The nature of digital innovation forces is to leapfrog and spur forward, generating ripples of shifts in societies, economies and the world as we know it. Changes can be recognized in all sectors and industries across the spectrum. The question is: How pivotal is digital innovation for emerging markets (EMs) and to what extent could it be disruptive?
Business Forward sat down with the Parsons Professor of Digital Innovation and director of the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce and Culture at the University of Baltimore Eusebio Scornavacca to understand how digital innovation can be a pillar for the economic growth and progress of EMs.
How important are digital innovation and big data for economic growth in EMs?
Firstly, let us look at digital innovation and disruption as a phenomenon. What you have here is a shift from what I would like to call an industrial economy to an information economy. This has been happening for the past 25-30 years.
What happens is that information and information systems become a vital element in terms of value creation. To me, this is extremely important in an EM because what you are looking at is how we can use the affordances of this new technology to create socio-economic impact.
New and emerging technologies have the ability to provide shifts in social structures and organizational behaviors, productivity and value. What is interesting when you look at an emerging economy is to look at how we can make sure that we are using these affordances to help us move forward.
People think that the technology needs to be the latest and greatest, but very frequently – and what I find amazing in emerging economies – is that you find amazing impact generated by frugal innovations, in other words, very simple and smart solutions. An example for this is a company in Ghana that offers a service through an SMS that validates whether a certain medication is counterfeit or not. That is an example of a very simple system. One has to think about how widely available technologies, such as smartphones, can solve problems relevant to the region, rather than bringing in a brand-new shiny black-box that may not suit the local context.
Could the customization of technology and solutions according to the needs of EMs be an option?
Customizing comes from the principle of getting something that exists and adapting it. What is more important than that is trying to create your own solutions because we have different sides of the market. We can look into solutions to alleviate poverty; we can look into how we can bring this technology to provide opportunities for entrepreneurship and employment creation.
I think that the key element here is not to focus on understanding how the technology can be applied to a process, but rather, how we can create value through the use of digital technologies and have a clear understanding of the market needs. Additionally, you need to understand the challenges and opportunities that come with the shifts that technology is actually enabling. Then you can really think about how we can create value in our context. We can learn from advanced economies, as much as we can learn from economies that are behind us; sometimes, [the latter] can be even more creative than we are.
Could digital disruption or innovation in that sense minimize social gaps in EMs?
Usually, what you find in emerging economies and countries similar to Egypt is the existence of two different worlds. You have a world in which I can go to an incubator that is no different than an incubator in Paris, Helsinki or Baltimore. And then you have the other world that is faced with social issues which are very similar to many developing nations. So a lot of times, it depends on what side or what micro-environment you are in.
I think digital technologies are allowing us to create opportunities for development, to create access to improve quality of life. However, it can also be used to improve the quality of life of some people at the cost of others.
But there are some entrepreneurs today that do not offer real ideas and solutions.
That is something that has become fashionable, but the market will solve that problem very quickly. They will remain entrepreneurs until they run out of funding. Even if you find some people that will invest in our idea, at the end of the day, you need to find people that are willing to buy your idea.