I recently spent a month in Myanmar, a country that is struggling towards democracy and openness. I saw an enthusiastic people, thrilled to see westerners take an interest in their country (I witnessed a solid bout of Obama-mania!) and to enter the world stage. The Myanmar people I spoke with were excited for the future, but worried, too…with many roads open to them now, would the country take the right ones?
There are three main avenues that I think Myanmar should invest in, all of which are deeply broken or nonexistent: digital infrastructure, design infrastructure, and collaborative wealth building. Digital infrastructure will support connections among the people at large. Design infrastructure should help cultivate the Myanmar creative class, and collaborative wealth building will ensure that there are strong connections between the creative class and the larger populace.
One Yangon native, Ozz, who recently moved back to Myanmar restart his family’s construction business, said that just a few years ago, government censorship of the Internet was so harsh, that it would take up to three days for his emails to be received…worse than a letter! He simply stopped using the internet to communicate. The internet had lost his trust. My own experience was of agonizingly slow connections and sparse wifi. To help their growing economy, Myanmar should emulate cities like Bangkok and New York, and provide free wifi. The populace already has a surprising number of phones and tablets that are Internet ready. The urge to connect will move to overpower the mistrust that many have for the government…once it is in place, people will use the network without hesitation. Insuring both ubiquity and speed will have a powerful force on Myanmar commerce and lifestyle in the most cost-effective way I can imagine – more than building roads or subways. It would have a second benefit – burnishing the Myanmar brand. It would mean that the government isn’t afraid of freedom, and would distance their image from their totalitarian past. A challenge to this effort is the irregularity of the power supply in much of Myanmar. Waiting for a perfect power supply would be a mistake; people want to be connected now.
In Bangkok, the prime minister has funded the Thailand Creative and Design Center (TCDC) where people can learn about materials, culture, the history of design, and consult with designers on product concepts. The space is dramatic and full of digital access and provides a space for creatives of all types to interact and exchange ideas. I met a photographer from Italy and a Thai designer who studied at my grad school in Brooklyn within 30 minutes of arriving. Creating digital avenues is essential, but creating physical spaces where the populace can learn about design and technology, and where the creative class can share their knowledge with each other and the larger community is essential. Over 1.5 million people visited the TCDC in 2011, an impressive impact. An MCDC in Myanmar’s capital would be an amazing step towards creating growth.
As the country develops and money continues streaming in from tourists dollars and outside investment, how can they make sure that the whole country benefits? In speaking with Zaw, a Myanmar native…who spends half of his time in Astoria, queens, and who just opened a restaurant in Bagan, sharing the wealth is not a Burmese cultural value right now. He decided that the service fee his restaurant charges will be shared by his employees, as a reward for their participation in the success of the restaurant…a very straightforward western concept. His business partners see the service charge monies pile up, and ask: why can’t they just pay the employees a flat rate, and pocket the profits? On the flip side, some natives tend to work as hard as is necessary, and no more – as there has never been much reward in that. How can we get a people to connect to capitalism and collaboration at the same time? A Myanmar-catered crowd funding system, combining kickstarter with a kiva-like system, with investment return. Allowing people to take small investments and see growth in return would be an extraordinary step to creating a capitalistic sprit, while fostering a collaborative value system and a goal of shared wealth.
Myanmar is growing fast…they are planning to build 10 cement plants in the next 2 years, to support the immense pent-up demand for growth in the country. With some of these efforts, my hope is that Myanmar can grow, not just in wealth, but shared prosperity.