What future for ICT4D?

There's an old story of the fisherman and his cell phone. Sometimes the fisherman hails from Senegal; other times he is from India. But the story – and its lesson – remains much the same. It goes like this. Before the fisherman arrives in port with a boat full of fish, he uses his cell phone to place calls to different fish dealers. The dealer offering the highest price would most likely get the fisherman’s business.

 Banglalink cell phone excitement in advertisement, Dhaka, Bangladesh, by Wonderlane (Creative Commons)

Banglalink cell phone advertisement, Dhaka, Bangladesh, by Wonderlane on Flickr (Creative Commons)

This lesson has been passed around as a prime example of the significance of internet and communication technologies – especially the relatively cheap and reliable mobile phone – helping raise living standards in the developing world. This simple technology allows someone from the so-called bottom of the economic pyramid to improve his economic prospects, bettering the quality of life for his entire family. If the mobile phone can help the fisherman extend his contacts and increase his market price, think of what it would do to the working poor all over the world?

This year the number of worldwide mobile phone users hit 4.6 billion people. Much of that growth has taken place in the developing world. And, as phones expanded in some countries, so did economic development. (At least that’s what cellphone companies have said.)

While the numbers remain strong and the digital divide may be decreasing, one problem remains: The fisherman story is a little out of date. Like other things, technology has moved on. If ICTs are going to continue to positively affect human development, they must also keep up.

In the first of two posts, I’d like to explore how ICTs for development, ICT4D, may be changing in the short-term future. Then, I’d like to investigate some of the new cutting-edge projects taking place around the world. As always, if you’ve got some to share, please let us know.

Richard Heeks argues that for this new phase, ICTs will require a new outlook on how they view the poor. People in developing countries should no longer be characterized as passive consumers. Instead, they should be seen as active producers and innovators.

From his blog, ICTs for Development, Heeks introduces a new academic paper outlining where he thinks ICT4Ds should go.

a) New Hardware Priorities: a need for innovation around low-cost, broad-reach terminals, telecommunications, and power. A need to bring the hardware success story of the last decade – mobiles – even more centre stage. The paper also discusses implications of broadband, cloud computing, and individualisation of hardware devices.
b) New Application Priorities: the growth of participatory content creation, and the use of ICTs to create new income and employment for the world’s poor. The paper also discusses implications of FOSS, and the growth of applications to address urban poverty, security, economic growth, and climate change.
c) New Innovation Models: the growing need for – and potential of – innovation that moves beyond top-down, laboratory-type models. This includes collaborative (para-poor) models that work alongside poor communities. It also means greater attention to the grassroots (per-poor) innovation that is arising from within those communities. The paper also discusses the new innovation intermediaries that are emerging in private and NGO sectors.
d) New Implementation Models: based on the limitations of ICT4D 1.0 projects, there will be greater emphasis on sustainability, scalability and ICT4D project evaluation. This will necessitate more process than blueprint approaches to implementation, and better techniques for closing design—reality gaps. The paper also discusses new funding mechanisms and new organisation forms that are increasingly seen.
e) New Worldviews: effective ICT4D 2.0 policies, strategies and projects will require “tribrid” champions. They must understand enough about the three domains of computer science, information systems, and development studies to draw key lessons and to interact with and manage domain professionals. Training programmes and working group formation must reflect this need.

Yochai Benkler is a Harvard University professor of entrepreneurial legal studies and the co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which hosted the September 23-24 forum Communication and Development: The Freedom Connection.

In an essay written for the forum, Benkler argues the next generation of ICTs must continue to be flexible and dynamic, while also becoming more powerful. Perhaps desiners will leverage cloud applications, social software or organizational tools.

But mobile phones alone will not solve the problem.

The reason mobile phones were such a successful early ICT platform in poorer countries was that they are much cheaper; and they rely on networks that run all the intelligence in the network, allowing for very cheap edge devices. Yet it was precisely the stupidity, or simplicity, of the network relative to the “intelligence” or computational complexity of the edge devices that was so critical to the development of the network information economy and society as it has. A drive to make cheap devices available throughout poorer countries that does not take account of whether the cheapness comes at the expense of a truly open, neutral network will result in a very different kind of ICT platform than the one we imagine as so creative and productive in the wealthier economies…

Here is his recipe for the next generation of ICTs for development.

