While concerns about the costs and benefits of digital technology grow, there are still daily reminders of the good that innovation can and does do.
This week, for example, a group of senior communications experts, working with the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, released its “Global Broadband Plan for Refugee Inclusion.” The detailed report calls for “all refugees, and the communities that host them, to have access to available, affordable and usable mobile and internet connectivity.”
At first glance, the idea of devoting scarce resources to ensuring refugees can go online may sound misguided. No one would dispute that the world’s 68.5 million refugees require, first and foremost, much more basic support, such as food, shelter and safety.
But according to Blair Levin, the plan’s principal author, access to information and communications is a growing priority. ”Our research shows that refugees see connectivity as a critical survival tool, and are willing to make large sacrifices to get connected,” Levin said.
“Further, connectivity facilitates innovations — such as using secured digital cash-based support — that improve the delivery of essential services and accelerate the refugees’ return to self-reliance."
Few people appreciate the potential of broadband connectivity as much as Levin. Among other things, he wrote the visionary U.S. National Broadband Plan. Now a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, he has advised dozens of other countries, states and cities on strategies to connect people to affordable high-speed Internet service and ways to improve the delivery of essential services.
As the report makes clear, the lack of connectivity among those displaced from their homes, and often their countries, is particularly acute. Nearly half of all refugees — about 32 million people — don’t use the Internet. Those who do may not make full use of its capabilities, because of factors such as a lack of key government applications and little native language support.
For refugees, the problems accompanying poor communications options are severe. Without inexpensive and reliable access, displaced people can’t easily locate and maintain contact with family members who may be scattered throughout the world. Connectivity is also increasingly necessary for access to health care, education, jobs and public safety.
The reasons for low adoption among refugees are mostly obvious, including the cost of mobile devices and service plans. Network access and electricity may not be available in the places where refugees live. Even something as basic as the lack of identity papers, which refugees often don’t have, can make adoption impossible. Many host countries require proof of identity just to obtain a SIM card.
Still, solutions to these kinds of problems aren’t hard to imagine. Because of continued improvements in key technologies, there may be as many as 1 billion offline consumers worldwide, including refugees, who could be made a part of digital life fully and cost-effectively.
Yet these customers remain largely invisible to existing providers tied to conventional management thinking, which trains business leaders to focus on developing strong relationships with existing customers and expanding incrementally to adjacent markets.
The result is a growing problem of what Omar Abbosh and Paul Nunes of Accenture and I call “trapped value” — a widening gap between what new technologies are capable of delivering and what existing institutions actually do with it.
Ultimately, the gap becomes so great that a combination of start-ups, forward-thinking businesses and leaders in civil society learn to innovate beyond the limits of old industry operating models, often by building new digital ecosystems. It’s that sudden release of potential economic energy that makes disruptive innovations, well, disruptive.
In “Pivot to the Future,” my new book co-written with Abbosh and Nunes, we demonstrate how companies across industries are changing the rules of business to overcome the trapped value problem.
A key insight of our research is that releasing trapped value often means sharing benefits with a wide range of stakeholders. Providing broadband for refugees, for example, may be profitable only if stakeholders consider not just the revenue they would receive, but the much greater value the service would generate for the users themselves, the industries with which they interact and, perhaps most of all, for society as a whole.
That’s the kind of radical new thinking we found in one promising example from our research: Reliance Jio Infocomm, an Indian mobile communications start-up founded by Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest person.
At the time, India’s mobile market was experiencing intense competition among several providers. Most investors would have seen little opportunity for a new entrant, especially given the high initial costs of building a new communications infrastructure.
Ambani saw something different: a trapped value gap that was invisible to existing businesses. Although India’s middle class was largely online, the digital revolution had left behind the nation’s lower-income consumers — an enormous market that Ambani thought could be served profitably by breaking the rules.
Jio’s counterintuitive solution was to build the world’s first network based entirely on 4G LTE technology — an advance in mobile communications that few of the company’s competitors were providing even to their wealthiest customers. The company actually offered Indian consumers the best and latest technology for the lowest price — a premium rather than a budget service.
Specially designed devices, compelling audio and video apps, and other innovations completed Ambani’s plan. The strategy worked brilliantly. Jio has attracted more than 200 million subscribers since its 2016 launch, many of them previously priced out of the mobile revolution. The company now operates the world’s largest data network, facilitating an explosive release of trapped value.
Ambani has gambled on an all-new LTE network that cost billions, knowing, however, that it would be both easier to scale and more affordable to operate. Where incumbents were charging as much as $60 per gigabyte of data transmitted over older network technology, Jio could charge less than $1.
Spreading the costs over such a large user base means there is plenty of released value to share. Beyond the benefits to users and Indian society as a whole, Jio has been profitable since 2017.
Can similar visionary thinking make the Global Broadband Plan for Refugees a reality? Levin thinks so. Although the plan lays out concrete steps to improve access, affordability and utilization, the most important step is bringing key stakeholders together to act in unison.
”While everyone would benefit from universal refugee connectivity,” Levin said, “none have the resources or authority necessary to unilaterally overcome all the obstacles. Connectivity for refugees is a collective-action problem, requiring a collective-action solution.”
That’s also the kind of solution that requires radical pivoting. It’s the approach Jio and other inclusive innovators are using to upend business as usual in the digital age.