Wireless technology figures to be a crucial factor in any serious address of the laundry list of capital-letter challenges confronting the developing world, from health care to personal finance, energy to education, former President Bill Clinton said in a closing keynote address here at the CTIA Wireless 2012 show.
Clinton also had a larger point to make, warning that divisive politics and a narrow-minded focus on special interests run at cross purposes from solving the big problems.
"What works in real life is creative networks of cooperation," Clinton told his audience of wireless industry members from around the world. "If you think about it, the business you're in created more new networks of knowledge and cooperation than any single development in human history all around the world."
Since leaving politics in 2000, Clinton has thrown himself into work addressing numerous social, economic and health issues in some of the poorest areas of the world, forming a foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative to give those efforts and organizational structure.
In the aftermath of the devastating Indian ocean tsunami of 2004, he and former President George H.W. Bush helped lead relief efforts. He recounted meeting the widows of the fisherman who lost their lives in the disaster, helping to coordinate job training for those interested in pursuing other occupations. But for those who were committed to continuing to fish, relief workers helped equip them with mobile devices that they could use to check the going rate of fish in markets 10, 20, 30 miles away. The result, Clinton said, was a 30 percent to 50 percent increase in their income.
Or in Haiti, where Clinton and former President George W. Bush were heavily involved in relief efforts following the 2010 earthquake, one initiative spearheaded by a company based out of Ireland helped to set up a mobile-banking system, enabling citizens of a country with no functional banking industry to make deposits, withdrawals and mobile-to-mobile payments.
It's not just developing countries where Clinton sees an application for wireless technology.
"Wireless is going to play a huge role in trying to bring American health-care costs in line with that of our competitors while maintaining access to quality care in remote places that don't have traditional health care," he said.
But all those efforts that Clinton described, noble as they may be, would have come up short without a spirit of cooperation that required stakeholders to put aside narrow political gamesmanship or special-interest advocacy in favor of tackling the urgent problem at hand.
"In every case you have cooperation between at least a willing government, the private sector and often a nongovernmental organization," he said. "They've got a job to do so no one has any time to argue about politics."
Coinciding with Clinton's keynote and the final day of its show, CTIA released a study it commissioned the research group BSR to conduct examining the impact of wireless technology on global socioeconomic issues such as finance and health care.
"Today we're adopting m-health apps that turn smartphones into mobile medical devices," CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent said Thursday at the conference, touting the BSR report's estimate that mobile health apps could save $21 billion a year in health care costs just in the United States.
Among the survey's other findings was a projection that wireless education technology could help boost test scores, accelerate learning times, and deliver broadband access to the estimated 25 percent of U.S. school children who are without it. In the financial arena, wireless technology could work to serve the so-called unbanked or under-banked.
The report also examined the impact of wireless technology on community empowerment, noting the key role that mobile devices played in organizing the Arab Spring protests last year.
Largent admitted that wireless technology is no "panacea" for the world's most pressing problems, but he and Clinton both emphasized that the interconnectedness that wireless enables as an integral component of any solution.
"[A]s any protester in Cairo's Tahrir Square will tell you, closing the information gap is a prerequisite for positive social change," Largent said.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
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