Category Archives: SDGs

Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised


Now is the time to be thinking seriously about the kind of world that we wish to live in once Covid-19 has finished its rampage across Europe and North America.[i] Although its potential direct health impact in Africa and South Asia remains uncertain at the time of writing, countries within these continents have already seen dramatic disruption and much hardship as well as numerous deaths having been caused by the measures introduced by governments to restrict its spread.  It is already clear that it is the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, as witnessed, for example, by the impact of Modi’s lockdown in India on migrant workers.[ii]

This post highlights five likely global impacts that will be hastened by Covid-19, and argues that we need to use this disruption constructively to shape a better world in the future, rather than succumb to the potential and substantial damage that will be caused, especially to the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised.  It may be that for many countries in the world, the impact of Covid-19 will be even more significant than was the impact of the 1939-45 war.  Digital technologies are above all accelerators, and most of those leading the world’s major global corporations are already taking full advantage of Covid-19 to increase their reach and their profits.[iii]

The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA

http://hiram1555.com/2016/10/21/presidential-debates-indicate-end-of-us-empire-analyst/

Source: Hiram1555.com

I have written previously about the waxing of China and the waning of the USA; China is the global political-economic powerhouse of the present, not just of the future.[iv]  One very significant impact of Covid-19 will be to increase the speed of this major shift in global power.  Just as 1945 saw the beginning of the final end of the British Empire, so 2020 is likely to see the beginning of the end of the USA as the dominant global (imperial) power.  Already, even in influential USAn publications, there is now much more frequent support for the view that the US is a failing state.[v] This transition is likely to be painful, and it will require world leaders of great wisdom to ensure that it is less violent than may well be the case.

The differences between the ways in which the USA and China have responded to Covid-19 have been marked, and have very significant implications for the political, social and economic futures of these states.  Whilst little trust should be placed on the precise accuracy of reported Covid-19 mortality rate figures throughout the world, China has so far reported a loss of 3.2 people per million to the disease (as of 17 April, and thus including the 1290 uplift announced that day), whereas the USA has reported deaths of 8.38 per 100,000 (as of that date); moreover, China’s figures seem to have stabilised, whereas those for the USA continue to increase rapidly.[vi]  These differences are not only very significant in human terms, but they also reflect a fundamental challenge in the relative significance of the individual and the community in US and Chinese society.

Few apart from hardline Republicans in the USA now doubt the failure of the Trump regime politically, socially, economically and culturally. This has been exacerbated by the US government’s failure to manage Covid-19 effectively (even worse than the UK government’s performance), and its insistent antagonism towards China through its deeply problematic trade-war[vii] even before the outbreak of the present coronavirus. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA is but a symptom of the realisation of the country’s fundamental economic and policial weaknesses in the 21st century.   President Trump’s persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” instead of Covid-19[viii] is also just a symptom of a far deeper malaise.   Trump is sadly not the problem; the problem is the people and system that enabled him to come to power and in whose interests he is trying to serve (alongside his own).  China seems likely to come out of the Covid-19 crisis much stronger than will the USA.[ix]

Whether people like it or not, and despite cries from the western bourgeoisie that it is unfair, and that the Chinese have lied about the extent of Covid-19 in their own country in its early stages, this is the reality.  China is the dominant world power today, let alone tomorrow.

An ever more digital world

https://www.forbes.com/sites/columbiabusinessschool/2020/04/21/how-covid-19-will-accelerate-a-digital-therapeutics-revolution/

Source: Forbes.com

The digital technology sector is already the biggest winner from Covid-19.  Everyone with access, knowledge and ability to pay for connectivity and digital devices has turned to digital technologies to continue with their work, maintain social contacts, and find entertainment during the lockdowns that have covered about one-third of the world’s population by mid-April.[x]  Those who previously rarely used such technologies, have overnight been forced to use them for everything from buying food online, to maintaining contacts with relatives and friends.

There is little evidence that the tech sector was prepared for such a windfall in the latter part of 2019,[xi] but major corporations and start-ups alike have all sought to exploit its benefits as quickly as possible in the first few months of 2020, as testified by the plethora of announcements claiming how various technologies can win the fight against Covid-19.[xii]

One particularly problematic outcome has been the way in which digital tech champions and activists have all sought to develop new solutions to combat Covid-19.  While sometimes this is indeed well intended, more often than not it is primarily so that they can benefit from funding that is made available for such activities by governments and donors, or primarily to raise the individual or corporate profile of those involved.  For them, Covid-19 is a wonderful business opportunity.  Sadly, many such initiatives will fail to deliver appropriate solutions, will be implemented after Covid-19 has dissipated, and on some occasions will even do more harm than good.[xiii]

There are many paradoxes and tensions in this dramatically increased role of digital technology after Covid-19. Two are of particular interest.  First, many people who are self-isolating or social distancing are beginning to crave real, physical human contact, and are realising that communicating only over the Internet is insufficiently fulfilling.  This might offer some hope for the future of those who still believe in the importance of non-digitally mediated human interaction, although I suspect that such concerns may only temporarily delay our demise into a world of cyborgs.[xiv] Second, despite the ultimate decline in the US economy and political power noted above, US corporations have been very well placed to benefit from the immediate impact of Covid-19, featuring in prominent initiatives such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition,[xv] or the coalition of pharmaceutical companies brought together by the Gates Foundation.[xvi]

Whatever the precise details, it is an absolute certainty that the dominance of digital technologies in everyone’s lives will increase very dramatically following Covid-19 and this will be exploited by those intent on reaping the profits from such expansion in their own interests.

Increasing acceptance of surveillance by states and companies: the end of privacy as we know it.

https://www.wired.com/story/phones-track-spread-covid19-good-idea/

Source: Wired.com

A third, related, global impact of Covid-19 will be widely increased global acceptance of the roles of states and companies in digital surveillance.  Already, before 2020, there was a growing, albeit insufficient, debate about the ethics of digital surveillance by states over issues such as crime and “terrorism”, and its implications for privacy.[xvii]  However, some states, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel, have already used digital technologies and big data analytics extensively and apparently successfully in monitoring and tracking the spread of Covid-19,[xviii] and other coalitions of states and the private sector are planning to encourage citizens to sign up to having fundamental aspects of what has previously been considered to be their private and personal health information made available to unknown others.[xix]

One problem with such technologies is that they require substantial numbers of people to sign up to and then use them.  In more authoritarian states where governments can make such adherence obligatory by imposing severe penalties for failure to do so, they do indeed appear to be able to contribute to reduction in the spread of Covid-19 in the interests of the wider community.  However, in more liberal democratic societies, which place the individual about the community in importance, it seems less likely that they will be acceptable.

