A startup conference held in Istanbul today had me thinking about a statistic that I saw many years ago. It measured global mobile phone usage per capita in the late ‘90s. Mobile phones were fairly new in the late ‘90s and some countries were far better at adopting this new technology than others. The surprise in the statistic was that the Philippines had the greatest penetration rate when it came to cellular technology. The explanation of the statistic, however, was pretty straightforward. Normal copper telephone lines were relatively rare across the Philippines making widespread landline availability nearly nonexistent. So, with the advent of mobile phone technology, the Philippines leapfrogged over copper lines and went straight to GSM.
Similarly, a former English-speaking Chinese tour guide explained to me how her Chinese tour groups thought Europe was "backwards" in that their hotels were dilapidated and "old." Obviously many Chinese city centers were built from scratch in the last decade and therefore their buildings and cities used the latest technology in their infrastructure. In this way, emerging markets will be much better positioned to embrace newer technologies as they do not share in the sunk costs associated with older technologies. The Middle East and Eurasian corridor can benefit from startups that allow people to adopt and embrace the newest technologies but also by those that adopt and embrace the newest financial markets.
With the growth of what's being called the "programmable economy," one in which automated systems generate revenue with minimal human interaction, the old model of revenue generation may soon be a thing of the past. Following the startup conference, I had a chance to speak with Esad Taha Çakıcı, the newly appointed business development manager of the Istanbul Stock Exchange (Borsa Istanbul). Çakıcı described how the "programmable economy" is best known through examples of so-called "machine" or "high-speed" trading in which computers execute commands to buy and sell equities and other financial instruments independent of the programmers that gave them their mandate. Çakıcı commented: "Borsa Istanbul has taken very important steps toward improving its capabilities for the future of value exchange and economy. While this initiative is revolving mainly around technology improvement, we are also considering a number of opportunities and scenarios about what the future will be like in a world of trading algorithms and self-running corporations."
"Self-running corporations" are the more interesting aspect of the "programmable economy." They evolve as technology allows the needs of a consumer to be met without any human interaction. Consider a consumer buying a product on a website that the company does not actually own. The seller automatically places the order for said product and has it dropped shipped to the seller. Travel websites are great examples of these types of self-running corporations. The travel site has users upload information about their hotels/home-shares while the consumers pay the site to book these accommodations. No human interaction at all for the travel site. As drone delivery improves, even physical goods will be delivered without the need for human interaction.
Çakıcı went on to discuss the need for data markets as exchanges where data can be traded, making them near-liquid assets. The need for this market arises as, according to him, "Assets can no longer be classified in the conventional sense, just liquid and non-liquid assets. For example, information is already one of the most valuable assets which cannot be recorded on balance sheets yet. The future will be the age of information. We will be looking into commercializing information." Çakıcı's comments refer to his views on the need for a global market headquartered in Istanbul that matches buyers and sellers of data - a "data market." Such a market already exists in the over-the-counter sense but without the adoption of uniformity and a trusted clearinghouse, the OTC market will continue to remain inefficient.
Çakıcı concluded by emphasizing that there are "some prerequisites for the information age, both globally and locally. An ecosystem of technology providers, platform owners and asset owners should emerge simultaneously as regulatory changes are being made." The beneficiaries of success in new markets will undoubtedly be countries who are able to transform their regulatory environments into ones that are most suitable for startups in this field to emerge.
Turkey continues to emerge from a history of bloated government bureaucracy, which for years stifled innovation, and development of new business. In the past decade it has taken significant strides to reverse this trend, making it much more inviting for foreign investment. Despite these efforts, however, it still ranks 55th globally in "ease of doing business" according to the World Bank. Improving Turkey's standing in this index should be one of the most important goals of the next government to be elected in three weeks, as investment will certainly take the path of least resistance.