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The Problem We Solve is the Question We Ask

Just before 2017 came to an end, a Google Internet connectivity balloon crashed in Kenyaand landed on a farm. As the article states, it caused a little panic. Fortunately, there was no damage to life or property. Most of us are familiar with what Google has been doing with balloons, but this prompted digging a little deeper.

As you may know, Google has been on a mission to provide Internet connectivity to rural and remote areas of our world, through an impressive initiative called Project Loon. It’s not an easy problem to solve, which makes it perfect as one of Google’s moonshots.

But Google is not alone. Facebook has a similar and equally impressive initiative in Project Aquila, a fleet of solar-powered drones that will beam Internet access to remote areas.

Clearly, both Google and Facebook believe this is a problem worth solving. It is important to both companies to expand their reach to non-customers farthest from their current target markets. Clearly, both companies have the technology chops to have a go at complex problems. Besides both companies are chock full of innovative people and have the tenacity to keep plugging away at hard problems. Tenacity, according to Tim Brown, the CEO of Ideo, is more about the power of asking the right questions and having the confidence to act on them.

Are Google & Facebook asking the Right Question?

“The most common source of management
mistakes is not the failure to find the right
answers. It is the failure to ask the right
questions… Nothing is more dangerous in
business than the right answer to the wrong
question.” - Peter Drucker

Google and Facebook seem to have framed the problem in the form of the question — How do we provide Internet connectivity to the remotest corners of the world?

So, are Google and Facebook asking the right question? Is there a better question to ask? And if there is, could it lead us to a better understanding of the problem and, thereby, a better solution?

Could mere mortals like us, without the dazzling array of resources and technology at our disposal, even dare ask such a question? And if we could even muster the courage to do so, could we approach this problem with any confidence to solve it?

That’s too many questions! So, let’s pause.

First, let’s ask — What do we know about the “remote areas of the world”?

Remote Areas of the World

That’s not very helpful. So let’s reframe:

What do we know about people in rural and remote areas of the world, their life, their environment, their challenges, and their aspirations? 

The very people to whom we want to give this gift of the Internet.

For all of us who have embraced the Design Thinking approach to solving problems, we know that we need to be human-centered and developing deep empathy for people. So, this seems like a good first question to ask.

Turns out:

About 1.5 billion people in the world are illiterate, many living in rural and remote areas. Many of them can only talk in their local language. Many don’t have access to computers or mobile phones.

A woman is still 21% less likely to own a
mobile phone than a man. This figure
increases to 23% if she lives in Africa, 24% if
she lives in the Middle East, and 37% if she
lives in South Asia” - GSMA: Women &
Mobile: A Global Opportunity

Electricity is not 24×7. Daily wage is about $1.

We feel naked and panic when we leave home without our phones, but this is the reality of people in the remote areas of the world. Any solution needs to acknowledge and accommodate these constraints and the realities.

Nothing to take away from Google and Facebook, but there has to be a lot more on the ground than any number of balloons or drones in the stratosphere.

Empathy for the Job to be Done

Google and Facebook will no doubt demonstrate successful milestones on their journey. In 2013, a farmer in New Zealand was the first user to connect to the Internet. At some point in the future, there will be a “Loon for All”, as Google promises. But what about those that are even further disadvantaged than this farmer in New Zealand? How long do they have to wait to access the information and services they need? The goal of Project Loon or Project Aquila is not just Internet connectivity. That is just a means to an end. The end is a transformed state wherein people in rural and remote areas are no longer left behind. They are connected to each other and the rest of the world. They are connected to information and services. The Job to be Done for people in rural and remote areas is to achieve progress and improve their life. In some sense, this is a generic and universal job to be done. But when we identify specific personae and scenarios, it gives us a better perspective of the problem. A farmer needs to know the market rate of his crop. He also needs to know the weather pattern and how to maximize yield from land.

Children may not have books in their school, or even classrooms or benches, but need to acquire knowledge and learn about the world they live in.

A family with a sick child needs medical services in a timely manner.

Question Box

Enter Question Box. The question they seemed to have asked is:

How can we enable easy access to information to people in areas with high illiteracy, social and technical barriers?

These people are not necessarily all in rural or remote areas. As Question Box puts it, they are people who are marginalized, who are the most in need of information and services. They are also hardest to reach, and least likely to access the knowledge and resources in a timely manner.

Take a look at this video

Very impressive!

A More Beautiful Question

I recently read this book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger.

Berger provides insights into the importance of curiosity and the power of inquiry. A question is a simple tool to spark innovation.

Berger provides fascinating examples of interesting questions asked by different people and the impact they created. We can recognize many of these innovations.

To be fair, Google and Facebook have asked an interesting question too — How can we deploy network infrastructure in remote parts of the world where putting cell towers may be problematic?

However, the question asked by Question Box comes across as a more beautiful question to me. Now, granted that this solution is not even remotely as high-tech as balloons and drones that could have an enormous impact at some point in the future. However, Question Box is a very innovative solution that is creating value today.

Do people in rural, remote areas of the world
need the Internet or do they need access to

We define the problem and the solution based on the question we ask.

What do you think?

Image credits: NewsFirst, NewsLocker, WorldBank, FinancialExpress IndianExpress


Rahul Abhyankar

Cofounder, Head of Programs & Faculty Institute of Product Leadership