Category Archives: SDGs

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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Reflections on ICTs, the SDGs and innovation adoption


The contrast between attending a series of side events around the UN General Assembly in New York immediately following a marvellous two weeks in India has made me reflect again on the rhetoric and reality of using ICTs for development, especially in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

Contrast

My latest book, Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development (OUP, 2017) provides an overview of the interests underlying the use of ICTs for “development”, and what needs to be done so that the poorest and most marginalised can indeed benefit from ICTs.  However, working in India, and then listening to the rhetoric of the rich and famous in New York makes me wonder whether I was sufficiently vehement in what I wrote in that book.  It also makes me return to thinking about the research I did 30 years ago on innovation adoption by farmers.  This convinced me that Rogers’ well accepted theoretical arguments around innovation adoption, the S-shaped curve (see below), and the classification of people into categories (innovators, early adopters, really majority, late majority and laggards) is fundamentally flawed.

Rogers

There was very widespread agreement amongst the world’s leaders meeting in New York last week – and most other people as well – that ICTs can contribute very significantly to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and that these will eliminate poverty.  The challenge, according to them, is how to connect the “next billion” to the Internet (mobile broadband), or in Rogers’ terminology the “late majority”.  As I have argued elsewhere, this will actually further increase global inequality, and most attention should instead be paid  to connecting the “first” (because they are most important) billion, or what Rogers termed the “laggards”.

The interests underlying connecting the next billion

The global focus on rolling out broadband to deliver the SDGs (even if that was possible) is not primarily in the interest of the world’s poorest people.  Instead it is mainly driven by:

  • private sector corporations and companies, from ISPs and mobile operators to the powerful multi-service giants such as Facebook and Google, who are all primarily interested in expanding their markets and profits;
  • national governments, eager to reduce costs through the use of digital technologies (although this is often a flawed assumption), as well as to control  “their” citizens;
  • UN agencies, keen to have a role to play in delivering the SDGS; and
  • NGOs, wanting to publicise their work more widely, and continue to receive project funding for their ICT-based initiatives.

These have little to do with the real interests and needs of the poorest and most marginalised.  The language of global corporations and governments is nearly always about providing access and creating demand for digital services.  But why should poor people necessarily want to go online?

Reasons not to be online…

Masai welcomeI recall a wonderful conversation a couple of years ago with a Maasai chief in Tanzania. He was speaking with a group of techies about the use of mobile devices, and they were trying to persuade him of the value of mobile phones, even just to call his friends in a village the other side of the hills.  He, wisely, remained unconvinced.  For him, walking across the hills, enjoying the landscape, spending time experiencing the physicality of nature, and just thinking about life, were a crucial part of going to, and speaking with, his friend in the next village.

For the wise poor and marginalised, there are many reasons for not being connected:

  • they remain outside a world where increasingly all human actions are monetised by  profit seeking corporations who use digital technologies to track their users and generate profit from selling such information;
  • they remain free from the prying eyes of governments, whose actions may not be in their interests;
  • there is little of interest to them in solving their real needs on the Internet;
  • they do not have to spend large amounts of their very limited cash on paying for digital services that they do not really need;
  • they do not suffer from the increasing amount of online abuse and harassment from trolls and others seeking to make them suffer;
  • their small amounts of cash are not subject to online theft from hackers of mobile money systems;
  • they do not become entrapped in a social media world, where every tweet or blog can adversely influence  their thoughts and senses of well-being;
  • they do not suffer from endless messages or e-mails, the senders of which increasingly expect an immediate response; and
  • they can enjoy being truly human in the analogue physical world (of all the senses), rather than trading this for the synthetic, and much less adequate digital virtual world (of mainly the two senses of sight and sound).

To be sure, there are many advantages of being connected, but the above list (and there are numerous other reasons that could be added) emphasises that there are also many negative aspects of Internet use, especially for the poor and marginalised.

