Jan Chipchase has been dubbed one of the ‘smartest people in tech,’ because he manages to bring together psychologists, ethnographers, designers and usability experts to study and produce ideas for new products and services.

But it is a mistake to think Chipchase sees technology as a panacea. "Pushing technologies on society without thinking through their consequences is at least naïve, at worst dangerous, though typically it, and [in my honest opinion] the people that do it are just boring," he writes on his blog Future Perfect.

Widely considered to be the authority on applying human-centered insights to the development process, Chipchase is the executive creative director of global insights at frog design, after having worked for a decade as a strategist in Nokia’s Los Angeles design studio and principal scientist in the Nokia Research Center, Tokyo.

Based in frog’s Shanghai studio, his recent projects include research studies into the design of mobile money services for emerging markets; travelling to Uganda to look at shared phone use, and to India to examine how design can make mobile devices more accessible to illiterate and barely literate; and a study in South Korea exploring how early adopters were reacting to mobile TV.

In his discussion with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton, Chipchase constantly challenges assumptions: Could one understand the Arab Spring simply through Western media reports alone? How do companies conceive of the poor in developing countries? What biases exist in Western notions of how other cultures react to technology? "We see what we want to see because we are trained by our own understanding of the situation," he says.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What impression has the use of social media during the Arab Spring left on you? Do you think in some ways it’s acted as a bridge of cultural understanding showing that people in the Middle East, for instance, value the same freedoms as people elsewhere in the world?

Jan Chipchase: It’s going to be important to a subset, passionately important and they will go to prison and maybe they’ll die because of it. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the people in the country feel the same way about it. I’m not an apologist for anyone but if you want to talk about censorship the questions I would ask are something like what happened in Egypt, what really happened and I’m sure there are going to be some hero’s that come out of there. The question is, who is writing about those people. Okay so the first question is, of all the people who are online in Egypt, which voices did you hear? Were they the older people? Were they younger people? Do you read what the mainstream media were writing? The question is what voices am I hearing and frankly it’s the English speaking stuff that I’m hearing. So with Egypt, what voices are you hearing, as a percentage of the population? The second question is, even if they were online in Arabic, what voices are not online in Arabic? What voices are not communicating in a way that we can access them and we are biased by, we are naturally biased by the voices you are going to listen to. We make those choices every day, in the media that we consume and so on but when an event happens halfway, around the world, we tap into what’s easiest to tap into and so in understanding that, yes I’m sure social media played a role but it’s far bigger than that. We see what we want to see because we are trained by our own understanding of the situation — we are hyper-connected and we can’t anticipate on the ground that there are people who aren’t connected but that still can be affecting what’s happening on the ground.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Has the Arab Spring demonstrated, then, the role that the Internet and mobile technology now have in bridging people together within their own countries, and also globally?

Chipchase: I’m not saying that English readers and speakers are connecting with a bunch of Arabic speakers who can also write in English is a bad thing. It can provide incredible stimulus and support on many different levels. But it’s not the big picture; it’s a small part of the picture. However, it might be the picture that becomes a story, because of the same people who write the narratives of where that change is coming from. It’s a question of who writes history, and trust me; we are going to have our own history that we will write here, wherever here is. ‘Here’ could be where I am; ‘here’ could be where you are, or in Europe, and then there will be the history that is written by Arabs for Arabs. Some of those people will be hyper-connected and they will be bolstered in money and support by us, because they feel like they are already like us, they are socially connected youths. But again it’s only a small part of the big picture in my mind.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You’ve said China and India shouldn’t be seen as countries, but rather continents. Can multinational corporations succeed in serving such diverse populations, which vary from being extremely rich to the destitute?

Chipchase: There’s so many different Indias. India has such incredible wealth and also incredible poverty as well, so people get caught up in one and that doesn’t allow them to see the other sometimes. Corporations will go where the money is at, that’s their mandate. They will have CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities, but most will go where the money is. Companies will do something that will propagate in a soft way where the money is. As an organism that’s how they live and breathe and you might find a few smaller examples.

Simply, it’s not enough to have the product you need to have the supply chain. The supply chain for the base of the pyramid tends to be more geographically disbursed, because you are likely to have one per hit reach more rural locations, so it’s not exclusivity. You have this high urban density at the base of the pyramid as well, but broadly speaking distribution costs more. Companies like Procter and Gamble, HLA, Texaco, and Coca Cola, they are many things, but one of the things that they are incredible at is being able to get their product into all these diverse places.

I think there has been in the past an assumption that if people are at the base of the pyramid, they are stupid and they can push the product and they are not going to know better. Broadly speaking, the way I approach it at frog design is that consumers at the base of the pyramid are actually going to be more discerning and be more critical, because the things that they do spend their money on, it’s a larger percentage of what they have. They have less of a safety net. On the surface it might look exactly the same and it might behave exactly the same and sometimes it is the same, like anywhere else, but broadly speaking you can argue there is more at stake.