Despite such concerns, the growing evidence promoted by the companies that are developing them that such digital technologies can indeed contribute to enhanced public health will serve as an important factor in breaking down public resistance to the use of surveillance technologies and big data analytics.  Once again, this will ultimately serve the interest of those who already have greater political and economic power than it will the interests of the most marginalised.

Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-herd-immunity-meaning-definition-what-vaccine-immune-covid-19-a9397871.html

Source: Independent.co.uk

Self-isolation and social distancing have led to the dramatic emptying of towns and cities across the world.  Businesses that have been unable to adapt to online trading have overnight been pushed into a critical survival situation, with governments in many of the richer countries of the world being “forced” to offer them financial bail-outs to help them weather the storm.  Unfortunately, most of this money is going to be completely wasted and will merely create huge national debts for years into the future.  People who rarely before used online shopping are now doing so because they believe that no other method of purchasing goods is truly safe.

The new reality will be that most people will have become so used to online shopping that they are unlikely to return in the future to traditional shopping outlets. Companies that have been unable to adjust to the new reality will fail.  The character of our inner-city areas will change beyond recognition.  This is a huge opportunity for the re-design of urban areas in creative, safe and innovative ways.  Already, the environmental impact of a reduction in transport and pollution has been widely seen; wildlife is enjoying a bonanza; people are realising that their old working and socialising patterns may not have been as good as they once thought.[xx]  Unfortunately, it is likely that this opportunity may not be fully grasped, and instead governments that lack leadership and vision will instead seek to prop up backward-looking institutions, companies and organisations, intent on preserving infrastructure and economic activities that are unfit for purpose in the post-pandemic world.  Such a mentality will lead to urban decay and ghettoization, where people will fear to tread, and there is a real danger of a downward spiral of urban deprivation.

There are, though, many bright signs of innovation and creativity for those willing to do things differently.  Shops and restaurants that have been able to find efficient trustworthy drivers are now offering new delivery services; students are able to draw on the plethora of online courses now available; new forms of communal activity are flourishing; and most companies are realising that they don’t actually need to spend money on huge office spaces, but can exploit their labour even more effectively by enabling them to work from home.

We must see the changes brought about by responses to Covid-19 as important opportunities to build for the future, and to create human-centred urban places that are also sensitive to the natural environments in which they are located.

Increasing global inequalities

https://gulfnews.com/photos/news/indian-migrants-forced-to-walk-home-amid-covid-19-lockdown-1.1585394226024?slide=2

Source: Gulfnews.com

The net outcome of the above four trends will lead inexorably to a fifth, and deeply concerning issue: the world will become an even more unequal place, where those who can adapt and survive will flourish, but where the most vulnerable and marginalised will become even more immiserated.

This is already all too visible.  Migrant workers are being ostracised, and further marginalised.[xxi]  In India, tens of thousands of labourers are reported to have left the cities, many of them walking home hundreds of kilometres to their villages.[xxii] In China, Africans are reported as being subjected to racist prejudice, being refused service in shops and evicted from their residences.[xxiii]  In the UK, many food banks have had to close and it is reported that about 1.5. million people a day are going without food.[xxiv]  The World Bank is reporting that an extra 40-50 million people across the world will be forced into poverty by Covid-19, especially in Africa.[xxv]  People with disabilities have become even more forgotten and isolated.[xxvi]  The list of immediate crises grows by the day.

More worrying still is that there is no certainty that these short-term impacts will immediately bounce-back once the pandemic has passed.  It seems at least as likely that many of the changes will have become so entrenched that aspects of living under Covid-19 will become the new norm.  Once again, those able to benefit from the changes will flourish, but the uneducated, those with disabilities, the ethnic minorities, people living in isolated areas, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies are all likely to find life much tougher in 2021 and 2022 even than they do at present.   Much of this rising inequality is being caused, as noted above, by the increasing role that digital technologies are playing in people’s lives.  Those who have access and can afford to use the Internet can use it for shopping, employment, entertainment, learning, and indeed most aspects of their lives.  Yet only 59% of the world’s population are active Internet users.[xxvii]

Looking positively to the future.

People will respond in different ways to these likely trends over the next few years, but we will all need to learn to live together in a world where:

  • China is the global political economic power,
  • Our lives will become ever more rapidly experienced and mediated through digital technology,
  • Our traditional views of privacy are replaced by a world of surveillance,
  • Our towns and cities have completely different functions and designs, and
  • There is very much greater inequality in terms of opportunities and life experiences.

In dealing with these changes, it is essential to remain positive; to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone to live in, rather than just as a threat of further pain, misery and death, or an opportunity for a few to gain unexpected windfall opportunities to become even richer.  Six elements would seem to be important in seeking to ensure that as many people as possible can indeed flourish once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic has dissipated:

  • First, these predictions should encourage all of us to prioritise more on enhancing the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised, than on ensuring economic growth that mainly benefits the rich and privileged. This applies at all scales, from designing national health and education services, to providing local, community level care provision.
  • This requires an increased focus on negotiating communal oriented initiatives and activities rather than letting the greed and selfishness of individualism continue to rule the roost.
  • Third, it is essential that we use this as an opportunity to regain our physical sentient humanity, and reject the aspirations of those who wish to create a world that is only experienced and mediated through digital technology. We need to regain our very real experiences of each other and the world in which we live through our tastes, smells, the sounds we hear, the touches we feel, and the sights we see.
  • Fourth, it seems incredibly important that we create a new global political order safely to manage a world in which China replaces the USA as the dominant global power. The emergence of new political counterbalances, at a regional level as with Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America seems to be a very important objective that remains to be realised.  Small states that choose to remain isolated, however arrogant they are about the “Great”ness of their country, will become ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of economic, political and demographic crisis.
  • Fifth, we need to capitalise on the environmental impact of Covid-19 rapidly to shape a world of which we are but a part, and in which we care for and co-operate with the rich diversity of plant and animal life that enjoys the physical richness of our planet. This will require a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the harm caused to our world by the design and use of digital technologies.[xxviii]
  • Finally, we need to agree communally on the extent to which individual privacy matters, and whether we are happy to live in a world of omnipresent surveillance by companies (enabling them to reap huge profits from our selves as data) and governments (to maintain their positions of power, authority and dominance). This must not be imposed on us by powerful others.  It is of paramount importance that there is widespread informed public and communal discussion about the future of surveillance in a post-Covid-19 era.