The poor are not ignorant laggards who need to be convinced to go online…

One of the fundamental flaws of the widely accepted innovation adoption model proposed by Rogers is that it classifies people into “heroic” innovators and “ignorant” laggards; it is something about the people that influences whether or not they adopt an innovation, such as mobile broadband.  Such a view is held by many of those who seek to promote the global roll-out of the Internet: those who use the latest technologies are seen as being wise, whereas those who do not are seen as being lazy, ignorant laggards.

Rogers’ formulation is fundamentally problematic because it suggests that it is something about the people themselves that determine whether or not they are leaders or laggards.  This largely ignores the structural factors that determine whether people adopt something new.  With the adoption of agricultural innovations, for example, many poor people act perfectly rationally, and choose the option that they consider suits them best.  Poor people often make very rational, wise decisions not to adopt an innovation, often because the innovation increases the risks of crop failure, and they cannot afford this risk.  Moreover, if they do not have access to innovations it is scarcely surprising that they do not adopt them; the spatial distribution of outlets for herbicides, hybrid seeds or inorganic fertilizers is the main factor influencing whether people adopt them, rather than something about their propensity to innovate.  In the ICT sector, it is hardly surprising that people living in areas without electricity, let alone connectivity, do not see the need to have the latest generation of smartphone connected to the Internet.

If progress is to be made in helping poor and marginalised people benefit from the Internet, it is essential to do away with this flawed model of innovation adoption, and understand instead the structural factors and interests underlying why wise poor people, who know the contexts of their poverty very well, do not choose to adopt such technologies.  The rich elites of the world could begin by trying to understand the real conditions of poverty, rather than simply believing that ICTs can eliminate poverty through the SDGs.

Development in the interests of the poor

children 2ICTs will never deliver on reducing inequalities in the world unless there is a fundamental sea-change in the attitudes of those leading the global private sector corporations that currently shape the world of the Internet.  It is perfectly logical for them to sign up to the SDGs formulated by the UN system, and to seek to show that expanding their digital empires will necessarily deliver the SDGs.  This is a powerful additional weapon in their armoury of market expansion and profit generation.  The problem is that these agendas will continue to increase inequality, and as yet remarkably little attention has been paid to how ICTs might actually help deliver SDG10.  Until corporations and governments really treat the link between ICTs and inequality seriously, peoples of the world will become every more divided, and if poverty is defined in a relative sense then poverty will actually increase rather than decrease as a result of roll out of the Internet.

 

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SDG Stories: reflections on sustainability of ICT systems


E_Logo_No UN Emblem-01In the run-up to this year’s UN General Assembly, the Office of the DG of the UN Office in Geneva has launched a novel initiative on big conversations driving the big goals of the SDGs as part of their Perception Change Project.  The UNESCO Chair in ICT4D is delighted to have been invited to participate in this initiative, alongside other leading figures in the ICT4D world including Houlin Zhao (SG of the ITU, and one of our Honorary Patrons), Kathy Calvin (President and CEIO, UN Foundation), and Nicholas Negroponte (Founder MIT Media Lab).

Our stories are about the question “What are the biggest hopes and challenges we face in providing reliable ICT access to communities as we work towards improved sustainable development?

This was my response:

Seeing the eyes of a group of street children in Ethiopia light up when I let them play with my laptop in February 2002 convinced me in an instant of the potential of technology to be used effectively for learning by some of the poorest people in the world.  However, the plethora of global initiatives that have been designed to use ICTs to contribute to reducing poverty through economic growth over the last 15 years have had the consequence of dramatically increasing inequality at the same time.  The poorest and most marginalised have not benefited sufficiently from the promise of ICTs.

