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What the UN General Assembly Taught Me About Technology, Choice, and My Cell Phone

March 14 |

3 learnings from Natanya Meyer at Global Goals Week: developing countries are open-minded, choose cutting-edge wireless technology, and are leapfrogging high-income nations with outdated infrastructure.

Biggest “con” of the UNGA? No cell service. Add thousands of world leaders and their security detail to the 4M+ people Manhattan serves on any given workday and you’re out of luck to make calls, use Google Maps, or check emails anywhere on the East Side during United Nations General Assembly week.

Biggest “pro” of the UNGA? No cell service. Unable to participate in text-walking, I traveled between events with my head up and witnessed the organized chaos — languages, meaningful debriefs, and international camaraderie — that make up the streets of the UN headquarters.

Happily contributing to Midtown’s annual headache, I represented AlphaSights’ Knowledge for Good (KFG) business unit at Global Goals Week which focused on accelerating the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our impact investing, social enterprise, and nonprofit consulting clients tackle issues across all SDGs, making it almost impossible to choose which sessions to attend!

Ironically, it was my lagging cell phone, unused in my backpack, that led to my biggest revelation of the week. Unquestionably, access to wireless is crucial to communicate, collaborate, and stay competitive. But it may be lesser-known, that developing countries are leapfrogging ones with outdated infrastructure through their open-mindedness and cutting-edge wireless technology.

This week, their message rang loud and clear: watch out for high-income nations.

Learning #1: Developing countries are open-minded

At the Business Fights Poverty forum hosted by Barclays, I heard from Colin Buckley at CDC Group, one of AlphaSights’ long-standing impact investing partners. CDC chooses to make high-risk investments in regions that typically don’t attract foreign capital because of a weak private sector.

For example, CDC invests in InFrontier Afghanistan Fund, the only active private equity fund in Afghanistan. To many, the country still represents an economic decline, unemployment, and lack of investor protection. But if you’ve given up on Afghanistan, think again. It’s full of young adults with access to wireless cell service. That’s why InFrontier first invested in a company that provides tech infrastructure for businesses, instead of just one with enormous potential. CDC chose to bet on the entire country’s budding entrepreneurial culture.

Learning #2: Developing countries choose cutting-edge wireless technology

Rockefeller Foundation launched their report, “The Atlas of Innovation for Economic Stability”, and two wireless ventures funded by Qualcomm® stood out to me. The first was WISE, Wireless Solution for Fishery in Senegal, a mobile broadband solution to collect and transmit pricing data, making fish processors more competitive. The second was Seguridad Inalámbrica, a 3G wireless solution developed with free and open-source software that allows local law enforcement agencies in El Salvador to map and analyze crime data.

In KFG’s 5 years, we’ve noticed a rising number of wireless technology requests originating from entrepreneurs based in low/middle-income countries, rather than the US or EU. With fast-growing offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai, Seoul, and most recently Tokyo, we’re in a great place to serve these clients locally.

Learning #3: Developing countries are leapfrogging high-income nations with outdated infrastructure

Hands down, the most inspiring speaker was at the Japan Society for the 8th Business Call to Action Forum: Technological Disruption in the World of Inclusive Business. The Hatchery’s Yao Huang gave a brave, candid lecture on what it takes to keep up with tech: leaders who choose to innovate. Where does she say to start? Better cell service:

“ You need innovation in order to leapfrog. And those at the bottom can actually surpass those at the top just by having it. […] There are legacy frameworks in place by those in power. The United States for example. The telephone was invented here, but […] the infrastructure is very expensive and it is very very old — over 100 years old. There are countries that get to leapfrog by having wireless towers put in place. They don’t need the infrastructure of electricity lines and telephone lines, sitting on top of dead trees, connected throughout the country. That allows them to [save costs, and connect immediately]. Invest in infrastructure that spreads information .” — Huang

So that’s why my phone was useless.

Huang reminded me that technology is not a given. Even here in a high-income nation, technology is a choice. She says the decision-maker can be anyone: a teacher, ahead of a university, or a company’s HR department.

“The cutting-edge technology — and the ones that are open to using them — will always leapfrog.” — Huang

It’s hard to believe that developing countries are still overlooked when it comes to tech innovation. Though it may be easier to access resources and funding in high-income nations, developing countries are eager and often quicker to choose change. The Global Goals sessions further confirmed KFG’s mission to rapidly connect decision-makers with relevant expertise to make real-time business decisions. Tapping into the world’s countless professionals makes a big difference for clients — regardless of their geography, budget, or how niche they request.

Natanya Meyer joined AlphaSights in October of 2016 as Social Impact Manager for AlphaSights’ social impact unit, Knowledge for Good.