Tag Archives: Sustainability

Participating in the e-Borneo Knowledge Fair 6 held in Ba’Kelalan, 25-27 October 2017

Far too many ICT4D initiative are thought up by the rich and privileged, often, but not always, with the intention of using technology to improve the lives of poor and marginalised peoples.  More often than not, well-intentioned researchers and academics in Europe and north America, or those living in major urban centres of economically poorer countries, try to develop new “solutions” that will help to eliminate poverty or deliver on some aspect of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the global elite.  Invariably, they have little understanding of the real needs of poor people or marginalised communities, and all too often such initiatives prove to be unsustainable once the initial funding for them has dissipated.

Some initiatives do, though, run counter to this all too familiar tale of woe.  One of these is the work of the Institute of Social Informatics and Technological Innovations at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, which has over many years sought to work with local communities in some of the most isolated areas of Sarawak.  This action research started almost 20 years ago with the creation of the e-Bario telecentre initiative in 1998. It was therefore a real privilege to be invited to give a keynote presentation at their 6th e-Borneo Knowledge Fair, held on the theme of community-based sustainability in Ba’Kelalan from 25-27 October (EBKF6).  The first e-Bario Knowledge Fair was held in 2007, and a decade on the change of name indicates a broadening of its focus beyond the village of Bario to be more inclusive of other initiatives across Borneo.

The central belief underlying these knowledge fairs has been the importance of sharing understandings between communities and researchers in co-creating new knowledge.  In a fundamental reversal of the normal conference format, where participants usually meet in major cities of the world, the e-Bario and now e-Borneo Knowledge Fairs have been held in isolated rural communities, with participating academics being encouraged to learn as much from those living there as the latter do from the conference and workshop speakers.  To emphasise this difference, outside participants were encouraged this year to travel to Ba’Kelalan on a nine-hour journey along roads cut through the forests initially by logging companies.

The knowledge fair consisted mainly of a series of workshops that placed as much emphasis on the views of the inhabitants of Ba’Kelalan and other isolated communities in Malaysia as they did on the experiences and knowledge of outside academics.  Great credit is due to the Co-Chairs of EBKF6, Narayanan Kulathu Ramaiyer and Roger Harris, and their team, for having brought together an amazing group of people.  The pictures below hopefully capture something of the refreshing energy and excitement of these workshops (link here to the official video).  Many things impressed me about them, not least the commitment of all involved to work together collaboratively to focus on delivering solutions to the needs and wants of people living in these very isolated communities, and ensuring that “development” does not irrevocably damage the essential elements of life that they wish  to maintain.  It was also very impressive to see three community healthworkers present, who were offering a free service of health checks (blood pressure and blood sugar levels) for those participating.

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The most important feature of the Sixth e-Borneo Knowledge Fair for me was that it was all about working with isolated communities rather than for them.  I came away  I am sure very much more enriched by the experience than will other participants have been by my keynote!  For those interested in what I had to say, though, the slides from my keynote are available here: Safeguarding the interests of the marginalised: rhetoric and reality of global ICT4D initiatives designed to deliver the SDGs.

Thanks again to everyone involved for making this such a special event!



Filed under Conferences, Development, Environment, ICT4D, ICT4D conferences, ICTs, Inequality, Malaysia, Photographs, Sustainability

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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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!


Filed under Conferences, Development, ICT4D, SDGs, Sustainability