December 8, 2008

Unlimited Potential: Making Technology Affordable, Relevant and Accessible

On October 18, 2008, I attended the 10th Annual African Day Business Forum and Celebration Dinner & Auction sponsored by the Seattle-based African Chamber of Commerce of the Pacific Northwest (ACCPNW). There were several good speakers, but I found James Utzschneider's presentation particularly interesting and relevant regarding the problems presented by the digital divide (i.e., the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those without) to hundreds of millions of people in the developing world and how Microsoft is providing the tools necessary to overcome these problems through fostering innovation and education. (Picture is taken during one of my trips to St. Theresa Girls Secondary School Bwanda, a private school located in Masaka, Uganda for girls 14-20 years of age. My friend, Sister Noelina Namusoke, a graduate of Seattle University who was born and raised in Uganda, is the school's headmistress.)

Mr. Utzschneider is the general manager of marketing and communications for the Unlimited Potential Group at Microsoft Corp. According to the company's website, "Microsoft, through its Unlimited Potential vision, is committed to making technology more affordable, relevant and accessible for the 5 billion people around the world who do not yet enjoy its benefits. The company aims to do so by helping to transform education and foster a culture of innovation, and through these means enable better jobs and opportunities. By working with governments, intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations and industry partners, Microsoft hopes to reach its first major milestone — to reach the next 1 billion people who are not yet realizing the benefits of technology — by 2015."

Speaking about the digital divide and how the Unlimited Potential vision is providing the tools necessary for people to cultivate innovative skills and enhance educational strategies aimed to eradicate poverty, Mr. Utzschneider said that it is necessary to combine to efforts of governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the private sector to promote the benefits of technology to the world's underserved population. Unlimited Potential is an ideal vehicle to overcoming these challenges through three core areas: Transforming Education, Fostering Local Innovation, and Enabling Jobs and Opportunities.

Mr. Utzschneider explained that an example of these core areas is through Microsoft's Partners in Learning initiative, which is "designed to increase technology access for schools, foster innovative approaches to teaching, and provide education leaders with tools to better engage students and improve learning outcomes." He further said that the Local Language Program was allowing people worldwide to benefit from technology while preserving local languages and cultural identities by making software available in as many languages as possible.

Speaking at the second annual Information and Communication Technologies Best Practices Forum in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso last April, Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer said, "Technology alone will not turn these goals into achievements...Technology is just a tool to empower people to make progress. It is an enabler." (see "Ballmer: African Business Needs to Be More Transparent"). With the right implementation strategy, Microsoft's Unlimited Potential vision can empower the world's most underserved population with the tools to break the generational cycles of poverty.

For your reference, I am providing two additional resources about Microsoft's Unlimited Potential vision:
  1. Unlimited Potential World Updates
  2. Inside UP - James Utzschneider's blog to help tell the story of how his group works with partners and governments around the world to develop and deploy technology that helps improve people's lives in a sustainable way.

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