I trust that these comments will serve to provoke and challenge much accepted dogma and practice.  Above all, let’s try to think of others more than we do ourselves, let’s promote the reduction of inequality over increases in economic growth, and let’s enjoy  an integral, real and care-filled engagement with the non-human natural world.


Notes:

[i] For current figures see https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ and https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6, although all data related with this coronavirus must be treated with great caution; see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/data-and-the-scandal-of-the-uks-covid-19-survival-rate/

[ii] Modi’s hasty coronavirus lockdown of India leaves many fearful for what comes next, https://time.com/5812394/india-coronavirus-lockdown-modi/

[iii] Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, might well be an exception with his $1 billion donation to support Covid-19 relief and other charities; see https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/7/21212766/jack-dorsey-coronavirus-covid-19-donate-relief-fund-square-twitter

[iv] See, for example, discussion in Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  I appreciate that such arguments infuriate many people living in the USA,

[v] See, for example, George Parker’s, We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, The Atlantic, June 2020 (preview) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/.

[vi] Based on figures from https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ on 15th April 2020.  For comparison, Spain had 39.74 reported deaths per 100,000, Italy 35.80, and the UK 18.96.

[vii] There are many commentaries on this, but The Wall Street Journal’s account on 9 February 2020 https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-trade-war-reshaped-global-commerce-11581244201 is useful, as is the Pietersen Institute’s timeline https://www.piie.com/blogs/trade-investment-policy-watch/trump-trade-war-china-date-guide.

[viii] For a good account of his use of language see Eren Orbey’s comment in The New Yorker, Trump’s “Chinese virus” and what’s at stake in the coronovirus’s name,  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/whats-at-stake-in-a-viruss-name

[ix] China’s massive long-term strategic investments across the world, not least through its 一带一路 (Belt and Road) initiative, have placed it in an extremely strong position to reap the benefits of its revitalised economy from 2021 onwards (for a good summary of this initiative written in January 2020 see https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative)

[x] Kaplan, J., Frias, L. and McFall-Johnsen, M., A third of the global population is on coronavirus lockdown…, https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3?r=DE&IR=T

[xi] This is despite conspiracy theorists arguing that those who were going to gain most from Covid-19 especially in the digital tech and pharmaceutical industry had been active in promoting global fear of the coronavirus, or worse still had actually engineered it for their advantage.  See, for example, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/technology/bill-gates-virus-conspiracy-theories.html, or Thomas Ricker, Bill Gates is now the leading target for Coronavirus falsehoods, says report, https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/17/21224728/bill-gates-coronavirus-lies-5g-covid-19 .

[xii] See, for example, Shah, H. and Kumar, K., Ten digital technologies helping humans in the fight against Covid-19, Frost and Sullivan, https://ww2.frost.com/frost-perspectives/ten-digital-technologies-helping-humans-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, Gergios Petropolous, Artificial interlligence in the fight against COVID-19, Bruegel, https://www.bruegel.org/2020/03/artificial-intelligence-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, or Beech, P., These new gadgets were designed to fight COVID-19, World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-gadgets-innovation-technology/. It is also important to note that the notion of “fighting” the coronavirus is also deeply problematic.

[xiii] For my much more detailed analysis of these issues, see Tim Unwin (26 March 2020), collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response/

[xiv] For more on this see Tim Unwin (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and for a brief comment https://unwin.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/dehumanization-cyborgs-and-the-internet-of-things/.

[xv] Although, significantly, Chinese companies are also involved; see https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/globalcoalition

[xvi] For the work of the Gates Foundation and US pharmaceutical companies in fighting Covid-19 https://www.outsourcing-pharma.com/Article/2020/03/27/Bill-Gates-big-pharma-collaborate-on-COVID-19-treatments

[xvii] There is a huge literature, both academic and policy related, on this, but see for example OCHCR (2014) Online mass-surveillance: “Protect right to privacy even when countering terrorism” – UN expert, https://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15200&LangID=E; Privacy International, Scrutinising the global counter-terrorism agenda, https://privacyinternational.org/campaigns/scrutinising-global-counter-terrorism-agenda; Simon Hale-Ross (2018) Digital Privacy, Terrorism and Law Enforcement: the UK’s Response to Terrorist Communication, London: Routledge; and Lomas, N. (2020) Mass surveillance for national security does conflict with EU privacy rights, court advisor suggests, TechCrunch, https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/15/mass-surveillance-for-national-security-does-conflict-with-eu-privacy-rights-court-advisor-suggests/.

[xviii] Kharpal, A. (26 March 2020) Use of surveillance to fight coronavirus raised c oncenrs about government power after pandemic ends, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-surveillance-used-by-governments-to-fight-pandemic-privacy-concerns.html; but see also more critical comments about the efficacy of such systems as by Vaughan, A. (17 April 2020) There are many reasons why Covid-19 contact-tracing apps may not work, NewScientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2241041-there-are-many-reasons-why-covid-19-contact-tracing-apps-may-not-work/

[xix] There are widely differing views as to the ethics of this.  See, for example, Article 19 (2 April 2020) Coronavirus: states use of digital surveillance technologies to fight pandemic must respect human rights, https://www.article19.org/resources/covid-19-states-use-of-digital-surveillance-technologies-to-fight-pandemic-must-respect-human-rights/ ; McDonald, S. (30 March 2020) The digital response to the outbreak of Covid-19, https://www.cigionline.org/articles/digital-response-outbreak-covid-19. See also useful piece by Arcila (2020) for ICT4Peace on “A human-centric framework to evaluate the risks raised by contact-tracing applications” https://mcusercontent.com/e58ea7be12fb998fa30bac7ac/files/07a9cd66-0689-44ff-8c4f-6251508e1e48/Beatriz_Botero_A_Human_Rights_Centric_Framework_to_Evaluate_the_Security_Risks_Raised_by_Contact_Tracing_Applications_FINAL_BUA_6.pdf.pdf

[xx] See, for example, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/the-environmental-impact-of-covid-19/ss-BB11JxGv?li=BBoPWjQ, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/life-after-coronavirus-pandemic-change-world, and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-affecting-co2-emissions/.

[xxi] See The Guardian (23 April 2020) ‘We’re in a prison’: Singapore’s million migrant workers suffer as Covid-19 surges back, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/singapore-million-migrant-workers-suffer-as-covid-19-surges-back

[xxii] Al Jazeera (6 April 2020) India: Coronavirus lockdown sees exodus from cities, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/india-coronavirus-lockdown-sees-exodus-cities-200406104405477.html.

