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Make Knowledge, Not Widgets

Zero manufacturing employment: Coming soon to a regional economy near you.
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The Research in Motion headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. (Photo: gloom/Flickr)

The Research in Motion headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. (Photo: gloom/Flickr)

The world is at the end of an era of technological development. What tech we have (e.g. software), we must learn how to use. To innovate no longer means to make new products. To innovate concerns the application of existing, perhaps old, technologies. Learning from Kenya how to leverage a smartphone:

[The spread of smartphones] is now allowing Africans to go beyond merely copying technology used elsewhere or adapting it to fit African circumstances. In some cases, firms are generating innovations that can also be used in rich countries. Mobile money is the best example. A technology that long struggled to gain a foothold in the West (though mobile payments now seem to be taking off after the introduction of Apple Pay) has transformed economies in places such as Kenya, where millions of unbanked people have been brought into the financial system. This in turn has spurred yet another wave of innovation.

Forget the creation of the smartphone, let alone the pedantic manufacturing thereof. Most of the value of the smartphone in wealthy countries concerns marketing, the cool factor. You must have one or be left out of the circle. In Kenya, you must have one to engage in a banking transaction. The smartphone is the financial system.

Smartphones are cheap to make. Smartphones will get cheaper to make. Already, smartphones are super cheap to ship. What's valuable is figuring out what to do with them. Just ask the makers of BlackBerry: "RIM didn’t realize that people wanted to play Angry Birds while taking a crap."

Research in Motion didn't realize that the quality of the technological innovation made little difference to the consumer. Yet when the demand for BlackBerry phones died, the economy of the place where they were designed continued to thrive. The world continued to come to Waterloo, Ontario, for ideas.

Technological innovation is cheap. Ideas about how to use such tech are dear. Who will create the next iPhone? Most of the world doesn't care. The future of tech's utility is in Kenya, not California.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.