A Research Agenda for Data-Intensive Development

In practice, there is a growing role for data within international development: what we can call “data-intensive development”.  But what should be the research agenda for this emerging phenomenon?

On 12th July 2016, a group of 40 researchers and practitioners gathered in Manchester at the workshop on “Big and Open Data for Development”, organised by the Centre for Development Informatics.  Identifying a research agenda was a main purpose for the workshop; particularly looking for commonalities that avoid fractionating our field by data type: big data vs. open data vs. real-time data vs. geo-located data, etc; each in its own little silo.

IMG_0828

A key challenge for data-intensive development research is locating the “window of relevance”.  Focus too far back on the curve of technical change – largely determined in the Western private sector – and you may fail to gain attention and interest in your research.  Focus too far forward and you may find there no actual examples in developing countries that you can research.

In 2014 and 2015, we had two failed attempts to organise conference tracks on data-and-development; each generating just a couple of papers.  By contrast, the 2016 workshop received two dozen submissions; too many to accommodate but suggesting a critical mass of research is finally starting to appear.

It is still early days – the reports from practice still give a strong sense of data struggling to find development purposes; development purposes struggling to find data.  But the workshop provided enough foundational ideas, emergent issues, and reports-back from pilot initiatives to show we are putting the basic building blocks of a research domain in place.

But where next?  Through a mix of day-long placing of Post-It notes on walls, presentation responses, and a set of group then plenary discussions[1], we identified a set of future research priorities, as shown below and also here as PDF.

DID Research Agenda

 

 

The agenda divided into four sub-domains:

  • Describing/Defining: working out the basic boundaries, contours and contents of the data-intensive development domain.
  • Practising: measuring and learning from the practice of data-intensive development.
  • Analysing: evaluating the impact of data-intensive development through various analytical lenses.
  • Resisting: guiding practical actions to challenge potential state and corporate data hegemony in developing countries.

Given the size and eclectic mix of the group, many different research interests were expressed.  But two came up much more than others.

First, power, politics and data-intensive development: analysing the power structures that shape DID initiatives, and that are inscribed into data systems; analysing the way in which DID produces and reproduces power; analysing what resistance to data hegemony would mean.

Second, justice, ethics, rights and data-intensive development: determining what a social justice perspective on DID would mean; analysing what DID can contribute to rights-based development; understanding how ethical principles would guide civil society interventions for better DID.

We hope, as a research community, to take these and other agenda items forward.  If you would like to join us, please sign up with the LinkedIn group on “Data-Intensive Development”.

 

[1] My thanks to Jaco Renken for collating these.

The Politics of Disconnection: Network Geography, Trump, Sanders, Brexit, et al

Disconnection

Due to advances in transport and digital infrastructure, we live in an increasingly-connected world.  The value of global flows rose from US$5tr in 1990 to US$30tr in 2014[1].  In the same period, international travel grew from 435m to 1.1bn per year.

But this global interconnection – and the economic crash that was its direct result – has led to a powerful counter-reaction, with challenger politics emerging from both right and left.  The figureheads in the global North are various and sometimes curious: Trump, Sanders, Farage, Iglesias, Tsipras, Le Pen, Hofer, and more.  While differing in many policies, they share common ground that boils down to the slogan, “Disconnect!”.

Examples of insurgent policies include:

  • Disconnection from human networks through anti-immigration initiatives.
  • Disconnection from governance networks such as leaving the EU or abandoning free trade agreements.
  • Disconnection from production networks through support for localised production, and disincentives to globalised production.
  • Disconnection from – or at least restrictions on – capital networks through tax and other financial controls.
  • Disconnection from geo-political networks through increasing reticence for overseas military intervention.

There are many other policy examples: British disconnection from international development networks; French disconnection from the euro; etc.

Who is this coming from?  Setting aside the catalysis and aspirations of individual leaders, there are differences but also similarities between the demographics of those disconnecting from the right and those disconnecting from the left[2].  Right-wing disconnectors tend to be older, poorer, less-well-educated; left-wing disconnectors the reverse. But they appear to have two things in common: they are more often from the ethnic majority, and they are more often men.

We can understand these people in terms of positional network geography (see earlier discussion).  Rarely excluded from key global networks, instead these are people who perceive themselves – or can be persuaded to perceive themselves – as adversely incorporated, peripheralised in those networks.  They see a network core that benefits at their expense; they see new, mobile members seeking to join their network and potentially displace them.  For those who are white men perhaps there is particularly a gap between the promise or expectation of benefitting from the growth of global networks, and a perceived reality of not doing so.

As the complexity of the networks into which we are connected grows, and as the number of our network connections grows, we become increasingly connected into contexts that are too complex to either understand or control.  Yet we demand that our politicians control these uncontrollable networks.  And this takes place in an environment of growing digital politics in which form matters more than content.