[xxiii] Financial Times (13th April) China-Africa relations rocked by alleged racism over Covid-19, https://www.ft.com/content/48f199b0-9054-4ab6-aaad-a326163c9285

[xxiv] Global Citizen (22 April 2020) Covid-19 Lockdowns are sparking a hunger crisis in the UK, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/covid-19-food-poverty-rising-in-uk/

[xxv] Mahler, D.G., Lakner, C., Aguilar, R.A.C. and Wu, H. (20 April 2020) The impact of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) on global poverty: why Sub-Saharan Africa might be the region hardest hit, World Bank Blogs, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/impact-covid-19-coronavirus-global-poverty-why-sub-saharan-africa-might-be-region-hardest

[xxvi] Bridging the Gap (2020) The impact of Covid-19 on persons with disabilities, https://bridgingthegap-project.eu/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-people-with-disabilities/

[xxvii] Statista (Januarv 2020) https://www.statista.com/statistics/269329/penetration-rate-of-the-internet-by-region/

[xxviii] For a wider discussion of the negative environmental impacts of climate change see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/digital-technologies-and-climate-change/.

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Participating in IFLA’s President’s Meeting and Ministerial Forum, Buenos Aires, 22-23 May 2019


Ministers Forum

Ministers and Secretaries of Culture Forum

It was a real privilege to have been invited to participate in the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Forum of Ministers and Secretaries of Culture of Latin America and the Caribbean on 22nd May, and to give a keynote address at its 2019 President’s meeting which was on the theme of Motors of change: libraries and sustainable development on 23rd May, both in Buenos Aires.  These meetings provided a valuable opportunity for those actively involved in the role of libraries in contributing to the development of Latin American and Caribbean countries to share ideas and experiences, and agree on ways through which their work can be further enhanced.

The Forum of Ministers and Secretaries of Culture was held in the very impressive Congress of the Argentine Nation, and provided an excellent opportunity for senior

President

IFLA President and Secretary General

government officials from across the region to share presentations and discuss the theme of Libraries, Access to Information and the Sustainable Development Goals.  Welcoming participants, IFLA President Glòria Pérez-Salmerón reminded them of the theme of her presidency – Motors of Change – and underlined the difference that libraries can make, for so many people, in so many ways.  IFLA Secretary-General Gerald Leitner stressed to the ministers of the power they had in their hands, and made the case for ensuring that they – and libraries – are included fully in national development plans.  A key outcome of the meeting was the signing of the Buenos Aires Declaration which affirmed participating governments’ commitment to the UN 2030 Agenda, and to the power of libraries and access to information to achieve it.  The meeting also saw the launch of the second edition of the Development and Access to Information Report produced by IFLA and the Technology and Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington, focusing especially on SDG4 (education), SDG8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG10 (inequalities), SDG13 (climate chage) and SDG16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), and edited by Stephen Wyber and Maria Garrido.

In the evening, there was a Cultural Gala in the Public Hall of the Library of the National Congress, which consisted of three main elements:

  • Nacha

    Nacha Guevara

    A dance performance in two parts by the Arte Ballet Compañía: the Don Quijote suite, and Tiempos de Tango, with ideation, choreography and direction by María Fernanda Blanco.

  • Music played by the Chamber Orchestra of the Honorable Argentine Chamber of Deputies with a repertoire dedicated to the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, featuruing especially the saxophone soloist Jorge Retamoza.
  • A wonderful closing sequence of songs by the famous Argentine artist Nacha Guevara.

The 2019 President’s Meeting on 23rd May built on the themes of the Development and Access to Information Report, and began with a session of welcoming speeches by IFLA President Glòria Pérez-Salmerón, IFLA Secretary-General Gerald Leitner, Alejandro Lorenzo César Santa (General Coordinating Director, Library of the National Congress), and Rene Mauricio Valdes (United Nations Resident Coordinator, Argentina).  This was followed by my keynote  on Libraries and Sustainable Development: challenges of inequality in a digital world (.pdf of slide deck), which:

  • Screenshot 2019-05-25 at 21.00.54Challenged those who believe that the SDGs will deliver on their aspirations;
  • Highlighted the role of digital technologies in leading to increasing inequalities;
  • Explored issues around power, knowledge and content;
  • Advocated for the important role that libraries can serve as open places and communal resource centres; and
  • Concluded by encouraging participants to have the will to make a difference.

In the afternoon, there were three sets of discussions and presentations by the authors of the Development and Access to Information Report and others on the following themes:

  • A Library Response to Global Challenges: What Can Libraries Contribute to International Efforts to Tackle the Issues that Affect the Planet?
  • Driving Development at a Local Level: Libraries Making a Difference to People’s Lives
  • Improving Decision-Making and Accountability: Libraries as Pillars of Democracy and Good Governance
Tango 1

Our great tango teachers!

These two days of lively and interesting discussion provided a wealth of ideas for all those participating from governments and libraries to implement on return to their own countries.  It was also a very valuable opportunity to build a network of people working at the interface between libaries and international development, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Very many thanks are due to the hard work and hospitality of colleagues from IFLA and our Argentian hosts.  One of my lasting memories will definitely be learning to dance the tango – for which many thanks to our brilliant teachers!

 

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Why the notion of a Fourth Industrial Revolution is so problematic


Watching a video last Wednesday at UNESCO’s Mobile Learning Week produced by Huawei on the Fourth Industrial Revolution reminded me of everything that is problematic and wrong with the notion: it was heroic, it was glitzy, women were almost invisible, and above all it implied that technology was, and still is, fundamentally changing the world.  It annoyed and frustrated me because it was so flawed, and it made me think back to when Klaus Schwab first gave me a copy of his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution in 2016.  I read it, appreciated its superficially beguiling style, found much of it interesting, but realised that the argument was fundamentally flawed (for an excellent review, see Steven Poole’s 2017 review in The Guardian).  Naïvely,  I thought it was just another World Economic Forum publication that would fade away into insignificance on my bookshelves.  How wrong I was!  Together with the equally problematic notion of Frontier Technologies (see my short critique), it has become a twin-edged sword held high by global corporations and the UN alike to describe and justify the contemporary world, and their attempts to change it for the better.  Whilst I have frequently challenged the notion and construction of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, I have never yet put togther my thoughts about it in a brief, easy to read format. Huawei’s video has provoked this response built around five fundamental problems.

