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Innovative technology can transform Cambodia

One time in Hong Kong, I interviewed the head of Hughes Asia Pacific, the company originally founded by millionaire aviation pioneer Howard Hughes.

This was an intelligent, polished man who had earned a doctorate degree in economics from Princeton University. We spoke in general terms about what drove economies.

He said that in history, economic change always went hand-in-hand with technical change. He gave an example of the steam engine and how that drove 19th-century economics across oceans, up rivers and in factories and mills of the Industrial Revolution.

I’ve thought about what he said many times since then.

Not long after that I saw Virgin Airways founder Richard Branson on television in a program sponsored by Hennessy cognac called “Tycoons”. He was an impressive, down-to-earth character and I wanted to interview him. So I contacted my friend Susan Carey, who covered aviation for The Wall Street Journal.

Sure enough, Carey had Branson’s contact information and, as it happened, Virgin Airways was launching a new “Mid Class” service. I flew to London with other activities on my agenda, including an interview with architect Sir Norman Foster.

Branson said commercial aviation had grown out of the Second World War and that the airplanes were designed to carry soldiers, packed in as many as they could hold. He said commercial aviation had not changed much from that.

He said travelling at 40,000 feet was “unreal anyway” and said: “Look, when you come to my house I expect you to expect to be entertained.”

So Branson approached performing the same task that a dozen other huge, powerful global airlines did – transporting people from one airport to the other – as if the customers were in his home.

Thus, Branson’s Virgin Airways became the first airline to fit small television sets in the back of every seat so that people could have several channels to watching movies on during their flight. As a result of Branson’s revolutionary innovation, all the rest of the airlines followed suit. They had to.

It is the innovator that changes the world forever. Other business, like frightened cattle, stampede so they’re not left behind.

Since my interview with him in the early 1990s, Branson has become the United Kingdom’s fourth-richest citizen with an estimated net worth of US$4.2 billion and has been knighted as Sir Richard Branson.

Look at Cambodia today and consider the example that Branson has given. This small country of nearly 15 million people has a fantastic chance to invent itself according to a new and beautiful set of standards. There’s no reason to be strangled by the events and economics of the past.

Cambodians and foreigners working here can look around, see how things work and use the inspiration of Branson dreaming of entertainment for airline passengers.

You can apply that same kind of dreaming to any kind of business, because it all comes down to serving others.

In the shifting paradigm of the economics of the future, we all have a marvelous chance here in Cambodia to create wonderful things never before seen anywhere in the world and have them be not only self-sustaining, but wildly successful.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Alan Becker at stuart.becker@gmail.com

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