How can we open the world? – A World Connected – April, 2005


OpenworldWhen the USSR launched Sputnik, Americans were aghast at the early Soviet win in the space race. Of course, we know that the “space race” turned out just fine for the USA. But now, satellites themselves are striking a new fear into the hearts of some Americans. This time around, it has nothing to do with who gets to Mars first.

In India, a huge, educated, and most importantly English-speaking class has emerged from the massive population—making the large-scale flight of “knowledge-work” from the US to India possible.

John Deere tractors transformed modern farming and computers revolutionized library science—and that’s what satellites are doing to knowledge work. Where the other industries have been slow to leave changing markets, knowledge work is moving as fast as it takes for a long-distance phone call to connect.

The western world has a history of transforming economies. Agriculture was the bulk of the US economy for a century. Then manufacturing had a fifty-year heyday. “Knowledge work”, which refers to fields like computer programming, has only lasted for twenty-five but still thrives.

For a factory to move, they had to build a new facility and train a new work force, just for starters. But for a graphic designer in Kuala Lumpur to take a Silicon Valley job, all he or she needs is an IP address.

This knowledge workforce is not located in any one geographical location. It’s made up of a lawyer in New Jersey and a guy in a grass hut with a laptop computer who knows how to use Photoshop. It could be someone in Laos who took an online correspondence course in programming.

Mark Frazier, President of OpenWorld, is working at the forefront of this emerging knowledge economy.

“Anywhere there is access to affordable Internet access,” he told me, “there are microentrepreneurs doing transcription, translation, indexing and abstracting, graphic design illustration….” The list is endless. These “microentrepreneurs” find most of their work through the same reverse auction system that eBay uses. Entrepreneurs post their availability on websites like Guru or RentACoder, and bid on prospective jobs. Employers rate their work accordingly. And if you think India is cheap, wait till you see what some of the microentrepreneurs are willing to work for. For a transcription job, Frazier told me, the World Bank received a bid for just one dollar.

It seems like the options are limitless. You are capable of contracting a wide range of services from thousands of miles away… even offers a large array of sci-fi illustrators.

Frazier’s company, OpenWorld, which offers numerous services for developed/developing world collaborations, has recently launched a nonprofit arm that works directly with the fledgling market of global microentrepreneurs. Frazier calls it “a springboard for innovative policy ideas.”

The driving mission of OpenWorld is to accelerate growth in impoverished areas through the introduction of creative ways to do business. Frazier has worked for twenty years as a consultant in over fifty countries, spending much of his time in free trade zones.

“The core idea,” Frazier said, “is to remove taxes, trade barriers, and government monopolies from a certain area. This isn’t a new idea, but over the past 20 years free zones have matured from just producing goods and services into the world of information industries.”

And this makes the implementation of free trade zones a whole lot easier. They naturally exist on the Net. Now, with the explosion of the online work force, many of entrepreneurs are able to circumvent the confines of their local economies via the Web.

“In the past,” Frazier said, “predatory institutions tried to interfere with the free movement of goods.” But, he says, the heart of the new economy is telecommunication, “which moves information rather than physical products.”

This new growth is almost entirely due to the drop in price of satellite connections. “It used to take millions to set up these links, but today the cost to get a two-way satellite broadband link has dropped below $1000 in some places.” These prices, naturally, are for developing world locations. The American cost of a satellite link has dropped below a hundred dollars. Don’t believe me? Just check out the channel selection at your local sports bar, or, if you have the dish yourself, turn on your TV. What was unthinkable twenty years ago is now commonplace.

Already, the international microentrepreneur workforce numbers around a hundred thousand, operating out of a dozen different online auctions. Before long, Frazier believes, there will be millions. And it won’t end with work done on the microentrepreneurial level.

OpenWorld was founded to assist with the affluence that this new market will bring. That is, to help train people, to help them find jobs, and to help establish other nonprofit learning-centers that will continue the trend. Among OpenWorld’s stockpile of useful tools for third-world entrepreneurs is a tool kit for obtaining land grants. Frazier reminded me that over a hundred of America’s colleges were founded with land grants.

One of the first to use OpenWorld’s strategies – which will soon be released in the ‘OpenWorld Cookbook’ – is the Horizon Lanka Academy, located near a cease fire line from Sri Lanka’s last civil war. Horizon Lanka was founded by a public school teacher who resigned when the government refused to let him teach English or computer skills to his students.

The school started with only twenty students; but, after being featured in an article on the web, donations and assistance came from many sources, one of which was OpenWorld. Now, Horizon Lanka has 200 students. Its website claims to be “The first Website done by Sri Lankan village kids.”

OpenWorld is currently helping Horizon Lanka set up a landgrant, as well as funding scholarships and a telecom link. The non-profit is even helping the Horizon school to create a land endowment that will help fund operations as their property grows in value.

OpenWorld offers an array of similar services, such as e-learning tools for home-use and entreprenuerial literature. OpenWorld has even developed an open source program to be used in creating virtual lectures. The non-profit’s involvement with Horizon Lanka is special because of a single concept – sustainability.

In an impoverished country, Horizon Lanka offers its students something that most of their peers don’t get—English and computer skills, the two keys into the new outsourcing market. By helping Horizon gain access to important information and new technologies, OpenWorld is fostering the next generation of knowledge workers in a country that lacks a middle class.

If the “Gains from Trade” argument is true, then that is good news for all of us. As Wired contributor Dan Pink recently pointed out, America came out on top in each of our past economic restructurings, from farming to factories. Though farmers make up only a tiny percentage of the current US work force, America still has the second largest agricultural output on the globe. And though factories have moved tens of thousands of jobs overseas, the US manufacturing economy is the biggest there is.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” Pink writes, “and it has a happy ending.”

by Sam Wardle – Sam Wardle is a freelance writer who lives in Asheville, NC, USA.