Problem 1: a belief that technology has changed, and is changing the world

All so-called industrial revolutions are based on the fundamentally incorrect assumption that technology is changing the world.  With respect to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Schwab thus claims that “The premise of this book is that technology and digitization will revolutionalize everything, making the overused and often ill-used adage “this time is different” apt.  Simply put, major technological innovations are on the brink of fueling momentous change throughout the world – inevitably so” (Schwab, 2016, section 1.2; see also Schwab, 2015).  The entire edifice of the Fourth Industriual Revolution is built on this myth.  However, technology itself does not change anything.  Technology is designed by people for particular purposes that serve very specific interests.  It is these that change the world, and not the technology.  The reductionist,  instrumental and deterministic views inherent within most notions of a Fourth Industrial Revolution are thus highly problematic.

In the popular mind, each so-called industrial revolution is named after a particular technology: the first associated with mechanisation, water,  steam power and railways in the late-18th and early-19th centuries; the second, mass production and assembly lines enabled by electricity in the late-19th and early-20th centuries; the third, computers and automation from the 1960s; and the fourth, often termed cyber-physical systems, based on the interconnectivity between  physical, biological and digital spheres, from the beginning of the 21st century.  However, all of these technologies were created by people to achieve certain objectives, usually to make money, become famous, or simply to overcome challenges.  It is the same today.  It is not the technologies that are changing the world, but rather the vision, ingenuity and rapaciousness of those who design, build and sell them.  Humans still have choices.  They can design technologies in the interests of the rich and powerful to make them yet richer and more powerful, or they can seek to craft technologies that empower and serve the interests of the poor and marginalised.  Those developing technologies associated with so-called “smart cities” can thus be seen as marginalising those living in rural areas and in what might disparagingly be called “stupid villages”.

Problem 2: a revolutionary view of history

Academics (especially historians and geographers) have long argued as to whether human society changes in an evolutionary or a revolutionary way.  There have thus been numerous debates as to how many agricultural revolutions there were that preceded or were associated with the so-called (first) industrial revolution (Overton, 1996). Much of this evidence suggests that whilst “revolutions” are nice, simple ideas to capture the essence of change, in reality they build on developments that have evolved over many years, and it is only when these come together and are reconfigured in new ways, to serve specific interests, that fundamental changes really occur.

For example, the Internet was initially used almost exclusively by academics, with the first e-mail systems being developed in the 1970s, and the World Wide Web in the 1980s, largely in an academic context.  It was only when the commercial potential of these technologies was fully realised in the latter half of the 1990s that use of the Web really began to expand rapidly.  In this context, most things associated with the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution actually seem to be extensions of ideas that existed very much earlier.  The notion of integrated physical-biological systems is, for example, not something dramatically new in the 21st century, but rather has its genesis in the notion of cybernetic organisms, or cyborgs, at least as early as the 1960s.

More importantly, the main drivers of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution go back many centuries, and each previous “revolution” was merely an evolving process to find new ways of configuring them.  If there was any fundamental “revolutionary” change, it occurred in the rise of individualism and the Enlightenment during the 17th century in Europe.  Even this had many precursors.  Fully to understand the digital economies of the 21st century, we need to appreciate the shift in balance from communal to individual interests some four centuries previously.  Once it was appreciated that individual investment in the means of production could generate greater productivity and profit, and institutions were set in place to enable this (such as land enclosure, patent law and copyright), then the scene was set for “money bent upon accretion of money”, or capital (Marx, 1867), to become the overaching driver of an increasingly global economic system in the centuries that followed.  The interests underlying the so called Fourth Industrial Revolution are largely the same as those driving the economic, social and political systems of the previous 400 years: market expansion and a reduction of labour costs through the use of technology.  It is these interests, rather than the technologies themeselves that are of most importance.

Problem 3: an élite view of history

The notion of industrial revolutions is also largely an expression of an élite view of history. It is about, and written by, the élites who shape them and enable them.  It is about the owners of the factories rather than the labourers, it is about innovative geniuses rather than the peasants labouring to produce food for them, and it is about the wise politicians who see the potential of these technologies to transform the world in their own image.  Certainly, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is premised on an assumption that global corporations and brilliant innovative minds are driving the technological revolution that will change the world for what they see as being the better.  It is also no coincidence that the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution was established in the USA, and that most of its proponents seem to be drawn from US élites (see for example the World Economic Forum’s video What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?).  The notion of the Fourth Industrial Revolution clearly serves the interests of USAn élite politicans, academics and business leaders far more than it does the poor and marginalised living in remote rural areas of South Asia, or the slums of Africa.

Counter to such views are those of academics and practitioners who argue that history should be as much about the poor and underprivileged as it is about their political,  military or industrial leaders.  The poor have left few historical records about their lives, and yet they vastly outnumber the few élite people who have ruled and controlled them.  Traditional history has been the history of the literate, designed to reinforce their positions of power, and this remains true of accounts of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  In 2017, Oxfam reported that eight people thus owned the same wealth as the poorest half of humanity; five of these people made most of their wealth directly from the technology sector.  In an increasingly unequal world, the way to create greater equality cannot be through the use of the technologies that have created those inequalities in the first place.  Rather, to change the global balance of power, there needs to be a history that focuses on the lives of the poorest and most marginalised, rather than one that glorifies élites in the interests of maintaining their hold over power.

Problem 4: male heroes of the revolution

One of the most striking and shocking features of the Huawei video that prompted this critique was that almost all of the people illustrated as the heroes of the industrial revolutions were men.  Most historical accounts of industrial revolutions likewise focus on male innovators and industrialists, and yet women played a very significant part in shaping the outcomes of these tecchnological changes, not least in their roles as workers and as mothers.  Not only are accounts of industrial revolutions élite histories, they are mainly also male histories.  It is thus scarcely surprising that men continue to dominate the rhetoric and imagery of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, despite the efforts of those who have sought to reveal the important role that women such as Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper or Radia Perlman played in the origins of digital technologies (see techradar, 2018).

The perspective of a masculine revolutionary view of societal change presents significant challenges for those of us working to involve more women and girls in science and technology (see for example TEQtogether).  Much more needs to be done to highlight the roles of women in history, especially histories of technology, and to encourage girls to appreciate the roles that these women have played in the past and thus the potential they have to change the future themselves (see for example, the Women’s History Review and the Journal of Women’s History).  Otherwise, the masculine domination of the digital technology sector will continue to reproduce itself in ways that reproduce the gender inequalities and oppression that persist today.

