Appropriate Technology – Take Two

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

I got some really good feedback from last week’s proposal to create incentives for those kinds of computer equipment that are most suited to creating opportunity and improving access to information for ni-Vanuatu.

Not all of the news was necessarily good, but all of it was useful. Daryl Moon, who runs the local Datec store, responded that he’d done a little math on the issue, and he found that computer vendors would certainly be able to sell computers for less if they were constructed locally from tariff-exempt components.

But he went on to explain that in order to justify hiring extra staff for that purpose, he would have to sell 20 computers per week – a number which, he suspected, exceeds the weekly sales of all local computer retailers combined.

I also had discussion with a few local economists and trade experts. One of the issues raised was the difficulty of actually measuring the outcome of such tariff exemptions. Generally speaking, government is willing to accept a drop in revenues in one area provided that it sees an increase elsewhere (VAT income from increased sales, for example) or that the social benefit is sufficient to merit the cost.

As I reflect on these conversations, I’m beginning to realise that, ultimately, the most compelling argument for Appropriate Technology incentives is not economic in nature. The capstone on this discussion is a moral one.

We need to take steps to improve access to information, learning and communications for all ni-Vanuatu. The steps we’ve taken so far are necessary, but not sufficient. We need to do more. And in the absence of a coordinated national strategy, we should take small steps like this simply because we can.

The cost of failure is measurable, and probably low. Maybe there won’t be a huge surge of new employment; maybe it won’t help local small business people as much as we like. If it doesn’t work, though, at least they won’t suffer for the mistake.

Though we can’t really know exactly what the value is on the upside, we can all agree that if it does work, it will benefit people in countless small ways: expediting business, enabling both formal and informal political, social, religious and community networks, encouraging learning and exposing people to a world that many have never encountered before.

The benefits are likely to be intangible and difficult to measure: One more scholarship won because a young woman studied extra at home on her netbook. A few extra bookings at a resort via email that kept one more person employed. A better-attended fund-raising for an important cause. None of these will ever show up directly in a statistical analysis, but nobody doubts their value.

There are liabilities inherent to the idea, of course. As I cautioned last week, if the Appropriate Technology designation is reduced to a laundry list of specific products approved by government, ample room might be created for error, inefficiency or even abuse. If a local vendor, for example, becomes the sole distributor for a given brand of products, then succeeds – by hook or by crook – in getting them included in the list, they would stand to profit more than before. Conversely, if other vendors were to lobby to block the inclusion of a certain brand of products, that same sole distributor might find itself working at a deficit.

The solution is to ensure that the criteria for this list are generic in nature, and are described in functional language that references the purpose and performance of a given product rather than its name, version, manufacturer, what have you.

Low-power devices, for example, could simply be classed as any computing device that uses less than X number of watts under normal circumstances. While the value of X might float higher and lower as we fine-tune things, the criterion is clear enough that equipment clearly either meets or misses the mark, with little room for ambiguity or misapplication.

Now: Let’s pause for a second and look at the bigger picture. This kind of proposal should really be part of a larger dialogue about a national ICT strategy. It’s unfortunate, actually, that one of the strengths of the argument for an Appropriate Technology tariff exemption is that it stands on its own and doesn’t necessarily need to be integrated into a larger framework. By rights it should be leading us to bigger things.

My hope is that ideas like this start people thinking in strategic terms. The idea of liberalising the telecoms market is a similarly simple (albeit more ambitious) idea that was led by a stalwart few within Government, but which ultimately involved many parties, nationally and internationally. One of the greatest benefits we derived from this (after the obvious win of vastly improved mobile communications) was the creation of a regulatory body to oversee things.

When the Ministry of Infrastructure and Public Utilities first embarked on the long road toward an open telecoms market, I’m not sure everyone realised the full implications of the work they’d taken on. Happily, with assistance from numerous parties, the idea served as a fulcrum to develop the will and then the resources necessary to make this undertaking an internationally noteworthy success story.

I confess I’m a little nervous that people will rest on their laurels. Mobile communications are great, but more is needed.

There’s a subtle but crucial difference between mobile communications and the Internet. It’s often hard to see because there’s a good deal of overlap between the two. Email and SMS are essentially equivalent, modulo a few small differences, as are VOIP and traditional telephone services.

Even though the lines are blurring between the two, one fundamental difference remains: Mobile telecoms enable mostly one-to-one communications. They recreate our kitchen conversations. The Internet is by default a public (one-to-many and many-to-one) medium that allows us to recreate the kind of dialogue we see in our schools, our churches, political meetings and – most importantly – in the village nasara.

Mobile Internet services soon to be available in Port Vila and Santo will blur that line even further. We need to enhance that effect, and promote devices that make best use of both technologies.

We also need to push these services out into the islands. Currently available solutions are expensive, but it’s the cost of buying and running the equipment required that shuts the door with finality for most island residents.

As happy as I am to see our capital growing in resemblance to its overseas counterparts in Australia and New Zealand, I can’t escape the realisation that, in part because of our own complacency, our brothers and sisters in the islands are still miles behind.

Small steps like an Appropriate Technology exemption are useful, especially if they lead to bigger steps further down the road.