Technology and Innovation: Boston debate

Boston was the setting for the Principal Voices event on Technology and Innovation on September 12, 2007, where our panel of experts discussed how information, knowledge and innovation were developing and radically transforming lives.

Read key quotes from the discussion
Watch video from the debate and profiles of the Principal Voices
Read the full transcript

How are complex collaborative projects changing the way information is developed and owned? How are grassroots organizations drawing from the best technological innovation to bring what many of us consider basic amenities - electricity, computers, the Internet - into developing regions?

These were the questions explored at the Principal Voices roundtable debate hosted by CNN's Michael Holmes and Adi Ignatius, deputy managing editor of TIME.

Joining Jimmy Wales, Neil Gershenfeld and Kristin Peterson - our three Principal Voices - was Fabio Rosa, founder of the Brazilian-based IDEAA, a 10-year old organization focused on bringing electricity and renewable energy to rural areas in Brazil.

Finding new ways, providing the means

Jose Bravo, chief scientist, innovation & technology, for Shell, welcomed the discussion and wondered how projects can avoid getting stuck in the period between innovation to implementation.

Transplanting a successful U.S. project across languages and cultures is exactly the task Wikipedia is now focused on. Wales said his goal is to get to over 300 editions that each have at least 250,000 entries.

"I'm turning my attentions these days to the languages of India and Africa."

"It's not about 'here's something nice that some rich white people made for you,'" Wales said.

"Rather than delivering an encyclopedia to them, it's really about delivering to them the tools they need to build their own encyclopedia."

Gershenfeld echoed the value of giving people the means to build their own products and the idea that people can, "make almost anything."

"The next digital revolution is fabrication," said Gershenfeld. Communications and music have already shifted from analog to digital, but manufacturing is still primarily analog. It is as much about democratizing a process as cultivating new ideas.

The implications are huge. "It breaks boundaries," Gershenfeld said. "And it's all from the bottom up."

"We're not bringing invention; invention is all around the world," he said. "We're bringing the tool and providing the means."

What are basic needs?

Peterson and Rosa talked about how Inveneo and IDEAAS are focused on providing more basic services in places like rural Africa and Brazil.

One of the things Inveneo brings is Internet access. Is that a basic service, it was asked.

It is, Peterson said, when it helps a farmer find a market to take his crops to, or when it allows a local woman to write an email applying for a grant to start a farm cooperative.

On the question of whether there's any danger in bringing modern technology to rural regions, panellists expressed surprise at the notion.

"Who would deny anyone here access to a telephone, or access to a library? People should be able to make that decision themselves," Peterson said.

Gershenfeld seconded the view. "The overwhelming response I got everywhere I went is that the most cultural imperialist, elitist, thing to do is to say, 'now there, there, dear, you need to go through the industrial revolution and once you've done all of that, then we can talk'."

IDEAAS' Rosa echoed the same theme of empowerment that comes from participation, claiming it has "a huge impact."

"People have TVs and cell phones and all of the things of the modern society, and they are very poor," he said.

Inveneo's work in places like Uganda and Rwanda has meant taking existing computing technology and building systems that are "really low power and really low cost and rugged and sustainable," said Peterson.

"The innovation that needs to happen is to make all the technology bullet-proof -- much simpler to install and support" for end users who have very little computer experience.

It's a case, noted moderator Holmes, of making high tech low tech.

Hot topics

One idea that drew a range of reaction is the "one laptop per child" project founded by MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte, which aims to get simple, inexpensive laptops to children throughout the developing world.

Wales said that he was a skeptic -- in areas where tuition of $4 a month is prohibitive for many families, "a $100 laptop is still extraordinarily expensive."

All panelists, though, credited the initiative for raising awareness about how access to technology will be one of the great equalizers for the world's children.

Access to information was another hot topic and pertinent to both developed countries and developing regions.

Wales noted that the kind of peer-to-peer conversations that help an African farmer find out where to sell his crops have the potential to reduce the need for intermediary firms that currently control access to information.

"People can have a much more organic style of communication and collaboration in doing business."

"It's hard to fathom the scale of change" that peer-to-peer communication will have in the future, Wales said.

Who controls information?

Another topic that brought a few sparks to the conversation was the way that user-generated content signals a shift in what readers, particularly younger ones, consider entertaining, valuable, and trustworthy.

One attendee commented that there is a massive shift toward trusting information that is created by the "masses" with input from all.

"I actually think the most doomed people in journalism are sports columnists," said Wikipedia's Wales, because so many passionate people watch and think about the same material.

He contrasted that with reporters who go into war zones, which are places where professional journalists and traditional media add value.

Is there a line to be drawn on how much information leadership is taken away from "adult supervision," as some termed it, and given over to collaborative conversation?

TIME's Ignatius pointed out that bloggers and Wikipedia authors draw from and feed off of the raw stuff produced by traditional media. "I think ultimately we co-exist," Ignatius said.


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