Devices must be cheap enough to be widely distributed as basic background features, owned by individuals in a pattern uncorrelated with pre-existing power relations. Devices must be accompanied with skills training in the use of the device and the open network, so that the difficulty of use does not continue to drive people to the simpler devices that deliver the more predictable, controlled, and “safe” applications. In the near future, this may mean programs focused on women, much as micro-lending has been, or youths and children. In the longer term, it must mean an emphasis on cheap computers from the lineage of the personal computer, not souped-up mobile phones. Or, in the alternative, it means that we need a heavier focus on regulatory interventions that will require mobile phones and phone networks to be more open and flexible—although this is a harder row to hoe. And in all events it means devices coupled with training.

I wonder if anyone envisions a world where ICTs for the industrialized world will be much the same as those for the millions of users in the developing world? For all the advances ICTs have made in the past six years, it seems we still aren’t at a point where the two worlds converge on technological matters.

Li Rivercruise-2, by Akiwitz on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Li Rivercruise-2, by Akiwitz on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Here is an interesting investigation from Mira Slavova in the blog Mobile Market Design for Development. She looks at a recent article “The Cloud, the Crowd, and Public Policy” by Michael Nelson, where Nelson “traces the evolution pf ICTs from Phase 1: standalone devices, through Phase 2: the World Wide Web, to Phase 3: the Cloud.”

So, for the developing world?

Certainly, I do not expect that the evolution of technology innovation in developing countries will necessarily follow the same path as that in the industrialised world. But I find it interesting to consider the possibilities for social, economic and technological development…

Looking at it from this perspective, I think it is fair to say that mobile technology in developing countries is probably in Phase 1 of its development. Other events, such as the use (albeit limited) of GPRS and 3G in developing countries and the availability (also limited) of mobile Internet access in suggest that ICT4D might have reached Phase 2.

The parallel story of the evolution of technology for use in developing countries clearly unfolds at a much greater speed than the evolution and adoption of personal computing in advanced industrialised countries. ICT4Ds are also not developing in isolation from technological and business model solutions aimed at advanced industrial countries, and vice versa.

What happens when we separate ICT4Ds from the general conversation of ICTs? Chris Coward in his blog, second recess, makes a good point that not all technologies aimed at the developing world have to do with capital-D development.

One of the problems with “ICT4D” is that it connotes different things to different people – with most definitions swirling around the application of (primarily digital) ICT to interventions that have an explicit developmental goal such as health, education, government transparency, or others of the sort found in the MDGs. As such, there is a tendency to ignore issues that do not correspond to the conventional development goals (quality of life, games, social movements, etc.), or what might be simply described as any use of ICT in a developing world context…

In order to accommodate a broader scope many people have turned to the term “ICTD,” or ICT and development, to place the emphasis on the phenomenon of ICT use in developing countries, irrespective of whether there is a “developmental” goal or not. Despite the good intentions behind this I’m afraid the nuance is lost on most people so I don’t think it serves our community long term. And, I hate acronyms.

There are other problems too – such as what constitutes “development” and is it meaningful to continue to lump countries into developing or developed buckets (I think not) – but these are topics for another day.

One way to help look at what exactly ICT4Ds are supposed to do, let’s try to view them through the eyes of a computer scientist. Beki70, the author of Beki’s Blog, has a good argument for attempting to co-mingle ICT4D and the ICTs aimed at a market like the United States.

The objective of ICT4D is to solve hard research problems that simultaneously make a difference in the lives of people underserved by ICTs. We don’t measure CS by the good that it’s created for the middle class of America, we measure it by the complexity of the solution.

There is a great debate, she says, within the field of Computer Science over its relationship with ICT4D.

Some participants, i.e. those who come from CS orientations, struggle to answer the question “where’s the Computer Science in ICT4D?” And others list numerous opportunities (to empirically show what the potential might be for areas that span the fields of Computer Science, such as low-cost connectivity, getting content into developing regions via novel networking architectures and caching systems, mobile and low-OS footprint applications, power management, computer vision for detection problems in health).

ICT4D causes me, at least, to reflect on economic impact (which favors those who create successful start-ups since they are likely the only people who can easily draw a line between what they’ve done and how many people have purchased it or use it) as a metric for Computer Science’s impact. Additionally, given the difficulties of finding appropriate measures, I can’t help wondering whether ICT4D is being asked to put the cart before the horse, if we’re learning how to measure productivity gains for computer use in corporate America (who have had computers in place for decades) is it perhaps unrealistic to have well-understood metrics for settings where getting the computer in is going to be a significant first challenge?

Trying to bring this discussion down to earth, let’s look at how the role of ICTs plays out in at least one country. (In my next post, I’ll look at next generation ICT projects aimed at the developing world.) In Sri Lanka, the blogger and ICT activist Sameera Wijerathna investigates what happens when the government and mobile phone operators get the mobile phone wrong. Instead of looking at it as a development tool, they market phones as a convenience.

