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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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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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Reclaiming ICT4D – output from workshop at WSIS 2017


Thanks so much to everyone who contributed to our workshop this morning at WSIS Forum 2017 in Geneva on what we need to do to ensure that the poorest and most marginalised can indeed be empowered through the use of ICTs.

Reclaiming small

Our co-created mindmap is available here in .pdf format and by clicking on the image below:

Reclaiming small

A special thank you to our panel:

  • Alex Wong (Head, Global Challenge Partnerships & Member of the Executive Committee; Head of the Future of the Internet Global Challenge Initiative, World Economic Forum) on The power of partnership
  • Dr. Bushra Hassan (School of Psychology, University of Sussex) on The wisdom of marginalised women
  • Charlotte Smart (Digital Policy and Programme Manager, Department for International Development, UK) on The delivery of donors
  • Michael Kende (Senior Advisor, Analysis Mason, and former Chief Economist of the Internet Society) on The trust in technology
  • Nigel Hickson (VP IGO Engagement, ICANN) on The design of the domain name system
  • Torbjörn Fredriksson (Head of ICT Analysis Section of the Division on Technology and Logistics, UNCTAD) on The energy of entrepreneurship

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Reclaiming ICT4D at the WSIS Forum 2017


BookTo coincide with the recent publication of my new book entitled Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development (Oxford University Press, 2017), the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D is convening a workshop on Friday 16th June from 11.00-12.45 in ITU Room Popov 1 at the 2017 WSIS Forum being held in Geneva.  The key premise of the workshop is that the global spread of ICTs has increased inequality, and that the poorest and most marginalised have therefore failed sufficiently to benefit.  The workshop will explore whether the continued focus on the ways through which ICTs can contribute to economic growth will inevitably lead to ever increasing, and dangerous, inequality, and will make recommendations as to how different stakeholders can best ensure that the poorest and most marginalised can indeed benefit from their use.

It will begin with short (5 minute) perspectives from some amazing people (listed in alphabetical order of first names):

  • Alex Wong (Head, Global Challenge Partnerships & Member of the Executive Committee; Head of the Future of the Internet Global Challenge Initiative, World Economic Forum) on The power of partnership
  • Dr. Bushra Hassan (School of Psychology, University of Sussex) on The wisdom of marginalised women
  • Charlotte Smart (Digital Policy and Programme Manager, Department for International Development, UK) on The delivery of donors
  • Michael Kende (Senior Advisor, Analysis Mason, and former Chief Economist of the Internet Society) on The trust in technology
  • Nigel Hickson (VP IGO Engagement, ICANN) on The design of the domain name system
  • Torbjörn Fredriksson (Head of ICT Analysis Section of the Division on Technology and Logistics, UNCTAD) on The energy of entrepreneurship

Following these short, and undoubtedly provocative, presentations there will be an open discussion focusing on participants’ thoughts as to what are the most important priorities for action that different stakeholders must take so that the poorest and most marginalised people and communities can indeed be empowered through the use of ICTs.

The workshop is open to everyone with interests in ways through which ICTs can indeed benefit poor people, and there will also be an opportunity after the workshop for participants to purchase copies of Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development at a 40% reduction from list price.

I very much look forward to seeing you there!

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Reclaiming ICT4D: the Conclusion


recict4dEarly last week I had a good meeting with OUP about the marketing of Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development – and hopefully copies will be ready in time for the WSIS Forum in Geneva in June! Then, at the end of the week, the final version of the revised page proofs appeared.  I’ve never had to read so many versions of one of my manuscripts before, and am so grateful to the work of all those who have helped in the production process!

