The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be

My advice for the new year: go East and South, young man and woman … and investor. America, Europe, and Japan are stagnant and ponderous. More and more, in the coming years, the real moving and shaking will happen elsewhere.

“2011 will be the year Android explodes!” cried a recent headline, citing a new Broadcom chipset that will reportedly make sub-$100 unsubsidized smartphones ubiquitous. Maybe so, but I second MG’s skepticism: North American carriers will fight this tooth and nail, and even when they lose, we’ll still have to wait for the three-year contracts that are status quo here to finally die. If that chipset is real, though, the headline’s not wrong; Android will explode … in the developing world, where virtually all phone service is pre-paid. (As, ahem, I predicted 20 months ago.)

There’s a larger trend here. Mobile phones and 3G service became ubiquitous in Africa so rapidly in part because they never had to compete with landlines. Kenyans flocked to mobile-phone money transfer services, because they had no consumer banks: now M-Pesa, the largest, handles money equal to a mindboggling 10% of Kenya’s GDP every year. (The US equivalent would be $1.4 trillion/year. By contrast, PayPal handles less than $100 billion/year worldwide, of which mobile-phone payments are but a small fraction.) Now much of Kenya is quickly adopting distributed, flexible, resilient solar power, largely because their monolithic, sclerotic, vulnerable grid doesn’t reach much of the country.

As the poor world grows richer, we can expect more of the same: unencumbered by entrenched customs, regulations, special interests and legacy infrastructure, they’ll make the most of new technologies far faster than us laggards in the West. Why does cable TV still exist, in this BitTorrent era? Because the cable companies are like tapeworms in our economies’ guts, sucking life from their hosts as they die with agonizing slowness. Why are universal electronic health records so hard to implement? Because the multi-trillion-dollar health industry is set firmly in its antediluvian ways and has no incentive to change. But these parasites and foot-draggers are far less established in the developing world, and that’s why the future will increasingly happen there, not here.

This doesn’t mean they’ll be better off – we’ll be vastly wealthier for some decades yet – but they’re using their blank-slate advantage to evolve far faster. if you want to see the world’s real hothouse of change, or build a business that can change the lives of (or make money from) many tens of millions in the space of a few years, get ahead of the curve and aim at the 70% of humanity who live in Asia, where they already get new smartphones first, or Africa, which despite its Dark Continent reputation is rapidly growing wealthier.

“May you live in interesting times,” says the alleged ancient Chinese curse. If only. Here in the First World we’re increasingly trapped in yesterday’s tedium. In the 21st century, it’s the rest of the world who will live on the bleeding edge of the future.