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6 March 2017

Mobile World Congress 2017: Can mobile save the world?

Written by: Satyen Dayal, Director at Edelman

Innovation, Technology

In my 2015 post reflecting on the Mobile World Congress, I made a side comment that the show is not ‘about saving the world from disaster.’ Collecting my badge for MWC 2017 stamped with logos of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals suggests it could now be where the industry is turning its attention.

Though the headlines from MWC didn’t entirely reflect this ambition, on the ground, in amongst the robots, drones, VR headsets, model cities and phones, it’s clear something is dawning. Can mobile save the world? Here’s three new reflections from my time at the greatest mobile show on earth.

The low-carb diet

Entering the Fira this year, me and Justin Westcott took an alternative approach and started at Hall 8. Here we were greeted by a stand built entirely from recyclable cardboard by Sigfox (Edelman client). For me this was a thought provoking statement from a company that is delivering low-power wireless networks for Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

On the topic of sustainability, the GSMA website points to a 2008 report by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), predicting that the overall footprint of global telecoms would rise to 350 MtCO2e in 2020 with mobile alone counting for 51% of this figure.

Winding forward, while telecoms wasn’t broken out separately, a more recent report revised down a range of forecasts for the Information & Communications Technology (ICT) sector due to trends toward greater energy efficiency. More broadly, these trends point toward mobile and ICT contributing to the sustainability goals across all industries and sectors.

Andreesen Horowitz’s Benedict Evans once blogged that Mobile is Eating the World. So if it is going to save the world, the industry must keep up this ‘low-carb’ diet.

A heroic act of mobilisation

In walking the halls (42km in two days for the record) it was encouraging to see the number of trade delegations in attendance, flying the innovation flag for their respective countries. These collaborations speak volumes for how mobile can and is stimulating growth and transforming economies.

The entrepreneurial spirit was also in abundance at the IoT Stars where budding start-ups pitched their wares to a group of industry gurus. Fringe events such as these offer interesting perspectives on what is happening or about to happen in the mobile ecosystem. One thing for sure is that if we thought mobile apps were transformational, IoT is about to unleash a wave of unimaginable innovation.

The biggest question this looming era of technological disruption must answer: How do innovators realise the unprecedented opportunity on offer while protecting the exponential amount of data it generates from our private lives?

Here, government and business cooperation is critical. However, here is where a heroic act of mobilisation is also needed. For example, tensions between European regulators and telecom chiefs over rollout of the 5G networks that will play a major role in the development of IoT could significantly slow down progress.

The main concern is that issues such as these push certain nations and regions ahead leaving others behind. But in my opinion, when mobile saves the world, there can be no losers.

For all man and machine kind

Ethics and morality in a mobile age was a feature of discussion in multiple places; from a keynote by Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son predicting ‘the singularity’ (the point when machines become smarter than humans) would arrive within 30 years, to a fringe event we attended debating who would win in the battle between Technology and Humanity.

At the latter event it was interesting to hear the topic of Mark Zuckerberg running for US president continue to garner discussion. Though he continues to distance himself from such an idea, in a mobile society, could we eventually see a tech CEO run for public office?

I’d argue this isn’t a terrible idea. On my journey back home from the show I finally watched Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold, a documentary film seeking to understand the ‘reveries of the connected world’. Herzog skilfully brings to our attention the promise and peril of life in the mobile age. Assuming you agree with the observations, you’ll see why a President Musk or Zuckerberg might be the type of individuals we need at the helm to welcome a new form of intelligent being to our planet.

Especially if this ‘super being’ has the capability to save the world for all man and machine kind.

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