Having shared the cover, preface, index and contents page, as well as the introduction before, I thought it was timely also to share the final few paragraphs. I very much hope that people will enjoy, and indeed be challenged by, them.  I hope too that those who consider these to be overly extreme, will indeed read the book and be convinced of the truth that lies within them.  Although some will remain unconvinced, I hope that the book will encourage everyone working at the interface between technology and development to reflect on what they are doing and change their practices in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

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“The design of ICTs and their rapid deployment have been one of the main causes of increasing inequality in the world.  One of the underlying themes of this book is that this has become exacerbated by the linkage between ICTs and development defined as economic growth.  Indeed, advocacy that ICTs can contribute positively to economic growth, and that this will reduce or eliminate poverty, has actually served to increase inequality and thus further marginalize the poor.  The idea of ‘development’ itself has become a vehicle through which the technological interests of the private sector in particular, but also those of governments and civil society, can be further propagated.  Expansion in the use of ICTs has thus become the primary focus of attention (D4ICT), rather than the development outcomes that might be facilitated by ICTs in the interests of the poor and marginalized (ICT4D).  This is scarcely surprising, given the long history of the use of technologies to serve and maintain the interests of the rich and powerful.

Many factors have influenced this state of affairs.  In particular, the increasing power of the private sector in global governance, the dominance of an instrumental view of ICTs that sees them necessarily as being a force for good, the diminution in the role of governments in serving the interests of all their citizens, the symbolic power of modernity embodied in ICTs, and an emphasis on enhancing economic growth rather than reducing inequality, have all been very significant in shaping the current intersection between ICTs and development.  To be sure, there are many instances where ICTs have been used to enhance the lives of groups of poor and marginalized people, but the overwhelming balance of evidence is that most such initiatives fail to go to scale or be sustainable.  Moreover, there is also a growing body of evidence that the dark side of ICTs is seriously harming many poor people, and especially women and girls.

Paradoxically, the main ways through which the use of ICTs can be reclaimed for development that might empower poor and marginalized people have rather little to do with the technologies, but much more to do with attitudes and approaches adopted by all those engaged in serving the interests of the poor.  First, the idea that ICTs in general, or the rollout of mobile broadband in particular, is some kind of panacea, or silver bullet, that can reduce poverty must be abandoned.  This must be combined with a realization that policies designed purely to increase economic growth through the use of ICTs will necessarily continue to increase inequality.  There needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking by governments, civil society and those who fund development interventions away from the economic growth agenda and instead toward the explicit use of ICTs to support the poor and the marginalized.  The private sector will continue to serve as the engine of growth, and thereby drive the use of ICTs by the majority of people, but its profit-taking voracity needs to be tempered by a realisation that the technological Jinn that it releases may well eventually do more harm than good.  This requires a fundamental reorientation of much research to focus primarily on the development of ICTs through which the very poorest might be empowered.  This needs to begin with a humble realization that academics interested in ICT4D should become the servants of the poor and marginalized, learning from them, and using their skills and expertise to serve the interests of the poor rather than their own careers, or the interests of global ICT corporations.  Research and practice should be with the poor rather than merely for the poor.  Governments and regulators have a central role in facilitating such a shift, but it would be naïve to suggest that all governments are indeed benign and without self-interest.  Politicians of all hues therefore need to be convinced that increasing inequality is ultimately a greater threat to stability and their own political futures than would be any reduction in economic growth.  Likewise, private sector companies have much to contribute to this renewed vision of ICT4D.  Those that can develop innovative new technologies and business models to deliver affordable services to the poorest ‘first billion’, for example, will necessarily be able to undercut companies still focusing on the ‘next billion’, and thereby make considerable gains in market share.

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            Above all, those who share my passion for technology, and the ways through which it can indeed be used to help empower the poorest and the most marginalized, the limbless beggars in Sierra Leone, the blind musicians playing on street corners in China, or the young women in Pakistan at threat of being murdered because of the images they post on social media, must begin by reflecting on their own practices.  We need to change from being part of the problem to being part of the solution.  Once we have begun to be enlightened ourselves about the role of technology in development, we may in turn be able to help empower others through crafting new ICTs and the strategies through which they can be implemented in the interests of the poorest and most marginalized.

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Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development


recict4dIt is always exciting to have finished the page proofs and done the index of a book, especially when this has to be completed between Christmas and the New Year as it was with Reclaiming ICT4D at the end of 2016! However, when the cover has been agreed and it appears on the publisher’s  website, then one knows that it is actually going to appear in several months time!

