At the Nexus of IT and ET

Stephen DeAngelis

November 02, 2007

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a great column about the need for a revolution in electric power generation and distribution technology (ET) to match the ongoing revolution in information technology revolution (IT) [“If I.T. Merged with E.T.,” 31 October 2007]. As I have argued before, the most interesting activities generally take place where two sectors intersect — in this case, where ET meets IT. Normally, we think of the IT revolution only getting a toehold where electrical power is already available. After all, all IT requires some sort of power to work. Friedman begins his column disabusing us of such a notion.

“Well, here’s something you don’t see every day. I was visiting an Indian village 350 miles east of Hyderabad and got to watch a very elderly Indian man undergo an EKG in a remote clinic, while a heart specialist, hundreds of miles away in Bangalore, watched via satellite TV and dispensed a diagnosis. This kind of telemedicine is the I.T. revolution at its best. But what struck me most was that just underneath the TV screen, powering the whole endeavor, were 16 car batteries — the E.T., energy technology, revolution, at its worst.”

In past posts, I’ve described people in Africa who recharge their cell phones using car batteries. I’ve written about pedal-powered generators that keep villages connected. I’ve discussed Dean Kamen’s idea for a Stirling engine that can be used in outlying areas to generate enough power to purify water and power small devices. I’ve detailed advances in solar technology that would help get electrical power to many places that remain without it. Despite all the talk about electrical power generation, the availability of electricity to poor areas remains dismal. Friedman notes this remains true for India, even though it boasts of one the world’s fastest growing economies.

“Some 250 million Indians today have cellphones. Many of them are people who make just $2 or $3 a day. More and more are getting access to computers and the Internet, even in villages. But only 85 percent of Indian villages are electrified — and that is being generous, since many still don’t have reliable 24/7 quality power.”

Friedman argues for a concerted push for an ET revolution because he believes it would generate an exponential increase in the benefits that the IT revolution could bring to poor regions. I couldn’t agree with him more. Widespread access to electrical power is one of the pre-conditions I’ve discussed as necessary to make Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ framework more effective in emerging market countries. Friedman writes:

“If only … If only we could make a breakthrough in clean, distributed power — an E.T. revolution — it could drive the I.T. revolution into every forgotten corner of the world to create jobs, light up schools and tap the innovative prowess of rural populations, like India’s 700 million villagers. There is a green Edison growing up out here — if only we can give them the light to learn. To appreciate that potential, look at how much is being done with just car batteries, backup diesel generators and India’s creaky rural electricity grid. I traveled to a cluster of villages with a team from the Byrraju Foundation — a truly impressive nonprofit set up by B. Ramalinga Raju and his family. Raju and his brother Rama are co-founders of one of India’s leading outsourcing companies, Satyam Computer Services. The Hyderabad-based brothers wanted to give back to their country, but they wanted it to be a hand up, not a hand out. So besides funding health clinics and computer-filled primary schools in villages in their home state of Andhra Pradesh, they tried something new: outsourcing their outsourcing to villages. Here in Ethakota, amid the banana and palm groves, 120 college-educated villagers, trained in computers and English by Satyam and connected to the world by wireless networks, are processing data for a British publisher and selling services for an Indian phone company. They run two eight-hour shifts, but could run three — if only the electricity didn’t go off for six hours a day!”

As I noted in yesterday’s post about the new university being built in Saudi Arabia [Education in Saudi Arabia], education without a complementary program to create jobs that can take advantage of those receiving the education is destined to create a generation of disaffected, if not angry, young people. Jobs cannot be created if electrical power is not available — development is driven by electrical power. Friedman concluded his column this way:

“When the world starts getting wired and electrified, you never know who you’ll bump into. In the village of Podagatlapalli, I met Sha Yu, a 22-year-old Chinese graduate of Beijing’s Renmin University and a Byrraju volunteer, teaching rural Indian high school students how to produce their own newspaper on a computer. ‘I felt in China people don’t know so much about India, so I thought I want to come and see what is happening here,’ she explained. ‘In rural India, communication is not that developed, so I started a newspaper for the high school. If I can learn something from here, and bring it back, I can give some ideas to the Chinese government. If this rural area can be empowered, it would be an amazing thing for the world.’ Amazing indeed. India’s strained megacities, like Mumbai and Calcutta, can’t keep growing. Mr. Jacob estimates that just one of his rural outsourcing centers creates the equivalent employment and salaries of 400 acres of farm land. India, in other words, could actually mint more land in the countryside, but it can’t do it off car batteries. It will take a real energy revolution. If only …”

Earlier Friedman noted that whereas workers in India come and go with some frequency in city jobs, rural workers are more reliable and virtually never leave. That shouldn’t be surprising; they really have no where to go. Job opportunities in rural areas are few and far between. Friedman’s point, however, is that they don’t want to leave their villages for the big cities and he sees that as a good thing. Not only is getting jobs to rural areas a good thing, but the concomitant benefits of those jobs would be just as good. Infrastructure would improve, housing would improve, availability of commercial products would improve, people would get healthier, there would be more stress on education, etc., etc. The viral benefits of development and job creation are what help bring people out of poverty and the key is availability to electrical power.