We have heard a lot about urbanization, but not enough about the number of cities on the planet. Already more than a thousand cities have a half million or more in population. In them are lurking a major social upheaval not being discussed anywhere in global debates. Cities are increasingly peopled by the young. By 2030, 60 percent of the urban population in the developing world will be under the age of 18.
Added to this demographic youth bulge is the mobile miracle. Already the planet has reached 75 percent penetration of mobile phones. And although prices are coming down and phone smartness goes up, the future is not just about phone or broadband internet access, and not just about penetration of mobile: it is now about how mobile phones are being used, particularly in the urban domain.
“Youthful citizens with mobile phones are governance game changers.”
This post-millennial sea change contains the effects of two titanic forces. Even without it the mobile miracle, governments everywhere should be compelled to address the youthful elephant in the room. Governance needs to be infused with a much stronger sense of the young: to account for their needs, be responsive to their concerns, and to harness their energies. But because ICT is an increasingly powerful tool that helps to leverage their presence, governments everywhere need to open their eyes to a new reality of youth armed with mobile platforms.
Narrowband Social Networking for Mobile Participation
The limitations of broadband have led to the development of innovative “narrowband” mobile communications applications tailored for users in developing countries. Low-end phone capabilities such as text messaging and simple internet access is facilitating scaled-down versions of social networking, pay-as-you go mobile data access and web searching. In essence, mobile phones are now providing new avenues for increasing numbers of citizens in the developing world to access the benefits of broadband internet. In many ways, the development of narrowband functionalities and mobile platforms can be seen as a commercial response to the growing youth mobile market. Some of the most popular narrowband applications are:
- Facebook zero – A stripped down version of Facebook designed for mobile platforms
- Opera Mini – A web browser designed for mobile phones
- Mxit – Africa’s largest mobile text messaging service
- RenRen – The open platform version of China’s leading social network
- Google SMS – Allows gmail users to send and receive emails in the form of SMS
As these ‘stripped down technologies’ have shown, text messaging (SMS) is one of the most popular types of mobile phone usage in developing countries. Nearly five trillion text messages were sent worldwide in 2010, with mobile owners reporting a much higher percentage of usage for text messaging then other mobile functions. Ten percent of those were transmitted by young people in India. SMS can be an affordable alternative to more costly voice services and can serve users who do not have mobile internet access. One implication is that new ICT services for youth, at least in the short run, should be largely based on SMS usage in one of its many forms. Here are a few examples of the creative applications young people are finding to improve governance.
- Platforms such as Huduma in Kenya offer mobile-based communication avenues for citizens to voice, SMS or email service needs or comments directly to authorities and service providers. Similar platforms and services exist in Peru and Mexico.
- Increased responsiveness on the part of early adopters in government (local and national) gives to young people new access to leaders and leadership positions. In many cases, electronic communications shortcut conventional modalities of citizen-municipal communication, obviating the slow and cumbersome personal appointments and official meetings in municipal offices. The increased volume of traffic puts pressure on governments that is increasingly difficult to ignore.
- Geo-referencing capabilities are increasingly available in mobile platforms, and these lead to added dimensions in young peoples’ relationship with their communities and local governments, as evidenced in programs such as community mapping and seeclickfix. Such programs draw the attention of authorities and wider constituencies to problems or circumstances that are overlooked or ignored by officials of local government in urban communities.
- Radio still remains the most effective tool for reaching citizens en masse, particularly when it comes to disadvantaged and poorer communities. In Nepal, the Voices of Youth project enables teens to use text messages (SMS via toll free mobile phone number) for self-expression and peer-to-peer support broadcast on radio programs that are heard by 6.3 million youth.
- In the Kyrgyz Republic, the Poltimer website is being used to track the promises made by politicians during elections once they are in office. The Ersod Project in Yemen trained over 1,000 youth to monitor the February 2012 elections and provided a means for reporting election violations, irregularities or suspicious activity using SMS text messaging.
In effect, youthful citizens with mobile phones are governance game changers, authors of a generational-technological revolution. The dramatic events of the Arab spring are a sharp illustration of this new reality, but they may only be the bellwethers of much more quiet and far-reaching change playing out on a global stage.
Gauging the stakes for governance, not to mention opportunities to refreshing democratic participation, is not easy, but they are almost certainly large. For these reasons, national and international policy makers will want to begin to plumb the present and prospective impact of these changes. How impactful is the change likely to be in the short run on governments at all levels? And what about the longer term consequences, as young people and their devices move through the life cycle, marrying, forming families, and looking for the basic expectations of life in shelter, security, employment and well-being?