Can Technology Alleviate Poverty?
August 15, 2014
Last fall, I met Jason Alan Snyder, Vice President, Director of Creative Technology for North America at Momentum Worldwide, to talk business and technology (mostly technology). Over lunch, he told me about his invention, Luci, the award-winning, inflatable solar lantern that’s inexpensive, maintenance-free, and weighs as much as an iPhone 5. Sold and endorsed by MPOWERD, a NYC-based company that develops and manufactures clean energy products to replace polluting, expensive energy fuels, Luci harnesses the sun’s free energy and makes electricity accessible the world over.
As we discussed Luci, we also talked about energy poverty, which is a lack of access to modern energy services. According to the International Energy Agency, over 1.3 billion people are without access to electricity and 2.6 billion people are without clean cooking facilities. More than 95% of these people are either in sub-Saharan African or developing Asia and 84% are in rural areas.
Less than six months after our meeting, Mark Zuckerberg wrote in the Wall Street Journal about a future where the Internet is available to all. I wondered how he planned to power his Internet movement. After all, there are 1.3 billion people in the world without electricity, never mind Internet access. I reasoned that Jason might know a thing or two about “Internet poverty,” so I rang him up.
“They go hand in hand,” he said. He pointed out that the entirety of the United States has had access to electricity for more than a century, but there are still billions of people around the world without it. Jason knows why, but he’s more curious as to why little, if anything, is being done about it.
He asked, “Why do the reasons have to revolve around profitability? With Internet access comes healthcare, education, employment, student aid, and other tools necessary for growth and development. This day and age, technology is a part of basic human rights. And there are subsidies and policies getting in the way of it. There’s this lag in addressing fundamental needs. Why is that happening?”
He also wonders about the correlation between people who haven’t received their high school diploma and those aged 65 and older. Both groups lack of use of the Internet. For the former, it could be a lack of access; with the latter, a lack of interest. I admitted that I hadn’t given it any thought, and joked about living in a Northeastern bubble. Jason suggested that very bubble that makes the world appear smaller to me, and most who have high-speed Internet access.
Jason said he was fortunate enough to have access to a modem back in the late 1970s, and as a child, he was able to use this modem to “call up” other computers. “That was like magic to me,” he reminisced. While we know how the Internet works, it’s still fascinating. The magic is that fascination. When we talk about basic human needs and how technology can advance them, we’re really talking about connectivity. We need connectivity: whether social, economic, or physical.
Jason has future ventures aimed at helping bridge the digital divide. While he was developing Luci, he also looked into a number of communications solutions, ad-hoc networks for Wi-Fi internet access. Autonomous Wi-Fi solar channels would be beneficial both here in the US – especially in emergency situations – as well as in developing countries. I asked him if there will ever be a day where “everyone” is connected, meaning those who have a true need or desire to do so.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Obviously, using the Internet isn’t going to solve every one of everyone’s problems, but it will have positive outcomes.”
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