The Next Four Billion

Since I blogged about the Temporary School of Thought the other week, it's become something of a media phenomenon. I've been to some fantastic events there over the last couple of weeks, several of which are now available as podcasts. (I've put together a round-up of those, plus some of the more interesting coverage of the Temporary School, over on my personal blog.)

One of the most interesting talks I've been to there was Vinay Gupta's provocatively titled Avoiding Capitalism for the Next Four Billion.

Audience at the Temporary School of Thought

Image courtesy of Lloyd Davies.

He's working with Akvo, a Dutch project which aims to be the "Wikipedia, eBay and YouTube for water and sanitation projects" around the world. The emphasis is on using online and mobile technology to spread information about low-tech solutions to problems which are responsible for millions of deaths each year.

What makes this so powerful is the speed at which communications networks are spreading. Half the people on the planet now have a mobile phone - a figure projected to reach 75% by 2011 and close in on 100% by 2020. Meanwhile, the evolution of mobile technology means those handsets will increasingly resemble computers rather than phones. In other words, we are about to enter a world in which people who do not have access to clean water or reliable sanitation have the internet at their fingertips.

I was reminded of Vinay's talk when I read a piece in the Guardian last week about David Miliband's trip to India. During the trip, he blogged about the spread of the web to rural Uttar Pradesh:

We stopped at an internet café in the middle of nowhere - I wanted to do a blog but the dial-up was not fast enough. But the mobile phone revolution is reaching here - the shop was selling 5 - 10 mobile phones a day, and although there are 850 million people on less than $2 a day, 8.5 million new subscriptions per month is eating in to the backlog.

That connection was still on my mind this morning, when, along with various other UK start-up types, I arrived for breakfast at the Foreign Office. It was a bit of a change from my usual morning routine - the Foreign Secretary's office was so large and the pastries so small that I thought my sense of perspective had broken. And when he asked me what something like School of Everything could mean for education internationally and Britain's role in it, I found myself talking about how the internet can facilitate peer learning of skills like how to build a dry toilet or a biosand water filter.

If anyone present went online afterwards and searched this site for lessons in dry toilet construction, I fear they were disappointed. There are people offering teaching in natural building, microfinance, community media for development and other related skills - but we've hardly begun to explore the potential of School of Everything for this area. It's something I'm serious about, though, because it seems obvious that the next step beyond a Wikipedia or YouTube for these skills is a way of connecting people to the nearest person who can give them hands on teaching.

I had a very interesting chat about all this with Alberto from UnLtdWorld on the way back from breakfast. I'm looking to open up similar conversations in the next few weeks - so if you're interested, get in touch. Meanwhile, I'll be picking up on some of these themes tomorrow, in the talk I'm giving at the Temporary School on 'Economic Chemotherapy'. If you're free, it's at 5pm at 39A Clarges Mews, off Curzon Street, Mayfair.