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Revolutionary communication innovations

This article was initially posted at http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/10/how-connectedness-is-spurring-innovation/

Editor’s Note: Sam Wainwright is a Research Associate at the New America Foundation.  This post is part of the Global Innovation Showcase created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

By Sam Wainwright – Special to CNN

New communications tools and behaviors are spurring innovation worldwide, revolutionizing finance, community, business, giving and government.  Here are some fascinating examples:

Finance: Mobile phone technology is empowering individuals to directly exchange money through their cell phones, bypassing traditional banking institutions. Companies like Square and their headphone-jack card reader let anyone with a smart phone accept credit card payments.

Mobile banking has developed even faster and spread far wider around the world. In Kenya, M-PESA connects over 65% of households to mobile money services. Websites like Kiva.org turn individuals into micro-financiers, allowing them to make $25 loans to anyone in the world.

Community: P2P technology is also facilitating near-free global communication through technology like Voice over IP (VoIP), turning even niche marketplaces into global exchanges.

Start-ups like Speak Shop, a web-based marketplace of Latin America Spanish tutors, allow  anyone, anywhere to brush up on their Español via Skype.

Alternative “mesh” Internet architectures are also emerging as challengers to traditional notions of centralized, institutional control over the web. When the Egyptian government attempted to shut down the country’s Internet last February, Egyptian hackers turned to mesh networking to bypass the blackout.

Business: People aren’t the only ones connecting in new ways. There are new direct company-to-person interactions, whether as simple as announcing deals on Twitter, or as complex as a Spiroxil’s system for detecting counterfeit prescription drugs in the developing world with a cellphone camera.

Companies are connecting with new workforces by crowdsourcing small tasks with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, or by partnering with not-for-profits like Samasource to build sustainable internet-based jobs for people in poverty.

Giving: Charities have also benefited. Direct giving through text messages became a major source of international philanthropy – especially disaster relief – following the Haitian earthquake last year. Meanwhile, sites like GlobalGiving connect individual donors to grassroots charity projects with unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability.

A free service called ChildCount+ uses text messaging to coordinate community-based health providers in Africa. Beside providing for the social good of improving the delivery of health care, ChildCount+ means more patients end up coming back for follow-up appointments.

Government: Lower barriers to communication are also allowing individuals to hold governments accountable in ways never before possible. Ushahidi maps have been revolutionary in increasing government transparency. The free and open-source software allows anyone to report location-tagged information, and has been tweaked to track everything from street violence in Kenya to infrastructure damage from the Haitian earthquake. Residents of D.C. even used it to track snow removal during 2010’s “snowmaggedon.”

Perhaps most strikingly, many of these new interactions begin with the ethos of “free” and seek out new ways to monetize innovation outside of traditional cash-for-goods-rendered transactions. For example, Ushahidi software generates revenue by offering set-up and hosting services.

As Chris Anderson noted in his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, “free” is “a word with an extraordinary ability to reset consumer psychology, create new markets, break old ones and make almost any product more attractive.”

Taken together, all these breakthroughs suggest that the truly innovative work in the global economy is increasingly divorced from traditional models of individual ownership and old boundaries of communication. Indeed, new forms of communication are leading the way.