The future of ICT: universal, sustainable, open

«To my knowledge, no information technology process has been a success, so far.» Tim Unwin – a very well-known top notch ICT4D guru – enjoyed being provocative during a symposium at VU University in Amsterdam on May 16th. The meeting gathered information scientists, anthropologists, and political scientists so that they could reflect upon the role of ICT in development, now and in the future. The following is a recap of the major interventions.

[By Serena Carta – from the ICT4dev column]

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No, technology will not save the world

Newsfeed stressing the potential of technology to revolutionize the Arab world are becoming increasingly more frequent. From the Arab Spring to the widespread use of mobiles in Africa, an iPhone can change reality. But are things really like that? After a more careful analysis, technology appears to be but one of the many tools at our disposal to deal with the complex challenges of modernity.

[By Serena Carta, from ICT4dev]

Can technology help us change the world? Have Twitter and Facebook really changed the way we live and relate? Has the Internet the power to democratize access to information? Will education of African children be better due to the so-called m-learning (learning via mobile devices)? So many hopes are nowadays set in technology, often described in enthusiastic overtones and depicted as a panacea for all evils. As it often happens, the reality can be a lot less shiny than some slogans. According to Professor Richard Heeks “Whether ICT is a bearer of epochal changes and revolutionary transformations that change the rules of the game in development processes is still an open question”. In addition to being one of the most cited academics dealing with technologies for development, Heeks is also a blog author at

As Habermas reminds us, historically, technology was created and used by those who had the money and the power so that they would strengthen their political agenda and economic grip on society. It has also been a source of inequalities, favoring those having the means to purchase it and excluding those who did not possess those means. Today it seems the situation has changed, given that we see a stream of low-cost technology capable of reaching even the most remote and poorest areas of the planet. In January, an article featured on CNN’s website told us that the African continent has become the second country in the world for number of telephone subscriptions. Meanwhile, the Guardian pointed out that only 7% of users in Africa is connected to the internet and that fewer than 20% of those owning a cell phone has a smartphone. But will the massive spread of mobile phones suffice to bridge the gap between the Northern and Southern hemisphere? In his TedTalk, Kentaro Toyama (another ICT4D “guru”) showed how the US poverty rate remained unchanged from 1995 to 2008, despite the raise and development of technologies and key players, such as Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Facing this evidence, Toyama, wondered “why do we keep on thinking that technology will save the world?”. If I were to try and give an answer to this question, I would venture to say that we do so out of misconceptions, in that we overestimate its impact. Or maybe it is because we think of technological tools as something more than just one of the elements that concur to developing an individual and his or her community.

Aiming at laying the groundwork for a broader reflection about using effective, appropriate and sustainable ICT in development projects, I tried to come up with 6 points about what ICT4D is (and is not).

1) Let’s go back to its definition. According to the English construct, i.e., Information and communication technology for development, the ICT4D is a new and extremely dynamic area of international development cooperation. In this framework, ICT encompasses all technology allowing the accessing, processing and distributing of information in the form of text, sound, images, etc. The term often is applied to refer to digital media and communication technologies (mainly PC, mobile phones, and the internet). The D in the acronym stands for development and determines their field of application. “What do we mean by development (economic or human?)” is a key point that deserves to be delved into in a separate entry.

3) When used properly, technology can offer great opportunities for development and economic and social change. At the same time, when technology is thought of an end and rather than a means, there is a risk that the investment in ICT will turn into a waste of resources, and the project will fail. For this reason, it is good to keep in mind that the ICT4D are a combination of infrastructure, content, and skills. Distributing mobile phones is a good thing to do, but not enough. The real challenge lies in figuring out if the phone is the most appropriate tool to meet the challenges a given context provides. Secondly, we need to provide the right skills to our partners and beneficiaries so that they can be autonomous and effective in the use of the technology we provide. To give you an example, if an NGO decides to launch an e-learning project and invests in computers but forgets to adequately train their teachers, it is likely that students – in the absence of educated tutors – will not benefit from the advantages of digital education.

3) the potential of ICTs, therefore, lays in supporting and enhancing, rather than replacing, people intentions and capabilities. ICT does not contain answers or solutions to the problems we want to solve in itself. However, technologies are vehicles that can help us achieve our goals in an easier and more efficient way. For this reason, statements like Nicholas Negroponte’s (who came up with the One Laptop Per Child, ICT4D project with huge media impact, also due to Kofi Annan’s endorsement in 2005 within the UN) trigger some well-deserved perplexity: “We will launch the computer from helicopters to teach children to read.” A vision American researcher Laura Hosman commented in the following terms: “What would happen if we launched a new generation electric car in the middle of the Sahara desert? Nothing, it would be wasted technology! The same can be said of spanking new PC designed by Negroponte. Research reports tell us that no results were obtained because the technological design and appeal are not enough to address the complexity of social issues of our times “.

4) we can surely claim that ICT4D doesn’t always mean most advanced technology. On top of it, there is no adaptable blueprint fitting in with every need. Every context, every community, every project has a story to itself. Similarly, ICT taken for granted in some parts of the world may have no impact elsewhere. Consider the case of an e-democracy initiative calling on citizens to report corruption cases through the phone. If citizens are located in a rural area with a high illiteracy rate. It is very likely that people will prefer to send voice messages (via IVR systems, Interactive voice response) rather than SMS. Even the absence of reliable Internet connection and electricity, ubiquitous among “rich” population, can make it difficult to use cloud services or streaming. “They are systems that makes the job easier when everything goes smoothly –Donata Columbro says, coming back from a social media training in schools in Burkina Faso – “however, Internet connection in Africa rarely go without problems. USB sticks and the plug-in cards can download and transfer data in a much easier way, as well as Bluetooth, and those are the main technologies over there”.

5) The ICT4D are by nature a multidisciplinary field requiring intervention and involvement of professionals with various background. It also cannot fly without needing the help of experienced developers. Research plays a significant role in this sector, which requires analytical observation of the progresses so that one can learn how to better the process. Last but not least, the field also requires a commitment to disseminate and share the learnt lessons, failures and best practices via an open source approach.
6) Finally, communication and information are a universal right in that they contribute to human development. Not surprisingly, recently, 195 associations of civil society have asked the UN to put at the Centre of the debate on the Millennium Development Goals 2015 the access to free and independent information. In this regard, the contribution of ICTs could be crucial.


photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection via photopin cc