This is  OUP’s overview of the book:

  • Combines understanding of both theoretical and practical aspects of ICT for development (ICT4D)
  • Challenges existing orthodoxy and offers alternatives that can make a practical difference in the field
  • Addresses the interests underlying the use of technology in development
  • Wide ranging in coverage, including discussion of regulation, partnership, technological innovation, and the darker side of ICTs

I like being involved in the design of different aspects of my books, and I am so grateful to OUP for agreeing to publish Reclaiming ICT4D in two fonts, one to represent theory and the other practice.  I am also immensely happy that they were willing to use one of my pictures on the cover to represent much of what the book is about.  In case it is not immediately obvious, this picture taken a year ago in Murree (Pakistan) represents many things: a hope for the future, with the young boy vigorously hitting the ball way over his friends’ heads; cricket itself acknowledges the complex heritage of colonialism and imperialism; in the background is a telecommunications mast, providing the connectivity that has the potential to be used to reduce inequalities, but all too often increases them; the electricity so essential for powering ICTs is very visible;  and women are absent, representing another dimension of inequality that is addressed in the book.  It is also much more than this.  My father visited Murree 71 years ago, and may have walked along this street; I went there with friends, and the book is very much a personal story of how I have learnt from them and the many people who have shared their wisdom and experiences with me over the years; it is above all about how people like these boys, playing on the street, can use ICTs to transform their lives for the better, rather than becoming the cyborg cannon-fodder that global capitalism seeks to devour for the benefit of the rich and powerful.

A little more formally, this is how OUP describe the contents of the book on their website:

“The development of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) has transformed the world over the last two decades. These technologies are often seen as being inherently ‘good’, with the ability to make the world better, and in particular to reduce poverty. However, their darker side is frequently ignored in such accounts.

ICTs undoubtedly have the potential to reduce poverty, for example by enhancing education, health delivery, rural development and entrepreneurship across Africa, Asia and Latin America. However, all too often, projects designed to do so fail to go to scale, and are unsustainable when donor funding ceases. Indeed, ICTs have actually dramatically increased inequality across the world. The central purpose of this book is to account for why this is so, and it does so primarily by laying bare the interests that have underlain the dramatic expansion of ICTs in recent years. Unless these are fully understood, it will not be possible to reclaim the use of these technologies to empower the world’s poorest and most marginalised.”

Its seven chapters are entitled as follows:

Preface
1: A critical reflection on ICTs and ‘Development’
2: Understanding the Technologies
3: The International Policy Arena: ICTs and Internet Governance
4: Partnerships in ICT4D: Rhetoric and Reality
5: From Regulation to Facilitation: The role of ICT and Telecommunication Regulators in a Converging World
6: Reflections on the Dark Side of ICT4D
7: …in the Interests of the Poorest and Most Marginalized.

It is also being made available as an Ebook, and publication date is estimated as 25th May 2017.

To request a review copy, do contact OUP directly using their request form.

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Information and communication technologies: resolving inequalities?


It was great to be invited to give a lecture in the Societat Catalana de Geografia in Barcelona on the subject of “Information and Communication Technologies: resolving inequalities?” on Tuesday 4th October in the Ciclo de Conferencias Programa Jean Monnet convened by my great friend Prof. Jordi Marti Henneberg on the theme of Los Desafîos de lintegración Europea.  This was such an honour, especially since I had the privilege of following the former President of the European Union Josep Borrell’s excellent lecture earlier in the day on El Brexit y sus consequencias en la goberabilidad de la Unión Europea.

lectureThis was an opportunity for me to explore the relevance to the European context of some of my ideas about ICTs and inequality gleaned from research and practice in Africa and Asia.  In essence, my argument was that we need to balance the economic growth agenda with much greater focus on using ICTs to reduce inequalities if we are truly to use ICTs to support greater European integration.  To do this, I concluded by suggesting  that we need to concentrate on seven key actions:

  • working with the poor rather than for the poor
  • pro-poor technological innovation – not the “next billion” but the “first” billion
  • governments have a  key role to play through the use of regulation as facilitation in the interests of the poor and marginalised
  • crafting of appropriate multi-sector partnerships
  • managing security and resilience against the dark side
  • enhancing learning and understanding, both within governments and by individuals
  • working with the most disadvantaged, people with disabilities, street children, and women in patriarchal societies

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