The sewing machine can do more than just stitch. In the 19th century, it ripped apart cultural traditions in far-flung locations like the New World.
Call it the law of unintended consequences. But when Europeans settled in the New World, they brought tools and technologies that were gradually adopted by the Native people – for better or worse. The musket, copper kettles, hatchets and axes, hand mirrors, and glass beads are examples of European inventions used by Native tribes for their own purposes.
But when the sewing machine was introduced to the Tribes in the 19th century, it was arguably one of the most significant because it altered how tribes designed and made their own clothing. The fashion of a tribe conveys deeply significant meaning, not only the core identity of the tribe but the place that a person (wearing the garment) holds within the tribe itself.
The sewing machine upended certain long-held traditions in fashion. But it also preserved its traditions. Its introduction into Native communities led to a fusion of traditional and certain European styles. Silk ribbons, for example, brought by French traders, were used in Native ribbon work.
And it catalyzed rapid innovation in Native American fashion, blending Western styles with Indigenous details like embroidery and beading. This fusion, facilitated by the ease of machine sewing, allows artists today to infuse cultural art and tribal heritage into modern garments. Cultural identities were maintained in spite of a new invention like the sewing machine.
Adaptation Keeps Going
Something not unlike the way Indigenous people adapted European technologies has already happened widely in emerging markets around the world. And that adaptation to local needs, local cultures, and local nuances continues – with the smartphone at the vanguard of innovation and transformation.
A 2022 article in Forbes describes the emerging markets as “now the brightest spot on the horizon of the global app economy” – fueled by massive smartphone growth and innovation. A 60 percent rise in the total value of mobile money is forecasted by 2026, reaching $870 billion in transactions.
There is no surprise here because emerging markets have been leapfrogging the desktop revolution into mobile-first digital usage for the last decade. As mobile phones with affordable data plans become more widespread, it’s no wonder these regions are benefiting from app innovation which drives mobile-centric digital acceleration.
But, emerging markets are notoriously challenging and require clearly defined localization from global enterprises trying to expand their reach. One size does not fit all.
Mobile First Cloud Isn’t New
In 2014, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, held a press briefing titled “Mobile First, Cloud First,” which outlined Microsoft’s vision for a cloud-centric future and the importance of mobile devices as primary access points.
In so doing, Microsoft, along with other dominant cloud and mobile companies, recognized the obvious: In emerging markets, most of online life resides on a smartphone.
People work, shop, bank, and connect through cloud-based apps and services, accessed wherever they go. The past 10 years have only proven that the cloud and the smartphone are mutually reinforcing entities driving powerful economic outcomes.
A 202 report from Data AI recorded that China and India held the top positions for app downloads, at 98 billion and 26 billion respectively; followed by Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Mexico, and Turkey. Collectively, the smartphone has transformed emerging economies with self-reinforcing market dynamics: affordable hardware, cheap data plans, fintech, e-commerce, and a rich ecosystem of locally tailored apps. Its ubiquitous presence will continue to spur growth for the foreseeable future.
Challenges in Emerging Markets
The emerging markets’ landscape could be much easier if the language landscape were simpler.
However, the many languages and dialects spoken within close proximity in regions like APAC, India, and Southeast Asia pose a challenge to scalability. It’s further complicated by AI’s heavy reliance on structured and reliable data sets, which emerging markets often lack.
Market entrants must also optimize for lower-end devices and slower internet connections, due to an even infrastructure that could drastically affect usability. Localization, while focusing on less expensive handsets, and offline capabilities, is crucial for widespread usage.
Consider Southeast Asia: Untapped Market Potential
Southeast Asia (SEA) is a region with 680 million people. It has a high digital penetration with over 440 million internet users. More than half the region’s population is less than 30 years old, and they have increased purchasing power and a high level of openness to new technologies with high expectations for exceptional customer service with omnichannel services.
To attract and keep young consumers, companies are already deploying conversational AI to enhance omnichannel experiences.
According to an article in ETCIO Southeast Asia magazine, an all-online bank in India has integrated AI to serve customers in nine languages, across WhatsApp, email, SMS, and its websites.
In Singapore, a hospital integrated AI into voice-enabled bots to handle increased call volumes to book appointments and handle billing and insurance coverage while its government is investing $7 million into LLM capabilities.
Throughout the region, there are AI-based deployments to combine speech-based technology, NLP, ML, and more into a single omnichannel platform. Banks, hospitals, and telecom companies are the vanguard of this digital transformation.
As these technologies advance, they hold the bright potential to advance economic progress and enhance the quality of life across medicine, education, and government services.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) (with a convergence of mobile-first cloud services) is also poised to fundamentally alter how users interact and use their mobile phones. But, the implications of AI and mobile use on economic growth and the potential impact it will have on those societies remains to be discovered.
Progress doesn’t happen overnight. But by the looks of Mobile First and AI, economic progress in emerging markets will be moving in leaps and bounds and moving very quickly.
Like the Indigenous people of the New World who adapted new tools, AI and smartphones have been adapting to the needs, identities, and nuances of cultures in emerging markets. It promises to spur economic development and deliver rich, meaningful experiences to 660 million people in a diverse and complex cultural context. In fact, it’s already happening.