Where Einstein Meets Edison

NextLab: Can a Cellphone Change the World?

NextLab: Can a Cellphone Change the World?

Sep 14, 2010

Jhonatan Rotberg stands in front of an attentive audience in the MIT NextLab classroom. “You have to remember what this is all about,” he exclaims. “It’s about the practical application of what you’re proposing!” This message resonates throughout the classroom, with a sea of nodding heads and t-shirts emblazoned with the bold tagline: “Can you make a cellphone change the world?” A seemingly audacious task given how much cell phones have already affected our daily lives, but Rotberg believes this is only the beginning.

At NextLab, Rotberg, his staff and his students are creating the next generation of mobile platforms for developing countries. To help facilitate this effort, the NextLab team has established a unique alliance between management students at the MIT Sloan School and technical designers from both the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago and ITESM in Cuernavaca, Mexico.  These students are working together to accomplish one key goal: to deliver smartphone software to remote, rural places that have never seen it before.

Now in its third year, NextLab aims to harness the power of innovation and entrepreneurship to provide alternatives to global challenges. For Rotberg, who is a Lecturer in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, global poverty is the world’s biggest challenge, and he believes a mobile logistics platform could help provide a solution. Essentially, he says, the problem NextLab is attempting to address is one of lack of information and excessive cost of distribution for consumers in rural and remote settings.  Consumers in developing countries need basic consumer goods, but the transaction costs involved in their delivery renders them too expensive.

NextLab’s mobile logistics platform thus aims to be used by firms and NGOs to facilitate delivery of goods to these people at the “base of the pyramid” – people that, in Rotberg’s words, “aspire to have greater access to goods and to become regular consumers of the global economy”. Going the “last mile” – getting goods to where poor people live – is NextLab’s focus this semester.

The development of this smartphone platform encompasses six separate applications developed by student teams – ranging from mobile payments to courier matching, online billing to tracking and tracing of deliveries. Linking them all is the “m-logistics platform”, an integrated software ecosystem concurrently developed by NextLab’s technical staff that will allow for these applications to be loaded onto smartphones. Simply put, NextLab aims to use advanced mobile technology to link couriers and goods together, helping them coordinate their efforts within a single mobile ecosystem. Through this ecosystem, these couriers and individuals become micro-entrepreneurs themselves, as they utilize the software to seek their own market opportunities or trading strategies.

To guide the students, Rotberg has assembled an impressive array of corporate mentors and advisers. This semester, the NextLab is collaborating with Estafeta, Mexico’s largest courier company, along with representatives from Motorola, Google and Bank of America who provide technical and hands-on advice. Each project team also has an industry contact, who is responsible for keeping track of the team’s progress and providing feedback on the practical impact of their proposals. In the class, students are assessed not only by NextLab staff, but by the industries and firms in which their efforts will be deployed.

Given the heavy corporate presence, one is tempted to think that the finished product would reflect their specific interests and needs. Yet Rotberg is at pains to point out that the applications developed by the class will be open-source and thus free and available for anyone to use, adopt and modify according to local conditions. For Rotberg, this open-source philosophy is a key tenet of the class, as it benefits all parties involved: the companies gain access to cutting-edge software advancements to increase operational efficiency, the MIT students participating in the class learn about software development and deployment in real-world conditions, and NextLab fulfills its mission to build a next-generation smartphone platform.

What challenges are the students facing in this unique classroom? “They need time; this is not a traditional problem set where you just write the answers in,” says Rotberg. “They need to learn to live with the uncertainty associated with innovation and building a product out of an idea.” Management visions and technical reality often clash, and students on each side of the divide – coming from different universities, backgrounds and cultures – often have to reconcile their differences for the projects to advance. Rotberg, though, sees it as a route of personal growth for the students. “It is about pushing the envelope, and about developing tomorrow’s paradigms; nowhere else can you find a group of students as bright and committed to do that. It’s up to them to rise to this open-ended challenge and lead a diverse set of stakeholders towards a concrete objective.”

What is next for the NextLab? The students have begun, after eight weeks of brainstorming and planning, the complex process of building and marketing the platform; along the way, there will be hard questions to be answered, pitches to be sharpened and glitches to be ironed out.  Already during the elevator pitches and presentations, Rotberg and his staff provide extensive feedback on how the product could be improved and ask the students to try and try again.

However, the true test of the developed software will come only when it is deployed under real-world conditions. Rotberg stresses that this semester is only the beginning of a continual year-long process – during the summer, the project teams are slated to link up with Estafeta executives to deploy the mobile platform and run a live pilot test in Estafeta’s local operations, including a number of delivery routes.  And during the fall semester next year, he expects to continue improving the software based on pilot test results.

Testifying to the influence of NextLab, alumni from previous semesters have returned to their home countries to extend and carry on work they initiated during their studies at MIT.  Estafeta’s CTO Oscar Howell was himself a NextLab alumnus, and this March he officially inaugurated NextLab’s first Mexican Lab at ITESM’s Cuernavaca campus.  In Asia, Elmer Soriano – who took the class in 2008 – set up NextLab Philippines at the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines last year. He is now collaborating with MIT to build applications specifically in the native Tagalog language. Perhaps in the future, one of these applications could be the link that helps a worker to find a job, or a town council to coordinate delivery of aid supplies and public goods.

Ultimately, NextLab represents a next-generation attempt to “learn by doing”. Rather than trying to write the answers down, Rotberg hopes that the students actually create them online, and then use them to solve the question. When asked how NextLab is different from a traditional MIT class, he grins. “Everyone knows the academic motto ‘publish or perish’. Here at NextLab, our motto is ‘launch and live’.” For the developing world, the launch of the applications that NextLab is currently building might indeed offer a chance at a better life.