From the blog Information and Communication Technology for Development.

A recent TV commercial in Sri Lanka shows a girl gets a SMS to her phone and says;
“My boyfriend is sending me SMSs too, even after being on phone with me for hours”
The message from boyfriend: “you are beautiful”
She replies: “you are smart”

Most of the mobile operators in Sri Lanka try to position the mobile phone as a mere tool for Entertainment and Keep In Touch (KIT). They mainly target youth for their marketing campaigns.
This has led to various confusions and disadvantages for both mobile subscribers as well as mobile companies. A negative sentiment has been developed among the people and most of the people, mainly the people at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) do not believe that mobile phone has a positive impact on their lives or livelihoods…
The wrong positioning of mobile phone in Sri Lanka has led to even worst policy decisions such as Government of Sri Lanka banning mobile phones in schools http://ict4d-in-srilanka.blogspot.com/2009/08/sri-lanka-bans-mobile-phones-at-schools.html
So, it is a need of the hour to understand the potential of the mobile phone in Development and position it at the right place. Also it is the time to introduce more and more Value Added Services which goes beyond the entertainment.


  • Thanks for this very useful update and overview. You’re right – the field needs to move on past the fisherman story. What is interesting is that the points that are being brought up today in discussions around ICT for development are the very same issues that media development organizations are talking about. I wonder if it even makes sense to distinguish the two fields anymore. Either way, what seems to be the bottleneck for both is costly internet access and telecom regulation.

    I have a feeling that which communities decide to adopt a cloud-based infrastructure for their data and computing versus those who prefer to keep their data on personal hard drives has a lot to do with culture.

  • […] On that topic, development and tech. […]

  • colin maclay

    Just as a quick FYI, unlike many old stories, the one about fishing and the mobile is actually quite well documented at not only improving yields for fisherfolk, but also improving market functioning, and family welfare. A few links to Rob Jensen’s excellent work are offered at:

  • I am glad you outline the changing nature of ICT as well as its complexities and promising possibilities in your blog. As a student of international relations, I feel many of us are not informed adequately of the progress and needs of ICT4D even though technology provides fast and cheap ways for the “bottom of the economic pyramid to improve [their] economic prospects”. I agree with Benkler in that the beginning success of mobile phones in poorer countries is due to their simplicity and affordability. As we move towards higher complex technologies, new problems will arise, but with the new innovation models suggested by Heeks and the educational training stressed by Benkler, consumers in developing countries will be able to take active roles as producers and innovators in ICT. For example, in South Africa WIZZIT is a mobile payment operator that offers low-cost financial services to those who otherwise would not have access to formal banking (40% of South Africans yet 60% are cell phone owners). WIZZIT has been so successful the International Finance Corporation (IFC) has invested in it. A most notable result is the creation of employment opportunities for disadvantaged youth as “the company trains young entrepreneurs and allows them to set up their own businesses”.

    Several times you indirectly mention cloud-computing through other bloggers’ work. In the blog and article you cite, Heeks calls cloud-computing as a “new hardware priority” and Nelson’s article includes it in the “phase three of the evolution of ICT”. I wish you would have talked more about this subject as it seems like the next possible future step in ICT4D. Cloud-computing is not exclusive to the betterment of developing countries, but as the Cloud Computing Journal mentions, the President’s fiscal budget for 2010 prioritizes cloud-computing as part of information technology (IT) spending due to the expected “significant impact of scale efficiencies”. Given these promising benefits why do you think a larger effort has not been made in further researching its possibilities in developing countries? Have there been any examples of successes/failures and what have proved to be the biggest obstacles? ICT4D seems to be a risky business of trial and error where innovation ensures the survival and success in both industrialized and developing countries.

  • […] a previous post, we investigated the future of ICT4D from a pretty high level. In this post, I am going to look at […]

  • […] “What future for ICT4D?” (via Twitter) – An interesting compilation of various blogs and talks discussing the idea of ICT for development.  While the post highlights some rather obvious points, which have been discussed by social scientists for at least a decade, it also brings in interesting and different perspectives.  One thought that it has triggered in me is that I have yet heard about socially-responsible marketing, which may emerge as an issue in the near future. […]

  • […] еден претходен пост, ние ја истражувавме иднината на ИКТ за развој од […]

  • […] previous two posts concentrated on what the future of ICTs for development could look like. This post will provide a […]

  • […] ambiguous evidence of online discussion of these themes that advances beyond well-worn anecdotes of fishermen with mobile phones. Those discussions surely exist, if not online; a look at the Manthan Awards in South Asia, for […]

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