The knowledge economy is the kitchen of ideas

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 1

Curry paste? … what on earth does curry paste have to do with the knowledge economy? Steve Song says the knowledge economy is like the “kitchen of ideas”. If you don’t have access to the recipe, you waste time making it all up from scratch. But if you do have access to the recipe, then you can tinker, add value, make something totally delicious and explore what it would taste like if you … added more coriander?
Essentially (and with apologies to Isaac Newton), you can stand on the shoulders of giants.
Steve maintains that when the costs of accessing telephony are driven down, it opens up space for a “torrent of innovation”. Give people the basics and set their genius free!

At the presentation of Tech4Africa entitled “Three pieces of kit for a neighbourhood network”, Steve (Telecommunications Fellow for Shuttleworth Foundation) spoke about an initiative called the mesh potato, named for a lovely, obscure sort of connection between the acronyms POTS (plain old telephone system) and ATA (analog telephone adapter) … and possibly some late night Spanish patata bravas?

The mesh potato is an Open Hardware project to create wireless telephony, designed to address the needs of developing countries. In Africa, where most people spend vast amounts of disposable income (in some cases more than 50%) on telecommunications, the cost of access is a substantial barrier to innovation. The mesh potato is designed to eradicate that barrier and give people the freedom to explore creatively without worrying about how much it’s going to cost them. With the mesh potato, people in a village can talk to one another, or connect into a broader network, at minimal cost. Where this will take us, only the future can tell.

In a world where the only certainty is unpredictability and no-one knows what the next big thing is, the question is how to cope in an environment that you can’t plan for? Trial and error is the new planning. Steve advises that you need to take an evolutionary, organic approach. Success survives – and the only way to plan for this is to develop tools that facilitate everyone being a creator.

Mobile networks in South Africa today are making the same mistake that commercial Internet providers in the USA (such as compuserve, MSN and others) made 15 years ago,
when customized internet services were just developing. Their revenue model is based on walled gardens, which automatically restricts innovation. Steve advocates for paradigm shift to an open approach, giving cheap access to telephony, which opens the door to local innovation and problem solving for community problems.

The range of the mesh potato is currently around 400m (although this can be extended through ‘scaffolding’). In South Africa it is legal to use these networks as long as you’re not charging customers. However, if you want to run a commercial service you would need to apply for a license.

Mobile phones haven’t yet fulfilled their potential in the knowledge economy. That change is coming, but it needs to happen faster. The mesh potato will go a long way towards making that happen because it provides, at low cost, the opportunity for people to build their own telephone networks and take it from there.

(The mesh potato is on sale from next month – buy one online from the village telco. It’s designed to survive the weather (and dummies who might not know what cables to stick where), so you can stick one outside your house (UV and weather resistant) and get connected.
Also, the Village Telco is looking for volunteers, partners, investors –contact Steve if you are interested –

Find out more about the mesh potato on this podcast with Steve Song.

Samantha Fleming