What the f… is disruptive technology, and why is it changing the world today?

Disruptive technology is a term describing a technological innovation. For example…

Indian’s are establishing mobile phone accounts at a rate of 6 million per month, and this figure does not take into account extended family members using each mobile phone. This is an example of the explosive growth in mobile services, and also the affect it has on a society where some of the poorest and wealthiest people live. (See our 9/12/08 blog post titled: Sex, drugs and the Twitter micro-novel; what’s next the Howard Stern tweet?). The mobile phone industry body, the GSMA, believes that 85% of new mobile phone subscribers’ live in emerging markets.

New technology from Bharti Telesoft, is allowing the local villagers to sell mobile phone time to the poor in even smaller units – through prepay top-ups that are done through phone-to-phone links rather than using cards.

Can the mobile phone also change the way families stay together in all socioeconomic conditions globally?

Beyond job creation, mobile phones transform lives for many by presenting a way to communicate regularly with family members for the first time. The BBC reports that “Almost 100 million Chinese
migrant workers rely on mobile phones to talk to the families they have left behind in rural areas.”

The poor working masses in Africa can now safely send money to their families back home. One would think that the best way for a city worker to deliver some of their hard earned money to family members back home is to deliver it by hand, thus avoiding unnecessary wire transfer charges. Although many Zimbabweans workers that have to seek employment in distant locations such as South Africa, are faced with border crossing bribes at security checkpoints. Now they have a better way to transfer their earning back home. The World Bank believes that M-banking might help to serve about three billion people who are without access to financial services. The M-banking system would allow them to transfer money safely from their mobile phones to those of their families, and the receiving party would be able to redeem transferred amount in cash from mobile airtime sellers.

“Most of those three billion people don’t have a safe place to save money. What ultimately gets people out poverty, and prevents them from being vulnerable to crises, is when they have a nest egg to fall back on,” says Gautam Ivatury, head of technology at Consultative Group to Help the Poor (CGAP), a division of the World Bank that is promoting m-banking service trials from Mongolia to Pakistan.”

Occasionally, a disruptive technology comes to dominate an existing market by either filling a role in a new market that the older technology could not fill, as for the mobile phone in Korea.

The application of mobile phone service in Korea is interesting because of the extreme contrast (socially and economically) between South and North Korean societies. North Korea is an economically starved society by contrast to South Korea where many of its people are enjoying the benefits of a growing economic system.  Bruce Sterling’s talk at LIFT Asia 2008 conference emphasized that it is important for South Korea to think ahead, and come up with a plan to manage the people of North Korea after it collapses. His belief is that the mobile phone will play an important role in the redevelopment of North Korean Society, as it has in India and similar communities globally, where large numbers of economically poor exist.

“When you are working on cell phones, when you are working on the web, when you are working on electronic money and payment systems, you need to think: What if my user is a North-Korean? How
would I do this differently if I knew my user was from Pyongyang, that his regime had collapsed, that his economy had collapsed, he was completely bewildered, and he had never seen a cell phone or a computer in his life, and I intended to make him a productive and happy fellow citizen in ten years, what kind of technology would I give that person, what kind of trading system, economic system?” Bruce Sterling believes the mobile phone will play an important part of the restructuring of North Korea in the future.

Disruptive technology could be a “disruptive” strategy (something that affects change)

In East Africa a mobile phone based health application has helped to investigate and contain a polio outbreak that threatened thousands. EpiSurveyor a mobile phone health related application has been effectively used as part of a polio vaccination campaign to support refugees fleeing violence in Somalia.