Problem 5: the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a self-fulfilling prophecy

Finally, the idea of a heroic, male industrial revolution has been promoted in large part as a self fulfilling prophecy.  Schwab’s book and its offspring are not so much a historical account of the past, but rather a programme for the future, in which technology will be used to make the world a better place.  This is hugely problematic, because these technologies have actually been used to create significant inedqualiites in the world, and they are are continuing to do so at an ever faster rate.

The problem is that although the espoused aspirations to do good of those acclaiming the Fourth Industrial Revolution  may indeed be praiseworthy, they are starting at the wrong place.   The interests of those shaping these technologies are not primarily in changing the basis of our society into a fairer and more equal way of living together, but rather they are in competing to ensure their dominance and wealth as far as possible into the future.  The idea of a Fourth Industrial Revolution seeks to legitimise such behaviour at all levels from that of states such as the USA, to senior leaders and investors in  technology companies, to young entrepreneurs eager to make their first million.  Almost all are driven primarily by their interests in money bent on the accretion of money; some are beguiled by the prestige of potential status as a hero of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  In some cultures such behaviour is indeed seen as being good, but in others there are greater goods.  The Fourth Industrial Revolution is in large part a conspiracy to shape the world ever more closely in the imagination of a small, rich, male and powerful élite.

Is it not time to reflect once more on the true meanings of a revolutionary idea, and to help empower some of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people to create a world that is better in their eyes rather than in our own?

 

[For a wider discussion of revolution, see Unwin, Tim, A revolutionary idea, in: Unwin, Tim (ed.) A European Geography, Pearson, 1998.  As ever, please also note that a short post cannot include everything, so remember to read this in the broader context of my other writing, and especially Reclaiming ICT4D (OUP, 2017).  For my thoughts on the other edge of the two-edged sword, do read my much shorter “Why the notion of ‘frontier technologies’ is so problematic…“]

 

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ICTs and the failure of the SDGs


Back in 2015 I wrote a short post about the role of ICTs in what I saw as being the probable failure of the SDGs.  Having attended far too many recent international meetings, all of which have focused to varying extents on how ICTs will contribute positively to the SDGs, I am now even more convinced that they have already failed, and will do very little to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

My 2015 post focused on five main issues.  In summary, these were:

  • There are far too many goals (17) and targets (169).  This has already led to diffusion of effort and lack of focus, not only within the ‘global system’, but also in individual countries.
  • Target setting is hugely problematic.  It tends to lead to resources being directed too much towards delivering measurable targets and not enough to the factors that will actually reduce inequalities and empower the poorest.
  • The SDGs remain largely concerned with absolute poverty rather than relative poverty.  The SDGs will do little fundamentally to change the structural conditions upon which the present world system is based, which remain primarily concerned with economic growth.  Although SDG 10 (on inequality) is a welcome addition, it is all too often ignored, or relegated to a minor priority.
  • These goals and targets represent the interests of those organisations driving the SDG agenda, rather than the poorest and most marginalised.  I suggested in 2015 that these were primarily the UN agencies who would use them to try to show their continued relevance in an ever-changing world, but they also included private sector corporations and civil society organisations
  • The need to monitor progress against the goals/targets will further expand the “development industry”, and consultants and organisations involved in such monitoring and evaluation will benefit hugely.

Subsequently, in 2017 I was part of the ITU’s collective book venture published as ICT-centric economic growth, innovation and job creation, in which I led on the second chapter entitled “ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements”.  This chapter argued that serious issues need to be addressed before there can be any validity in the claim that ICTs can indeed contribute to sustainable development.  The present post seeks to clarify some of the arguments, and to summarise why the SDGs and Agenda 2030 have already failed.  There are in essence five main propositions:

  • Inherent within the SDGs is a fundamental tension between SDG 10 (to reduce inequality within and among countries) and the remaining goals which seek to enhance “development” by increasing economic growth. Most of the evidence indicates that the MDGs, which were almost exclusively focused on economic growth as the solution to poverty, substantially increased inequality, and ICTs played a very significant role in this.  The SDGs are likewise fundamentally focused on economic growth, in the belief that this will reduce absolute poverty, while quietly ignoring that such growth is actually increasing inequality, not only between countries but within them.
  • There is also a fundamental tension between the notions of “sustainability” (focusing on maintaining and sustaining certain things) and “development” (which is fundamentally about change). Although there has long been a belief that there can indeed be such a notion as “sustainable development”, this tension at its heart has been insufficiently addressed.  What is it that we want to maintain; what is it that we want to change?  ICTs are fundamentally about change (not always for the better), rather than sustaining things that are valued by many people across the world.
  • The business models upon which many ICT companies are built are fundamentally based on “unsustainability” rather than “sustainability”. Hardware is designed explicitly not to last; mobile ‘phones are expected to be replaced every 2-3 years; hardware upgrades often require software upgrades, and software upgrades likewise often need hardware enhancements, leading to a spiral of obsolescence. (For an alternative vision of the ICT sector, see the work of the Restart Project)
  • The ICT industry itself has had significant climatic and environmental impacts as well as giving rise to moral concerns: satellite debris is polluting space; electricity demand for servers, air conditioning, and battery charging is very significant; and mining for the rare minerals required in devices scars the landscape and often exploits child labour. We have not yet had a comprehensive environmental audit of the entire ICT sector; it would make much grimmer reading than most would hope for or expect!  In 2017, the World Economic Forum even posted an article that suggested that “by 2020, Bitcoin mining could be consuming the same amount of electricity every year as is currently used by the entire world”.
  • Finally, the SDGs have already failed. In their original conceptualisation, each country was meant to decide on, and set, the targets that were most relevant to their needs and priorities.  As some of us predicted at the time, the number of goals and targets was always going to be a challenge for countries, especially those with limited resources and capacities to make these decisions.  Few, if any countries have actually treated the targets seriously.  Instead, the development industry has blossomed, and various organisations have set up monitoring programmes to try to do this for them (see, for example, UN Stats, OECD,  Our World in Data).  If countries haven’t actually established targets, and do not have the baseline data to measure them, then it will be impossible to be able to say whether many targets have actually been reached.

The SDGs serve the interests of UN agencies, and those who make huge amounts of money from the “development industry” that seeks to support them.  Private sector companies and civil society see the Goals as a lucrative source of profits since governments and international organisation are prioritising spending in these areas.  This is why the original choice of goals and targets for the SDGs was so important; people and organisations can make money out of them.

