Social and Economic Sustainability

Back in 1997, Katina would use International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates of incoming and outgoing voice and data teletraffic tables for her work in strategic network engineering. She was particularly amazed when viewing these figures in global thematic maps, as thick arrows would always flow in and out from developed nations, and yet significantly thinner arrows would be flowing from developing nations, despite the difference in population counts [1]. That image has stuck with her as a depiction of how the world is, no doubt, related to historical events. Efforts required to bring those arrows into equilibrium at a country level seem somewhat impossible, given the digital divide.

As initiatives like Project Loon attempt to grant all peoples Internet access [2], there are still many places on Earth that have limited or no connectivity whatsoever. Some of these places reject services, believing that they will bring with them even greater harm, such as deforestation or a destabilization of culture and religious practice. And yet, developed nations uphold that they are in fact educating, providing, and allowing for longer-term economic and social sustainability through their technological solutions. For example, Jason has recently returned from the eastern part of the Maharashtra state of India where the use of technology in remote villages such as Jamnya appears at first glance to be at direct odds to the subsistence way of traditional village life. However, on second glance, the benefits of technology offer endless possibilities from education to weather station assistance with crop plantings. See also, Khanjan's projects in Africa [3].

But what about long-term stability in developing nations? For example, as we strive to mainstream alternate energy sources and make them accessible in resource poor communities [4], how do we think beyond the technological and economic dimensions and ensure respect for social, political, and environmental imperatives? Computers, including the tiny but powerful ones on cell phones can be game-changers, but they will not save lives directly. They cannot be eaten by a starving population. And then, they need to be serviced and maintained. Jason, along with Katina's husband Michael, visited and taught Karen refugee students in camps and remote villages on the Thai-Burma border [5]. They quickly realized that computers work only if they are connected to electricity. Someone has to pay the bill. Computers can thereafter continue to work, if no parts go missing, and they are fully enclosed within a shelter that has windows, and are not damaged. Computers can be operated by people who have received some training and where there is some connectivity. It is hopeless to want to share files or use remote applications if bandwidth is lower than 56 kbps. For example, Martin Murillo et al.'s article in this special section emphasizes that leading humanitarians have identified data communications for remote health offices as one of the top three tools that will contribute to the fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Today, as many as 80% of the world's citizens reside in areas with mobile phone coverage [6]. Increasing access to computers and cellular devices has allowed telemedicine systems to flourish in developing countries. But these devices can only really work if technologies are integrated into local communities in bottom-up socialization practices. They can work if they are embraced by locals, and harnessed for good by local companies, NGOs, elders, and other stakeholders. While the number of mHealth and telemedicine systems is growing, the benefits of these technologies are yet to be fully realized. Many mHealth ventures in resource-constrained environments suffer from “pilotitis” – an inability to expand beyond the initial pilot and ultimately become sustainable ventures. Khanjan has led the design and execution of a cash-positive telemedicine venture in central Kenya that now has seven full-time employees. His students recently conducted a study of the failure modes that plague the growth of mHealth pilots in the developing world. This study of over 50 projects in Africa and Asia uncovered a wide range of barriers including financial challenges, business structures, technological limitations, and cultural misalignments. Once again, some of the greatest challenges were related to bottom-up socialization, melding Western and indigenous knowledge, and integration of new technologies, approaches, and business models into traditional ways of life. Khanjan has captured the nuts and bolts of “how things work” and why projects fail in a series of short stories called The Kochia Chronicles: Systemic Challenges and the Foundations of Social Innovation. These narratives take readers headlong into the lives of people in a quintessential African village as they usher in an era of design, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

It is difficult not to be cynical about initiatives such as Zuckerberg's hopes to wire the world [7]. These technological initiatives sound good, but with computing also will come social implications. Not all of these implications will be positive.

But back now to getting those inflows and outflows to look more alike, as newly industrialized countries have experienced growth since the inception of the mobile phone (e.g., India), broadband (e.g., Singapore), and manufacturing machinery (e.g., Thailand). The bottom line is that to overcome the endemic failures that inhibit the sustainability and scalability of well-meaning projects, a truly systemic and participatory approach is essential. Rather than dwelling on the problems caused by, or that might result from, the digital divide, let us preoccupy ourselves with considering digital inclusion as a primary aim. Digital inclusion is not just about offering equity but about making substantial self-determined improvements to the lives and livelihoods of people in resource-poor settings. The digital divide will never be entirely bridged, but inclusion can be propelled through social innovation, concerted time, and effort supported by multi-lateral funding from local and global stakeholders who not only understand the need for change but are passionate about the human need and its interdependence with global peace and sustainability.

IEEE Keywords: Special issues and sections, Investments, Communication Services, Internet, Government policies,Social factors, Social network services, Economics, Sustainable development, Environmental factors

Citation: Jason Sargent, Khanjan Mehta, Katina Michael, "Social and Economic Sustainability", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 34(1), March 2015, pp. 17 - 18

Putting Technology into Perspective in Asia

With almost four billion people, Asia comprises about 55% of the world's population and 45% of the world's Internet users [1]. Internet penetration in Asia is estimated at almost 28% compared with the rest of the world at 43% [2]. The number of mobile users in Asia at the end of 2012 was estimated at about 3.2 billion subscribers. Eighteen countries in Asia have saturated mobile markets exceeding 100% penetration, while Macau and Hong Kong have mobile penetration levels of more than 200% [3]. India and China account for over 60% of the telecommunications market in Asia which is why so many companies are vying to be there.