Photo via BBC

The health application is down loadable onto hand held devices to log patients’ symptoms and treatment provided. Funding for EpiSurveyor has been provided by the United Nations and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership, “which is using strategic technology programs to strengthen UN humanitarian efforts worldwide. It is free to use and is run on an open-source basis,” reported the BBC. The World Health Organization recently stated that the success of this trial program in Kenya, has allowed it to be implemented into another 20 countries in Africa. For example:
Dr Patrick Nguku from the Kenyan Health Ministry where the project is running has been achieving very good results. “In 2006 after 21 years of absence of polio in Kenya, we did confirm a case in our north eastern province, and massive immunization followed this campaign to try to protect susceptible children. We used EpiSurveyor to basically control our supplies because paper is cumbersome, you have to carry it to wherever you are going, you have to photocopy it and enter the data” and paper is more expensive to use.”
The electronic data collection process in a nutshell:

1. Health authorities collate information on the spread of disease by compiling a form with a questionnaire 2, the questionnaire is then instantaneously sent out across mobile networks, so data can be gathered from people on their phones and 3, completed forms are sent back to the authorities via the mobile phone network.

“If there is a vaccine shortage in a health facility 800km from Nairobi, this information is relayed in real time to the headquarters and sorted out very fast”, said Dr Nguku”. Through out the world, a lack of current and correct information is one of the most important hurdles to overcoming long-term public health problems. Recording epidemiological information tends to be tedious if a healthcare worker has to use paper and pen to establish which individuals have received an immunization, or where important medications have been sent.

Disruptive technology could be a product, or service …

The British government may use New Media to fight the Taliban.  A novel new plan is being considered by the British government to fight the expansion of Taliban propaganda in Afghanistan. If approved, the New Media operation would use mobile phones, and the Internet to allow Afghans to make their own video diaries. The new media would be distributed through non-governmental organizations’. The British government hopes that most Afghans will document the evils of the Taliban, and in doing so will weaken the affect of Taliban propaganda, and possibly their recruitment efforts in Afghanistan. It is believed that Anti-Western films already circulate on Afghanistan’s estimated 6m mobiles, and that these films are distributed throughout the country’s half a million Internet users. This program would encourage an already existing effort to counter the Taliban influence in Afghanistan.

Photo via BBC

The BBC reported that,  “there was a growing realization in Whitehall and Washington, that the US-led coalition had been losing the propaganda war in Afghanistan to the Taliban. The coalition’s reputation was particularly damaged by the recent distribution of mobile phone footage showing the bodies of dozens of Afghan civilians killed in a US-led raid in August, our correspondent added.”

New Media is now being used to start social, political, and economic change under many different global conditions. New Technologies (mobile phones) are no longer products and services for the wealthy and middle class. They are being used in new ways and areas of the human society, even by the most economically challenged. They are also changing the way people live, communicate, fight disease, and increase their standard of living around the world. – By Peter Sabbagh


3 responses to “What the f… is disruptive technology, and why is it changing the world today?

  1. John the Statistician

    Disruptive technology also corresponds to a business idea, and the term may even have first been coined in this context (although I don’t know). In this context, a disruptive product is a vastly cheaper product for a market segment that previously was not considered profitable enough to pursue. This product then takes hold, and subsequent waves of development slowly eat away at the lower end of the product line.


  2. I have to say that I always understood disruptive technology as something that raised and in some cases, embodied a different social order (part of the whole cultured technologies) argument. So I guess my question for the author would be which order these technologies are disrupting?

  3. Thanks for your comment, here are my thoughts –

    New technologies are subject to cultural modifications, and the mobile phone is a technology going through this process. The mobile phone can become localized when used by the local cultural, through modifications, localization processes, networks, adhering to a certain order, and regulations within various local communities. As a community uses the mobile technology, the community begins to change within the limits of its needs. These needs can be religious, political, emotional, or economically focused. This process can eventually change the local environment to behave differently on a local level, while connecting to a world-wide trend. All of these consequences may not have been intended, particularly in more traditional communities.

    In short, mobile technology can disrupt the normal culture of a community and also change the way the technology was intended to be used. Cultured technology can become a requirement for some traditional communities so they can coexist within their traditional limits. Cultural modifications can also create innovation and novel opportunities for the community and technology. Hierarchy, patriarchy, discipline, and seclusion all play a role in the order technologies disrupt.

    Your comments are welcome….

    Resource for Social Media

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