There is much debate over whether target setting, as in the MDGs and SDGs, serves any value at all.  Despite many claims otherwise, the MDGs failed comprehensively to eliminate poverty.  It must therefore be asked once again why the UN system decided to create a much more complex and convoluted system of goals and targets that was even more likely to fail.  The main reason for this has to be because it served the interests of those involved in shaping them.  They do not and will not serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.  We are already nearly one-fifth of the way from 2015 to 2030, and the SDGs have not yet properly got started.  They have therefore already failed.  It is high time that governments of poor countries stopped even thinking about the SDGs and instead got on and simply served the interests of their poorest and most marginalised citizens.  They could begin to do so simply by spending wisely for their poorest citizens the money that they waste on attending the endless sequence of international meetings focusing on how ICTs can be used to deliver the SDGs and eliminate poverty!  ICTs can indeed help empower poor people, but to date they have failed to do so, and have instead substantially increased inequality, both between countries and within them.  We need to reclaim ICTs so that they can truly be used to empower poor people.

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ICTs, sustainability and development case studies: M-KOPA Solar


Earlier this year, I was privileged to work on a co-authored book project for the ITU.  This was published by the ITU as ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, and was launched at the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Argentina in October.  The chapter that I led was entitled ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements, and provided a challenging account of ICTs and sustainability.

Each chapter was accompanied by a single case study – although I had argued strongly that there should be more than one case study for each chapter, so that a range of different examples and perspectives could be included.  I had worked with several colleagues to produce great examples that would exemplify some of the key arguments of the chapter, but sadly these were not published.

Hence, as a supplement to the book, I am including these now as blog posts.  This is the second, and focuses on the way through which M-KOPA is making sustainable energy available to poor people in eastern Africa.  Since this was first written almost a year ago, new data are available, but I hope that this will provide some insights into an important commercial initiative that is indeed using ICTs to contribute to sustainable development.

M-KOPA Solar: using ICTs to enable poor people and marginalised communities to access sustainable energy

M-KOPA Solar has developed a highly innovative solution for using ICTs to deliver on sustainable energy provision, especially for previously unserved poor people.  It is therefore an excellent example of the ways through which ICTs can indeed deliver on some of the critical challenges identified in this chapter at the interface between ICTs and the SDGs.  Above all, it indicates how new technologies can create novel and disruptive opportunities for those with entrepreneurial and innovative approaches to develop new business models that can indeed deliver valuable services to previously marginalised people.

M-KOPA

M-KOPA Solar is a Kenyan solar energy company founded in 2011 by Nick Hughes, Chad Larson and Jesse Moore, and its mission is “to upgrade lives by making high-quality solutions affordable to everyone”.  Nick Hughes was previously responsible for creating the very successful M-PESA mobile money solution for Vodafone, where Moore had also worked.  As of July 2016, M-KOPA has connected 450,000 homes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to solar power, with more than 500 new homes being added every day.

Three factors have been central to M-KOPA’s success: the ability of its founders to identify a viable and innovative business model; their identification of a real need for which people are willing to pay; and then their skills in creating an innovative cost effective solution.  At the heart of their model is the ability for people to use their mobile phones to pay a small amount each month through mobile money transfer to buy the equipment, and then to own it after a year’s usage.  Their 2016 basic model is the M-KOPA IV Solar Home System, which has an 8W solar panel, providing energy for 3 LED light bulbs, a portable rechargeable torch, a home charging USB with five standard connections, and a rechargeable radio.  In Kenya users pay a deposit of 2,999 KES (£22.45) and then 50 KES (£0.37) a day for a year, during which time there is a full warranty for the equipment.  Prices are similar in neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania.  The actual equipment is available through local dealers, and there is also a customer care team that supports customers, agents and retail partners.  A more expensive version of the model, the M-KOPA 400 also has a 16” digital television, which requires a deposit of 7,999 KES and a daily payment of 125 KES.

The company estimates that current customers will make projected savings of US$ 300 million over the next four year, and are enjoying 50 million hours of kerosene-free lighting per month.  This has important environmental ramifications by reducing harmful emissions and the risk of fire causing serious burns to people using kerosene.  They have also created some 2,500 jobs in East Africa, thereby contributing to the wider employment and economy of the region.  One of the most striking features of M-KOPA is that it has developed a business model that delivers on a real need, and does so in a cost-effective manner through the use of mobile money payments.  It estimates that more than three-quarters of its customers live on less than US$ 2 a day, and this is therefore an innovation that really delivers on the needs of some of the world’s poorest people.  Providing light extends the time people have both for social activities and also for productive education and information gathering, thereby potentially enabling many other SDGs to be achieved, including those related to education and health.  The use of radios puts them in touch with what is going on in the wider world, and their recharged phones enable them to communicate with others whenever they have connectivity.  The indirect contributions of M-KOPA thus go far beyond merely the provision of affordable light for poor people.

 

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ICTs, sustainability and development case studies: the Restart Project


Earlier this year, I was privileged to work on a co-authored book project for the ITU.  This was published by the ITU as ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, and was launched at the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Argentina in October.  The chapter that I led was entitled ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements, and provided a challenging account of ICTs and sustainability.

Each chapter was accompanied by a single case study – although I had argued strongly that there should be more than one case study for each chapter, so that a range of different examples and perspectives could be included.  I had worked with several colleagues to produce great examples that would exemplify some of the key arguments of the chapter, but sadly these were not published.

Hence, as a supplement to the book, I am including these now as blog posts.  This is the first, and was written with the help of the amazing Ugo Vallauri, co-founder of the Restart Project:

The Restart Project: local, community driven initiatives moving beyond the throw-away economy

One effective way of reducing the environmental impact of ICTs is simply to use them for longer.  The Restart Project, a London-based social enterprise that encourages and empowers people to use their electronics longer in order to reduce waste, is an excellent and innovative example of such initiatives.  Launched in 2012 with its first “Restart Party” pop-up community repair event in the UK, it has inspired groups in 10 other countries to replicate similar initiatives in  Europe, North Africa and North America.

Restart

Most energy used and most emissions generated during the life of mobile phones occur during its production process.  Hence, if people use their mobile phones for longer, and repair them when they are faulty, their overall energy impact can be dramatically reduced.  The figures are striking: the average mobile phone made in 2015 produced 36 kg of carbon emissions in manufacture, equivalent to 16 weeks of laundry in affluent countries; the total carbon footprint of the 1.9 billion mobiles sold in 2015 was roughly equivalent to Austria’s total carbon emissions; if every mobile phone were used for one-third longer than the typical 3 years, there would be an emissions saving equivalent to Singapore’s total annual emissions.

