It’s summer, which – oddly enough – means that the Berkman Center is filled to bursting with students. Berkman is hosting the Summer Doctoral Program, an annual gathering for PhD students working on Internet-related topics, organized by the Oxford Internet Institute. The two-week session has been held three times in Oxford and once in Beijing. Rumor has it that my colleage Urs Gasser wanted to hold it at the University of St. Gallen this year, but had to cancel because his city was being re-carpeted.
For anyone interested in what current PhD students are researching in this field, and what work scholars in the field are sharing with them, Ismael Peña-Lopéz is creating an excellent resource on the ICTology blog, posting detailed session notes from each lecture and presentation. His notes on the session that Mike Best and I offered yesterday does a great job of hitting the key points of our respective talks, which orbited the theme of “incremental infrastructure“.
I’m trying to flesh out this idea, which I raised in a blog post a few weeks ago, that major infrastructure projects in developing nations can be built through small (under $10 million) investments from private entrepreneurs, and can come to market faster than well-financed, government-backed projects. It’s great fun to give a talk on a subject you’re just starting to think about. I got a good deal of pushback on the market focus of the idea, and questions about whether there are appropriate roles for the government in building infrastructure. The answer is, obviously, yes, but there are lots of terrible examples in an African context of governments failing to build infrastructure and blocking the private sector from building it in their stead.
Mike Best had an excellent response to that line of inquiry, suggesting that the appropriate role for government in infrastructure, especially technical infrastructure, is to regulate as independently as possible. (This means, to the extent possible, regulators need to be independent of both government influence and relationships with private companies. Joseph Wafula, presenting some of his research from the University of Nairobi later in the day, suggested that independence is incredibly difficult to achieve in developing nations given the limited technical population and the likelihood that knowledgeable regulators are going to be connected to relavent business entities…) Mike also had excellent questions about whether the “increments” I’m talking about aren’t huge ones in African terms. His recent research on connectivity for coffee cooperatives in Rwanda suggests that infrastructure costing more than a few thousand dollars is going to be out of the reach of almost all Rwandans, and pointing towards some much cheaper connectivity options using new 3G phones. Always good to get pushback from one of the smartest guys in your field, a man who believes in testing lofty creative ideas with real projects in the field.
I will admit, I still find something a bit disorienting about trying to advise PhD students. It’s become increasingly clear to me that I won’t be able to convince myself to return to school and complete a degree any more advanced than my BA. I find myself wondering, as I sit down to offer suggestions to soon-to-be-doctorate-holders whether I should preface my comments with, “You probably shouldn’t listen to a word that I’m saying, as I’ve never attempted to get research past an advisory committee, never structured a dissertation, and have almost no academic publications to my name.” I’m perpetually thankful that Berkman creates an academic environment where these issues almost never surface, but there’s nothing like a building filled with smart, young doctoral students to make one wonder about one’s own academic path not taken.