Three Sectors to Watch

January 17, 2005
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Every developed society or industrial giant must confront a problem many of the world’s poor or remote regions don’t need to worry about.

That problem is the obsolescence of industries, infrastructure and business models.

Where is Toronto going to find the billions of dollars necessary to update its sewer, water and transit systems? How is North America going to move toward a hydrogen economy after becoming so dependent on fuelling infrastructure for gasoline? Deteriorating legacy infrastructure keeps so-called developed nations and corporate giants doing constant band-aid maintenance. It takes resources away from the overhauls required to stay competitive.

“They see the new technology coming and whap! They get blindsided by this thing right in front of them,” Craig Mundie, chief technical officer of Microsoft Corp., once told me. “How does it always happen? Because they’re too focused on incrementally improving what they already do.”

Politicians and business leaders, obsessed with short-term paybacks, haven’t the stomach to initiate massive change that will benefit future generations.

This gives developing countries or underdeveloped regions, including Canada’s far north, an opportunity. New technologies — many developed in richer nations, including Canada — combined with the lack of legacy infrastructure are making it possible for parts of the world to jump past developed markets now hamstrung by their own maturity. Among sectors where such leapfrogging is beginning to occur:

Water treatment. Two weeks after the tsunami devastated South Asia, Oakville-based Zenon Environmental Inc. teamed up with World Vision to donate 54 of its Homespring water filtration units to areas of India and Sri Lanka where there was a shortage of drinking water.

Zenon has sold many of its systems in the region, so the donation was a good fit. “The product we sent doesn’t require a lot of infrastructure,” said Zenon spokesperson Nazeli Seferian. “You don’t need to be hooked up to a municipal system. It can be hooked up to a well and still produce safe, clean water.”

The systems are based on membrane technology. Long, thick and hollow strands of plastic fibre move around in untreated water and suck up liquid through billions of microscopic pores. Bacteria, viruses and other bad stuff can’t pass through the pores. The water that does get by is safe to drink.

Homeowners can purchase the technology through Maytag, which struck a partnership with Zenon. The units retail for about $4,000 and are attached to the main water pipe coming into a building, house or cottage.

Seferian said small villages in India and Sri Lanka can connect these units to wells shared by many people. Zenon plans to pursue more contracts in these regions as economies develop.

“We’re looking to work with other agencies in terms of helping countries get the funding,” she said.

Zenon’s Homespring units are complemented by larger industrial and municipal membrane-based systems. Among its contracts, the company is helping China’s capital, Beijing, and the City of Datong, treat wastewater for industrial reuse.

Transportation and Energy. A developed transportation infrastructure requires a network of roads, lights and fuel stations that, in some areas of the world, simply don’t exist. Not only are they expensive to build, once they’re set up it’s very difficult to change them.

That’s why parts of China and other areas of Asia are considered ideal places to introduce hybrid and fuel cell cars, starting with city buses and fleets. It would allow these regions to leapfrog North America’s gasoline-dependent transportation infrastructure and bypass the oil giants that feed it. “One thing China has going for it is its relatively young automotive industry,” David Chen, vice-president for General Motors China, told Associated Press in November. “China’s automotive industry does not need to fully take the fossil fuel path. It is in an ideal position to develop alternative energy.”

But it’s not just about fuelling infrastructure or technology under the hood. Lighting, for example, is important transportation infrastructure. But laying wiring needed to power traffic signals and road lights – even lights for bus shelters – can be costly, particularly for countries the size of China or India.

Carmanah Technologies of Victoria, B.C., mentioned in a Clean Break column last November, gets around this by combining solar, battery and LED technology. The result is a variety of lighting products that are self-contained, last for five years or more without maintenance, and are continually powered by sunlight, making them energy self-sufficient.

The great thing about such technology is it can be installed where and when needed, growing as demand requires. This same principle applies to fuel cells, solar photovoltaic systems and windmills, which can be set up in remote areas to supply electricity. For example, a community windmill or residential solar system can supply power directly – when the wind is blowing or sun is shining – or energy can be stored as hydrogen for use in a fuel cell system.

Distributed generation of renewable electricity is a growing trend as developing countries look for pollution-free methods of powering their growth.

Computing, communications. Wireless technologies have helped many countries and rural regions get the same telecom and Internet access as the most modern cities.

In Asia, more people surf the Web via mobile phones than North Americans log on by computer. Places in Africa without phone service are dropping radio towers into communities and tapping into nearby wireless systems or satellites that provide voice and Internet services.

Canada’s cottagers have reason to rejoice. In a few weeks, Telesat Canada’s Anik F2 satellite will begin providing broadband access to all of North America and some parts of South America.

In the area of computing, having relatively immature infrastructure can minimize the global reach of Microsoft Corp.’s monopoly grip. Linux and open-source software are helping regions of Africa leapfrog into the information age.

Last June, Linux Solutions, the International Institute of Communication and Development and Uganda Martyrs University created the East African Centre for Open Source Software.

The centre’s goal is to train people in Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda on open source software, which because of its low cost is ideally suited for cash-strapped regions of Africa.

In Spain’s Extremadura region, home to some of the country’s poorest citizens, they have somehow managed to put more than 80,000 computers in schools, loaded with a version of Linux. Officials there said they couldn’t have done it if Microsoft was the only choice.

Meanwhile, Russia, China and India are embracing Linux, partly because of its affordability, but also because it allows them to control how it is developed, thus creating local industries that can boost local economies.