Few people pay appropriate attention to the dark side of technology, and yet we must understand this, and change it, if this potential is fully to be realised for all.  In the context of the SDGs, there is a fundamental challenge.  To be sure ICTs can contribute to the achievement of the SDGs, but few people sufficiently highlight their unsustainability: ICTs have seriously negative environmental impacts, and their usual business model is built on a fundamentally unsustainable logic.  In terms of environmental impact, for example, they have contributed to substantially increased electricity demand, and the amount of waste in space is now presenting very serious threats to future satellite deployment.  The business model, whereby people are encouraged to replace their mobile phones every couple of years, and new hardware often requires the next generation of software, which in turn then requires new hardware, is good for business, but not for sustainability.

If we are serious about using ICTs for sustainable development, we must do much more to address negative aspects such as these, so that the poorest individuals, communities and countries can indeed benefit.

Follow the stories at: http://www.sdgstories.com, or on Twitter using #sdgstories.E_Logo_No UN Emblem-01

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Making money from meeting the SDGs? An overarching approach to sustainable development


I am delighted to have been asked to moderate the session on “Making money from meeting the SDGs?” at ITU Telecom World in Bangkok on Monday 14th November (4:45 PM – 6:00 PM, Jupiter 10), although I wonder a little why I have been chosen for this task given my past criticisms of the SDGs!  Perhaps the “?” in the session title will give me a little freedom to explore some of the many challenges and complexities in this theme.  Following in the footsteps of the Millennium Development Goals (2000), the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) still generally focus on the idea that economic growth will eliminate poverty; indeed, they assert that poverty can truly be ended.  This is a myth, and a dangerous one. For those who define poverty in a relative sense, poverty will always be with us.  It can certainly be reduced, but never ended.   It is therefore good to see the SDGs also focusing on social inclusion, with SDG 10 explicitly addressing inequality.  We need to pay much more attention to ways through which ICTs can thus reduce inequality, rather than primarily focusing on their contribution to economic growth, which has often actually led to increasing inequality.

This session will explore the implications of such tensions specifically for the role of ICT businesses in delivering the SDGs.  Key questions to be examined include:

  • How can the ICT sector contribute to accelerating the achievement of the SDGs by providing ICT-enabled solutions and building feasible business models?
  • Is the SDG agenda relevant for the ICT industry?
  • What roles should the ICT industry, and its corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments in particular, play in working towards the SDGs?
  • Can the SDG framework provide an opportunity to accelerate transformative ICT-enabled solutions around new solutions like big data or IoT?

Underlying these are difficult issues about the ethics of making money from development, and the extent to which the ICT sector is indeed sustainable.  All too often, the private sector, governments and even civil society are now using the idea of “development” to build their ICT interests, rather than actually using ICTs to contribute to development understood as reducing inequalities; we increasingly have “development for ICTs” (D4ICT) rather than “ICTs for development” (ICT4D).  To be sure, businesses have a fundamentally important role in contributing to economic growth, but there is still little agreement, for example, on how best to deliver connectivity to the poorest and most marginalized, so that inequality can be reduced. As my forthcoming book argues, we need to reclaim ICTs truly for development in the interests of the poorest and most marginalized.

We have a great panel with whom to explore these difficult questions.  Following opening remarks by Chaesub Lee (Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, ITU), we will dive straight into addressing the above questions with the following panelists (listed in alphabetical order of first names):

  • Astrid Tuminez (Senior Director, Government Affairs. Microsoft)
  • Lawrence Yanovitch (President of GSMA Foundation)
  • Luis Neves (Chairman Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), and Climate Change and Sustainability Officer, Executive Vice President, at Deutsche Telekom Group)
  • Ola Jo Tandre (Director and Head of Social Responsibility, Telenor ASA, Norway)
  • Tomas Lamanauskas (Group Director Public Policy, VimpelCom).

Magic happens when people from different backgrounds are brought together to discuss challenging issues.  This session will therefore not have any formal presentations, but will instead seek to engage the panelists in discussion amongst themselves and with the audience.  We will generate new ideas that participants will be able to take away and apply in their everyday practices.  Looking forward to seeing you on the Monday afternoon of Telecom World in Bangkok!

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