As a designer, I know for a design company that’s a fascinating challenge — how do you meet that requirement? So all the things that people might say about Procter & Gamble, Coke or Nokia, or whatever, I think it’s a real testament to their understanding of that consumer base and it’s a real testament to meeting a genuine need. By the way, we can talk about the kind of variations of that because there’s a huge amount of debate there. But in such a way, and to make money from it, that’s incredible.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do you foresee a device like the iPad extending to as many diverse populations as the mobile phone?

Chipchase: The biggest drawbacks against smartphones, particularly at the base of the pyramid, is that they use a large amount of power relative to their cheaper counterparts and they tend to cost more. Now the price of them will come down, but the fact is a color screen and a larger battery costs more. The ability to make the most of a smartphone means you have a data plan and that costs more. Most of the costs of a mobile phone are not the actual phone. Over the lifetime of the phone probably 80% of the cost comes from actually data that you pay for, or voice calls. Some smart phones have larger screens and they inherently get broken and that costs money. The smart phone inherently is the device that will break quicker than a cheaper, smaller designed phone like a Nokia 1110 that are virtually indestructible.

So what does that mean for your question? I think there is a place for smart phones in some of the world’s poorest communities and it’s not me just saying that, I’ve seen that with my eyes. Partly it’s because it’s the status of the object and what it enables, and partly it’s because of the features. But frankly, most people in those markets don’t use all the features because they don’t have access to the data because of cost.

Similarly with tablets, they have a larger screen. While the iPad is actually pretty good, the price is still pretty significant and [given] the larger screen… they are carried around, they’re used and they will break. So the challenges in investing in one could be a problem. If your entire family invests in one for your child’s education, there is a cost there and there is a higher risk there. Imagine at the base of the pyramid, a family investing in a tablet and imagine if they spend three months’ wages on a tablet.

What if there was a relatively high risk of you crashing your car in the first half year, regardless of how careful you were? Because it’s a mobile device, that’s what happens to a mobile device: They get stolen, they get tipped off tables and some of them are inherently for dainty hands. Some people will invest in it, but it comes with a particular set of risks that is greater in an emerging market.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do people across cultures engage with modern technologies the same way?

Chipchase: I think what’s interesting there is how can technology — it really turns on the technology — but how come we have technology that is the world’s most, ubiquitous, modern technology out there? What is it about a mobile phone that makes it something people want to carry around, compared to a typewriter or a refrigerator or a TV? The context into which people use technologies varies, I am seeing a massive variation, and what we are looking for are the similarities and the differences within that.

Never be afraid to approach the really obvious because you’ll learn something. The difference between a fixed line phone and a landline phone is largely that the experience is far more personal. You can move into another room, you can send and receive communication when and where you like, you can make everyone around you aware of it if you talk loudly on the subway or on a bus. Equally, you can talk in whispers so it gives you an immense amount of control. So to answer your question, you could ask the same question of the landline. Why don’t we have a landline in every single room of the home? Why don’t we have a refrigerator in every single room of the home? Or, why don’t you take a refrigerator with you when you go out? If you start asking those really basic questions, you come back with our answers pretty quickly. It also helps you drill down to the core of the things that are so ubiquitous and extend across cultures.

So a big part of the research [we do] is to move beyond what we see on the surface and to analyze a deeper understanding of why. Through data it can give us an understanding of what, but by being in those contexts you get a much deeper understanding of why and how. There was a generation to whom the wristwatch was the thing they used for the basic function of telling time. It’s also been used to project status or affiliation, lifestyle, if people were elegant, whether they had a lot of income, because you wore it on the wrist and you see a wrist. I see a place that gives people control over whether they show their character.

So it’s similar to making a loud phone call or doing it quietly in the back. The wristwatch was really powerful for that. Now the mobile phone has stolen a lot of that. The mobile phone also has this amazing basic function, communication across time and space. Communication across time is basically a synchronistic communication, it is the ability to send a message when you like. I can pick it up when I like. The mobile phone is status and affiliation [now too]. Some of what you do with a mobile phone is you download applications on it. Some of those applications, when you look at how people use them, the functionality of the application is not about using the application, it’s about showing people you use it or that you have it, regardless of whether you use it. It’s about status. So some of the core kind of reasons for buying a wrist watch and using a wrist watch have transferred to the mobile phone, and in turn that will transfer to something else. That’s just the way it is.

There is a time before the wristwatch and there is a time after. I’m not saying the wristwatch is going away but the purpose of telling the time is irrelevant these days because the knowledge of time is a commodity. There was a time before mobile phones and there will be a time afterwards. You could argue that we are already there and it’s morphed into the smartphone and the smartphone will morph into something else. The interesting question is, what does it morph into?