The Restart Project is both about changing people’s attitudes and also helping them to make a practical difference.  It works with communities, schools and companies to value and use ICTs longer, and to document the barriers to so doing.  This is done through convening hands-on learning events, known as Restart Parties, where volunteers  help people fix their own small electrical and electronics, and also through helping others to do the same globally, not least through developing educational resources to inspire younger people and sharing tips  for repairing different kinds of equipment.  Acting together, they draw on the skills that everyone has, and collect and publish data on the products they fix. Just over 50% of all products taken to Restart events get fixed by volunteers. By collecting data on common failures and barriers to repairability, Restart hopes to inspire designers, manufacturers and policy makers to fix some of the problems that cannot be solved: early software obsolescence, ease of disassembly and availability of spare parts are all common problems. The combined impact of the over 200 Restart Parties held  by April  2017 prevented 4,011 kg of waste, and 88,687 kg of CO2 emissions, which is equal to driving a car 739,000 km or the emissions caused in the manufacture of 15 cars.

Their guidance for hosting Restart Parties is clear and simple:

  1. Offer free entry to the public (although you can suggest a donation);
  2. Promote a collaborative learning process;
  3. Fix other stuff like bikes if you want, but you’ll need at least three-to-four electronics repairers;
  4. Tell the Restart Project about your party beforehand, and share the results with them; and
  5. Be insured! The Restart Project is not liable for events we do not organise. If uninsured, please work in partnership with a group that is.

Such efforts, though, require funding, at least of the central team running and administering the parties and undertaking the research.  Not everything can be done by volunteers.  The Restart Project has to date been funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the Shuttleworth Foundation. Some of their activities are supported by running special events for local authorities, cultural institutions and companies. They are actively looking to  generate additional income from consultancy built on their insights on participants’ frustrations and recurrent faults and direct donations from the general public.

Many more initiatives such as the Restart Project can readily be created by local community groups across the world; as the Restart Project claims, “We’re fixing our relationship with electronic – putting people and planet first”.  Such initiatives are truly focused on finding ways through which ICTs can indeed deliver a more sustainable world, and thus help to make progress in achieving the SDGs.  If everyone kept their mobile phones, tablets or laptops longer, manufacturers would have to prioritise provision of better repair services, spare parts and refurbishing of devices, and the environmental impact would be significant.  It would be one way through which everyone in the world who owns a digital devices could contribute to achieving the SDGs.

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ICTs, sustainability and development


LaunchI am delighted to see my chapter on ICTs, sustainability and development just published in the ITU’s new book on ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation launched yesterday at the World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) in Buenos Aires.  This was part of a fascinating project that emerged when Dr. Ahmed Sharafat (Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran, Iran) and Dr. Eun-Ju Kim (from the ITU) brought together a group of academics from across the world to explore issues around the ways through which ICTs can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), focusing especially on economic growth and employment.  We held several meetings together over the last year, and particularly met up for a fortnight in Geneva in January 2017 to work through ideas and share drafts of manuscripts.

IMG_8860 smallIt is the first time I have actually worked on such a collectively authored project, and its publication says much about the willingness of all involved to collaborate supportively together under the leadership of Ahmed and Bill Lehr, who was later brought on board to co-edit the book.  Each of us took the lead on a single chapter, but everyone contributed to the ideas contained within the book.  The process of negotiation and discussion around the concepts and ideas within each chapter was fascinating, especially since it required us to hone our arguments very finely and precisely.  Most of the contributors were economists, and although at times I struggled with accepting some of their arguments, I know that their contributions very much improved the chapter on which I led.  Moreover, I am very grateful to Ahmed as editor, for letting me write what I did, since it enabled me to craft my most critical piece of work on the sustainability of the ICT sector.

ICT4SDGThe second chapter (on which I led) examines the interface between ICTs and sustainability, especially focusing on environmental issues and the conditions that need to be in place for ICT initiatives to be sustainable socially and economically. It focuses specifically on the importance of universal infrastructure, the affordability of technologies, the need for appropriate skills and awareness, and the importance of locally relevant content. For these to be delivered, the chapter emphasises that those who develop policies and implement programmes and projects to use ICTs to promote sustainable development need to address issues of empowerment, focus on the needs of the poorest, develop innovative technological solutions and new business models, legislate new kinds of regulation through which governments facilitate the ICT and telecommunication sector, and ensure that there is effective security and resilience within the systems being developed. The chapter concludes with a brief analysis of the role of multi-stakeholder partnerships in implementing such initiatives.

Where I think it makes the most significant new arguments is at the interface between ICTs and sustainability.  It does this in three main contexts:

  1. First, although this is indeed a book published by the ITU, a UN agency, and we therefore had to be very careful in our arguments, the chapter does nevertheless challenge some of the assumptions behind, and implementation of, the SDGs. In particular it draws attention to the tensions between sustainability (implying maintenance or stability) and development (implying change or growth).
  2. Second, it provides a strong critique of the environmental credentials of the ICT sector.  For example, while it acknowledges that some companies have sought to show their environmental concerns through delivering on carbon emissions,  it notes that there has been no comprehensive and rigorous environmental audit of the sector as a whole.  In particular, I recall some challenging discussions during our work on the book about the increasing amount of debris accumulating in space as a result of satellite launches, and I am pleased that colleagues eventually allowed me to include an, albeit toned down, section on this, which argues that space pollution should indeed be included as an environmental impact.
  3. Third, the chapter argues strongly that many of the main business models adopted by the private sector in rolling out ICTs are fundamentally unsustainable.  It is therefore contradictory to assert that ICTs are an important vehicle through which the Sustainable Development Goals can be implemented (even if it is accepted that these can indeed reduce poverty).  To give but one example, the mobile phone and app/content sectors function as an ever increasing spiral of unsustainability.  New devices require new apps and operating systems, which then in turn require another generation of new devices with more memory and functionality.  Hence, instead of the old landline telephones that lasted for years, most people are now encouraged to purchase new upgraded phones every couple of years.  This is unsustainability built in by the very design of the technology and business models, and it is enhanced and encouraged by the companies’ focus on marketing, modernity and fashion.

Several case studies to support these chapters are also included in the book, but sadly two of mine had to be excluded because of space, and so I will shortly be posting them separately here on my blog.

Once again, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in this co-created book, many of whom have now become good friends.  It was a privilege to work with you all on this project, and I am so grateful to colleagues in the ITU for inviting me to participate.

 

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