What buying a PC means

“In my social circle, I would take pride in owning a computer. People would look at me with respect.” Sushma is an Indian woman who is part of the “emerging middle class” in Bangalore. As we sat in her family’s modest living room, she told me what would motivate her to buy a PC. She’s one of the many people I interviewed in India who told me that the PC could have a transformational effect on her life. Not only could it help her get a job someday, help her learn more skills, help her children, and enable her to aspire to a higher socioeconomic class status, but owning one could also earn her a new respect among her peers. So why isn’t a young woman like Sushma, who is part of the ‘next billion’ customers, a proud owner of a new PC?

Strategies for introducing technologies in new markets historically and currently focus on “affordability” and “desirability.” Both are clearly important. But in addition to making technologies affordable and empowering to potential first-time buyers, our research revealed that making technologies socially viable–meaningfully connected to people’s lives and aspirations– is another crucial, yet often overlooked aspect of about what motivates people to adopt new technologies.

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My colleagues Kathi Kitner, Scott Mainwaring, Dawn Nafus and I from Intel Labs’ People and Practices Research, spent the last two years systematically looking at and making sense of the social forces underlying technology adoption, how to link them to Intel’s core business objectives, and to make technologies relevant and meaningful to our end users.

To get the information we needed, we took grueling bus rides across the Russian-China border. We spent hours in houses eating meals with people around the world. We shopped at Walmart in Mexico and shadowed consumers in tiny grey-market PC and mobile phone shops in India We also met with government ministers in air conditioned offices in Kenya.

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Bringing backgrounds in anthropology, psychology, public policy and international development, we spent hours conducting in-depth ethnographic interviews with existing and potential consumers across a range of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. We listened to their narratives and desires. We saw how technologies fit (or did not fit) into the social contexts of their lives. We examined more than 30 cases of technology programs, services, and products around the world–and studied consumers, government policies and business strategies associated with them.

Through these experiences, we learned why technologies may seem appealing, yet out of reach for some people, and what ultimately drives someone to become a first time PC buyer.

We found something very interesting: that when you buy or use technologies, you are actually buying a new place in society: You’re fulfilling an aspiration for your children’s education and future; distinguishing yourself from those labeled as poor; or even buying yourself a sense of belonging as a global citizen.

Our research found that these powerful social forces are important drivers of technology adoption. They can make or break the success of technology programs, products or services. This means it’s imperative to find ways to engage with people’s aspirations towards personal growth and respect among their peers, as well as with goals of national progress when designing brand strategies, partnerships and business models. For example, this might mean rebranding a device targeted at “access for all” –so it does not make a person from the emerging middle class or lower income feel differentiated or labeled as “poor.”Or it may require repositioning an affordable device as “quality” so that first time buyers feel that what they are purchasing is a “‘respectable product” since it represents their first major entry into the technology world.

Many well-meaning technology programs fail because they don’t take these social forces into account. Time and again, we’ve seen projects fail because no attention was paid to how the program fits within the socio-cultural contexts of people’s lives. We’ve seen this with shared-access computing centers in India and Chile, infrastructure projects in Brazil, and countless government programs providing on-line access to services around the world.

There is a clear need for better tools to manage these risks. Based on our research, we developed something called the Social Viability Measure (SVM). It’s a tool to help Intel, governments, and international organizations who are introducing new technologies to people. The SVM is a three-step process to help decisionmakers develop a strategy for making technologies relevant and socially acceptable in people’s lives, while simultaneously maximizing business and social impact. We are piloting the SVM now with technology programs both internally and in the field.

We have culled all these findings into a major new report, “Reassessing ICTs and Development: The Social Forces of Consumption,” which was issued this month.

With these tools, when governments, businesses and multilateral organizations enter new market segments and service arenas or promote technology adoption, they will be better poised to hit the right social/economic forces to making those technologies relevant to their users. As a company that is committed to connecting and creating access for the “next billion” people to technologies, social viability is an important component to strategizing about how to accelerate technology adoption globally.

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To download the full report or to nominate a technology program to be considered as a potential pilot for the Social Viability Measure, visit the Social Viability Measure website.

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