The greatest innovation in my lifetime has been the mobile phone – a technological, social and cultural phenomenon. The mobile phone passed from executive status symbol to teenage fashion item to an economic enabler in the developing world within the span of 20 years.
Whether it was Europe in the late 1990s or India a decade later, as soon as prices dropped into the budgets of the masses, demand outstripped all projections. Its rapid diffusion has already made it more ubiquitous than the PC. Mobiles have become weighty cultural icons, for example a survey of 15 countries in 2005 found that 45 per cent of 18 to 35-years-olds thought a phone says as much about a person as their car.
Like the car it has changed the way we live. As well as their obvious convenience, we have also found unexpected uses for them, from texting to recognising the name of a music track. Cellular technology has also provided a platform for social innovation, like the mobile payment systems currently being pioneered in Kenya and Philippines – and not yet available in the West. For all the talk of ‘appropriate technology’ for developing countries, given the chance people all over the world have shown they want the latest technology!