kodjo Afate Gnikou, had an inspiration.  Surveying the electronic waste being deposited across West Africa, he designed and built a 3D printer using discarded parts from computers and scanners, which costs $100 and is named the W.Afate, combining the name of the incubator where he works, WoeLab, and his own name.  

In many ways this is a typical story of turning inspiration into innovation, an inventor seeing opportunity where others see challenges.  However, what is remarkable is how this was made possible by the open Internet, in ways not possible even ten years ago.  

For instance, Mr. Gnikou was able to leverage the following benefits from Internet access: 

  • online collaboration between enthusiasts on projects such as 3D printers, whose plans were freely available for the W.Afate printer
  • sharing of resources, enabling Mr. Gnikou to raise EUR 4,313 from 112 supporters around the world on the crowdfunding site Ulule
  • global markets for the results of innovation; for instance, the W.Afate printer was submitted to the NASA International Space Apps Challenge, for consideration for a future mission to Mars.

The original high-tech startups largely produced physical things – computers, chips, peripherals, and software to control those things – and their founders in turn benefitted from physical presence.  A good university education, direct access to computers for training and development, and availability of venture capital to fund their companies.  These factors quickly coalesced around Silicon Valley, nurturing startups and housing many of the successful results. 

It is no surprise that the first large Internet startups of the 1990s – Netscape, eBay, Yahoo!, Amazon, and Google – all started in the USA, many also in Silicon Valley.  These companies all benefited from the same conditions that promoted earlier tech startups, and came about at a time when the US had an early, historical, lead in Internet access and usage.

However, the Internet changes the prospects for startups considerably, and favorably for those outside the USA. Physical presence is not needed for access to the ingredients, and the outputs can be sold online.  Not surprisingly, as the Internet spread quickly spread from the USA through the developed world, the 2000s saw new innovative startups emerging outside the USA, notably in Europe, including Skype (Estonia) and Spotify (Sweden).  

More recently, the center of Internet gravity has shifted towards developing countries, with a number of developments.  

  • According to the ITU, the number of Internet users in the developing world passed those of the developed world in early 2008
  • The iPhone was launched in 2007, and by late 2011 more than 50% of users around the world had a mobile broadband connection
  • Combining the first two trends, by late 2012 more than 50% of the world’s mobile broadband subscribers are in developing countries

As a result, why should the next big innovation not come from an emerging market?

Already M-Pesa, arguably the most successful mobile payment systems in the world, began in Kenya.   This is no surprise, as mobile payment fills a critical gap in much of the developing world – lack of access to banking services. Another successful Kenyan application, Ushahidi, also developed to meet a local challenge – in this case to track violence that followed an election in 2007, and subsequently has been adopted around the world, for instance to track earthquake relief efforts in Haiti and Japan, and even to track the progress of snowplows in Washington DC.

However, while the Internet is a fully interoperable network of networks, not all networks are created alike, and not all countries are likely to foster innovation equally.  Innovators and potential customers alike must have access to high quality and affordable broadband Internet access; the network itself must be resilient to promote investments; there should be as few restrictions as possible on access to content and applications; and a government policy to maintain an open Internet.

Kenya has very favorable conditions for startups – good mobile access, resilient international connections, two efficient Internet Exchange Points, and a government the both promotes, and leverages, the open Internet.  Other countries sharing favorable conditions include Jordan, Indonesia, and Argentina, and demonstrate how success can help to breed success.  In Argentina, MercadoLibre, the largest ecommerce provider in Latin America, has been hosting developer conferences; a number of incubators including ideosource have emerged in Indonesia, and the 2009 sale of Jordanian startup Maktoob to Yahoo for USD 175 million has spurred the startup scene there.

Given the interconnection of the Internet, creating a global market for innovation, it is important that the open Internet be promoted and preserved internationally, through vibrant multistakeholder participation in standard setting and Internet governance.  This will enable anyone to turn inspiration into innovation and innovation into income in order succeed in the new Internet-enabled global marketplace.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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