But all of this needs to be factored against some humbling statistics. For example, 66.7% of people living in South Asia in 2010 earned less than$2 a day compared with 30% in East Asia and the Pacific [4]. According to the World Bank, more than a third of these people did not earn more than$1.25 a day, placing them below the poverty line. An estimated 80–90% of this population is rural, with rural poverty especially endemic in Southern Asia [5]. However, between 1990 and 2008 the number of people living in poverty in the world halved [6]. One question to ponder is how much of this reduction in poverty was as a direct result of technology?

When I worked for Nortel in Asia I had the opportunity to study voice and data teletraffic flow maps published by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). I was always intrigued by the fact that thick arrows representing large volumes showed information flowing in and out of developed nations [7]. Poorer nations in Asia and Africa especially had very thin flows. Sometimes this signified that a market was predominantly “closed” and had not yet formally deregulated, or that internal conflict caused it to remain troubled instead of outward looking and global. The poverty cycle, also known as a spiral, is difficult to break. Initiatives like one laptop per child (OLPC) surely provide hope [8], as do open data initiatives to give access to information to anyone who has an Internet connection of any type [9]. However when there is no one to pay the electricity bill or to even guarantee the underlying infrastructure, even these promising ventures will fall short.

There are numerous ways to consider technology within a framework of progress. For example, some point to genetically modified (GM) crops that can provide food for those in need [10]; enabling technologies in the manufacturing industry giving workers a chance to earn a living; transportation technology like containers on ships and rail that enable global supply chain processes; sophisticated private and public exchange banking systems that allow for electronic commerce from anywhere in the world; and a high tech industry that is continually reinventing itself with new innovations to keep the retail sector moving.

Nonetheless, resources are limited as populations continue to rise at an increasing rate in developing nations, placing pressure on fossil fuel reserves. On the one hand these limited resources have meant that we are continually seeking to harness new alternative means of energy such as solar and wind, but on the other hand, we may be quickly approaching a crisis far greater than that of the 1973 oil embargo and subsequent stock market crash, if we do not back renewable resource initiatives with serious and ongoing research funding.

The externalities of technology are not only felt on a global scale with respect to climate change as a direct result of carbon emissions, but are vividly obvious in other activities from the exportation of e-waste disposal to countries like Bangladesh and Nepal, and in the contamination of waterways through industrial chemical waste within organizations situated within Asia and Africa [11].

In other cases, technology change has equated to business process optimization so harsh on employees that inhumane practices have been discovered in sweat shops and white good manufacturing lines. We might be paying significantly reduced prices for our computers, toasters, and clothes, but somewhere up the “chain” someone has had to get the component parts to a finished good. We have a responsibility to ensure that child workers are not being exploited on cocoa farms to bring us our favorite chocolate bars, and that pregnant female workers are not bound to their sewing machines from dawn to dusk, among a great many other worker issues.

I observe around my neighborhood during rubbish collection days, electrical appliances such as printers, abandoned on the roadside because it is cheaper to purchase a brand new one than to take the effort in purchasing color toner and installing it for use. Little by little we have become the throw-away generation, and the side effects from this thoughtless consumerism will cost us heavily in years to come. How much more prevalent this behavior might become with the onset of 3D printers and downloadable computer-aided designs (CAD) is anyone's guess.

While I do not wish to cast any shadow on this significant special issue dedicated to “Technology and Society in Asia” for which I thank the tremendous efforts of ISTAS12 organizers Greg Adamson, Michael Arnold, Sophie McKenzie, and guest editors Martin Gibbs, Philip Hall, and Shiro Uesugi, a counter-balance is necessary to place the special issue in perspective [12]. Yes, technology is the answer to so many of our problems today, but it can also be the source of our woes. That which has had such a positive impact on the production functions of so many processes, i.e., technology, can also carry with it negative intangible and hidden costs to the individual, the household, the factory, and society at large. We need to think past the first ripple effect, to far-reaching consequences, ensuring that we take the longer-term view, before that which immediately benefits profit margins.


1. United Nations Population Information Network, 2009, [online] Available:

2. Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics, 2013, [online] Available:

3. P. Evans, P. Budde, "Asia-Mobile broadband and digital economy overview", BuddeComm, 2012, [online] Available:

4. "Poverty and equity data", The World Bank, 2013, [online] Available:

5. "Rural Poverty Portal: Asia", International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), 2009, [online] Available:

6. M. Tuck, "Poverty Reduction and Equity", The World Bank, 2013, [online] Available:

7. "Measuring the Information Society" in International Telecommunications Union, 2012.

8., OLPC Foundation.

9. Interaction Design Foundation.

10. S.K. Moore, E. Strickland, "GM foods grow up", IEEE Spectrum, 2013, [online] Available:

11. StEP Solving the e-waste problem, 2012, [online] Available:

12. ISTAS12 Technology and Society in Asia IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society, 2012.

Citation: Katina Michael, "Putting Technology into Perspective in Asia", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Volume: 32, Issue: 3, Fall 2013, pp. 5 - 6, DOI: 10.1109/MTS.2013.2276662