A Nobel prize winner says tech companies are misusing creativity in their quest to change the world

Not the only market.
Not the only market.
Image: Reuters/Denis Balibouse
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The more we advance in technology, improve our infrastructure, spread globalization, and bring efficiency to the economic system, the more intensely global corporations focus their strategies on competing to serve the wealthiest and the middle class.

If you work for a conventional business, you won’t choose to design a smartphone for the poor until you’ve exhausted the markets in the upper layers of income. And when you do, you’ll simply make a cheaper version of your existing product rather than designing a phone specifically to meet the needs of the poor—one that would not only be cheaper, but also simpler, upgradable, exchangeable for the next model, extremely durable, and more efficient in addressing poor people’s needs.

It is interesting to note that new technology products are never launched in the poor segment of the market and then gradually adapted to higher-level markets. It is always the other way around. The result is a big gap in the technology marketplace—one that billions of people around the world have fallen into.

The latent power of modern technology is definitely awe-inspiring. Every year seems to bring new breakthroughs. Technologies that bring new levels of speed, flexibility, and power to activities like transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, health care, and especially to information management and communication are revolutionizing many industries. But there is no global vision driving these changes. Great innovations are designed and dedicated mostly for commercial successes. Creativity rushes in the direction where businesspeople see market potential.

A technology genius always has two basic options. For example, he can dedicate his work to creating a medical breakthrough that will save thousands of lives—or he can develop an app that will let people amuse themselves. In most cases, the technology genius will be pushed to focus on the product that has the potential to create millions of dollars in profits. Profit is the North Star of conventional economics. Lacking a collective destination, the only highway sign we follow is the North Star of profit. Nobody is putting up any highway signs that will lead the world toward a collectively desired destination.

It raises the question, does the world have a destination? If not, should it?

As I’ve explained, the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) are an attempt to define an immediate destination over a very short period. They represent a good beginning. The SDGs give us a destination over a 15-year stretch— just a moment in time out of the human journey of hundreds or thousands of years. Many people and institutions have made commitments to travel in the direction that the SDGs reveal—but, unfortunately, most for-profit companies are not redirecting themselves in meaningful ways to reach those goals because the market definition of success does not include them.

Given the power of human creativity, especially as enhanced by today’s amazing breakthroughs in technology, any destination is reachable. But while trillions of dollars are invested in developing robotics and artificial intelligence for military and commercial purposes, there is little interest in applying technology to overcome the massive human problems of the world. We gloat and float with our selfish personal goals and company goals. Lacking any social direction for technology, we are likely to miss the great opportunities that our selfish radars can’t perceive.

However, there are individual efforts to bring the power of technology to achieve social goals. In countries around the world, individual people, company managers, nonprofit leaders, and social business founders are already at work developing ways to use technology for social benefit. Some of the results they have generated are impressive.

One example is Endless, a computer company founded by a young Californian named Matt Dalio. I know his father, Ray Dalio, a successful businessman who became very interested in my ideas and my work, and who provided the bulk of the financial support needed to launch Grameen America. Matt Dalio was attracted to an idea that I talk about a lot—universal access to computers and the internet. The computer is an all-powerful tool of creation. Once it is connected to communication technology, it can be made into a powerful solution machine. But most people in the world don’t have access to this tool. Why? Because the computer is too expensive, and without connectivity it is not very useful.

Matt Dalio focused on these two issues. Recognizing the potential of computers linked to today’s ICT to transform the lives of the poor, he set out to combine the power of the computer with that of the smartphone. He wanted to design desktop and laptop computer models from the ground up to be affordable and practical for users in the developing world, including people with little or no access to reliable electricity or Internet connections. He aimed at bringing down the price of a computer to$50. The cost of the technology itself did not pose the biggest challenge. Dalio knew that the same processors that power smart phones can power a computer’s central processing unit (CPU). A keyboard and a mouse could be added for less than $10. And most people have access to televisions that can be used as monitors.

The biggest problem was connectivity. It could be summed up in two numbers: In emerging markets, the average online data plan provides for just 300 megabytes (MB) of data, while the average PC user consumes 60 gigabytes (GB) of data every month—about two hundred times as much. This means a typical PC is useless in these circumstances.

Dalio did not give up.

Research showed him that communication itself is inexpensive. For example, it’s possible to send 100,000 tweets on a 300 MB data plan. The real challenge is downloading information. But statistics show that we only consume a fraction of what is actually available online. For example, about 80% of Wikipedia searches focus on just 3% of Wikipedia contents. That feature gave Dalio the opening he needed—data storage.

Dalio has explained to me that most people can do fine with a much smaller storage capacity than we think. In practical terms, it is actually possible to take all of the images and data from every website the average person visits in a lifetime, compress them, and fit them onto a single 2-terabyte (TB) hard drive inside a computer. Result: It is possible to give an individual all the information he or she will ever need without Internet connectivity. As Matt Dalio says, “The goal is not to have everything, but for everyone to have almost everything.”

This is the secret behind the amazing power of a low-cost Endless computer. A typical Endless model runs on Linux, the open-source PC operating system, and comes preinstalled with fifty thousand Wikipedia articles and more than one hundred applications for education, work, and entertainment. The data supplied in this way can be used offline and gets updated whenever a link to the Internet becomes available. An incidental benefit is that kids who use Endless computers get access to almost all of the enormous information resources of the World Wide Web without being exposed to the risks of uncontrolled or unguided Internet use. Parents feel very relieved that they don’t have to worry about how their children are making use of Internet access. Most remarkable is the price: Endless computers sell for as little as $79. The aim is still to bring them down to $50 or less. But even the current price brings them within reach of many of the world’s 4.4 billion people who formerly were unable to afford such a device.

Endless has two types of businesses running in parallel. One part of Endless’s business is operated like a conventional, profit-seeking company, while the other part is a social business that provides underserved populations with educational, health, and creative services they were once denied. Endless is already being shipped around the globe by four of the five largest computer manufacturers. It has become the leading PC platform in Indonesia and much of Southeast Asia. It has also been selected as the standard operating system for the Brazilian Ministry of Education, and in coming months it will be adopted as the primary platform by a number of other Latin American countries. The Endless team is now developing tools that can educate any kid, anywhere, while also helping him or her learn to code—a skill that Dalio believes will be part of the basic literacy of future generations.

Given the amazing potential of the computer to transform the world, I think the brand name that Matt Dalio chose for his company is very appropriate. The opportunities are indeed endless. You can probably see why I label technology the second megapower. It will play a critical role in helping us build the new world we seek—provided we harness it, not solely for the purpose of generating individual wealth or corporate profits, but in the service of all humankind.

Excerpted from A World of Three Zeros: The New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon Emissions (PublicAffairs). Copyright 2017.