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Northwoods Alchemy I: Give me a cell phone, or give me death! – Does Tomorrow belong to the c-Citize

It’s been a long time since Patrick Henry made his famous speech in Virginia calling for liberty or death, calling for democracy and independence for what is now the United States. And a lot has changed since then.

A lot more countries are nominally considered democracies, and at least some of them claim to be interested in providing services and opportunities for their citizens. Around the world citizens are demanding a lot more from their interactions with Government and community. And then there’s technology, which is changing everything we know about the way citizens and Governments interact every day.

At yesterday’s Pop!Tech session we started at the base, talking about the primary piece of technology touching most of the world, the technological touchstone in Emerging Markets today, the cellphone. While much of the discussion was familiar, I was struck by the increasing use of cellphones in the political process. And so I ask myself – is tomorrow’s cellphone tomorrow’s vote? Is Nokia or Celtel crucial to the future of good Government?

Think about the ways the humble cellphone is and can continue to change the way people – especially people in Emerging Markets – interact with the state…

On the one hand, you have the cellphone as a tool of the political opposition, a way to keep Government in line or in the case of the Phillipines, to change the state. You remember how texting helped citizens organize the “people power” movement in Manila, right? And there are lots of other uses… helping poll-watchers report in on election fraud in Liberia. As a way of reporting corruption. As a way of building the support and even protecting NGOs as they work in the field.

But there’s also another side of the democratic cellphone movement, one that provides real opportunities for Government itself – the citizen satisfaction side.

Many countries are today looking at how they can harness m-Government as a way of extending their reach and doing more.

As I discussed later with one of the presenters, entrepreneur-professor Nathan Eagle of MIT, just think of the time you could save if you could pay taxes, renew your driver’s license, or check on your benefits over your cellphone. Think of the long lines you could skip. Certainly that time has value, economic value, “development value”. Certainly Government should be interested. And then there are the benefits of avoiding the kind of petty corruption that plagues small business and just plain folks in most countries.

Moreover, there are also potentially significant economic opportunities that might be made available for local firms who already sell similar kinds of interfaces to cellphone companies themselves. Would tech entrepreneurs like to sell into the Government market? And improve the lives of their communities? You bet.

But as we heard yesterday, m-Government could do more than help people save time or help small tech businesses. It could use the cellphone to share public health messages, to help people remember when they need to take their medicines or to explain a new Government project directly to the people who need the information most.

And it could even go further… During the session we heard about a project in Brazil where local Government was sharing its budget proposal with the community – getting feedback, even letting people to vote on their priorities – from their homes or offices, using their cellphones.

In countries where the choices can be stark – do we focus on education for tomorrow or on health today? – there would no doubt be challenges. But in nearly all countries, where the predominant dynamic is one where Government is organized to act on people (as opposed to working with them), the ability to provide real-time, aggregated input could be revolutionary.

No question, there would be some losers… the people who sit at the window and make you wait in line to get service, who sometimes get “facilitation” payments to move faster, these people would see their livelihoods shrink. Taking real advantage of the new technology will require bravery on the part of most Governments. In a world where trust is in short supply, they will need to trust their people more. But think about the economic dynamism you could create with nothing more than the time saved. Maybe, just maybe, Governments might win some friends in the populace.

In the future, will the cellphone be the best way for opposition to reach out to new voters, rising above constraints like Government controlled media? Will it be the best way for Government to deliver personal services, to make real connections with citizens, building real support (and winning over people who might vote for those opposition types)? Who knows?

What seems increasingly clear is that as this decentralized model takes hold – especially in Emerging Markets – we could some day soon find ourselves in a world divided not just by location, class and ethnicity, but also in a new way with two new kinds of citizens: those “cellphone enfranchised” c-Citizens, who can every day more easily manipulate their Government using the airwaves, and those who can’t.

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