Combine these two and we encourage the confident assertion of simple solutions: on the right, disconnecting from global flows of labour; on the left, disconnecting from global flows of capital; both disconnecting from global governance networks.

This is reminiscent of the disconnections of the 1920s following the shock of the First World War.  Remind me, how did that work out?

[1] MGI (2016) Digital Globalization, McKinsey Global Institute, San Francisco, CA

[2] http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/02/si-we-can-how-left-wing-podemos-party-rattling-spanish-establishment; https://www.quora.com/Whats-the-demographic-profile-of-a-Bernie-Sanders-supporter; https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/03/24/eu-referendum-provincial-england-versus-london-and/; http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/who-are-donald-trumps-supporters-really/471714/

Network Geography and Global Development: Dependency Redux?

6 June 2016 1 comment

The SDGs can be taken as a marker of transition from international development to global development worldviews.  Among other aspects of global development is a universalisation of development: development is everywhere; not just associated with the global South.  What does this mean for the geography of development?

One response would be to retain a physical, spatial approach to geography, but to move on from the old bipolarity of developed vs. developing; North vs. South.  Alongside moving upward to the global, this would move downward to the local; for example to regions, cities, “pockets of poverty” and the like[i].

An alternative would be to move to a network geography of development.  Social networks and transportation links mean networks have always been fundamental to development.  But telecommunication links – particularly digital links during the 21st century – have significantly accelerated the presence and salience and complexity of networks in development.  These exist as physical networks (such as physical infrastructure grids), virtual networks (such as online communities of practice) and most often as hybrid networks (such as supply chains and their parallel digital representations), so a network geography combines the physical and non-physical.  The explosive growth of networks in development demands greater use of network-based conceptualisations, including network geographies[ii].

Three main geographies can be applied to understand these networks.  First, a processual geography that focuses on the flows between nodes in the network (e.g. flows of aid between networks of development NGOs[iii]).  Second, a structural geography that focuses on the shape of the network (e.g. the impact of different network structures on water governance in Costa Rica[iv]).  Third, a relational geography that combines aspects of both flow and shape (e.g. the resource networks drawn on by development champions[v]).

Conceptualisation of these network geographies has come from a number of sources[vi].  Examples include social capital drawing from new institutional economics, global production networks drawing from economic geography, networked governance drawing from political science, embeddedness drawing from new economic sociology, and complex adaptive systems drawing from complexity theory.

However, if the spatial geography of old is to be supplanted, it will be by a new spatial geography; one that replaces position in the physical world with position in the network (physical, virtual, hybrid).  The positional network geography of development has often used the binary of being either inside or outside the network (e.g. Castells’ notion of the excluded “Fourth World”, or conceptions of the digital divide).  More sophisticated versions have added the category of “have lesses” between the “haves” and the “have nots”; those who are within the network but at the periphery.  Given, at least for digital networks, the dwindling numbers who are truly excluded, this is a more appropriate conceptualisation.  The positional geography of development thus becomes a geography of network position: distinguishing those actors at the core of the network from those at the periphery who are marginal and precarious.

While this might be an idea suitable for the 21st century nature of global development, it has earlier origins.  It sounds very similar to dependency theory, with its ideas of core and periphery.  Though long out of favour, this could provide one approach to a positional network geography of development; a revival supported by some in development studies[vii].

Aspects of dependency theory relevant to a wider network geography of development include:

  • Moving beyond the simple binary of core/periphery to world systems theory’s core/semi-periphery/periphery; or even to the idea of a spectrum of network positions.
  • Associating network position with differentiated roles vis-a-vis the production and capture of value, and with differentiated flows and ownership of resources.
  • Recognising the reproduction of network position through power; particularly the power of innovation, knowledge and technology.

A positional network geography of development would need to move away from dependency’s nation-state-centric approach, recognising many other units of analysis; and it would need to recognise the (constrained) potential for mobility of network position.  Work on global production networks has taken some of these ideas and demonstrated their relevance to another unit of analysis, but this needs to be extended to all forms of networks; not just global but regional and local; not just productive but political and social.  Indeed, one would need to recognise that any development actor lies not within a single network but within multiple networks; potentially with somewhat different positions in each.  These would include locally-embedded as well as disembedded networks.

Further developments needed include:

  • Recognition of the relational, institutional and cognitive/symbolic sources of power within the network; and the potential for network-specific conceptions of power[viii].
  • Recognition of the role played by the new technologies that increasingly mediate, enable and constrain the networks of global development; requiring some socio-materiality to be incorporated[ix].
  • Recognition of the increasing potential for quantification of positionality via social network analysis; a tool which can add absent methodological rigour[x].

 

[i] Horner, R. (2016) Unpacking the emergence of global development, unpublished draft

[ii] Bebbington, A. & Kothari, U. (2006) Transnational development networks, Environment and Planning A, 38(5), 849-866

[iii] Bebbington, A. (2004) NGOs and uneven development, Progress in Human Geography, 28(6), 725-745

[iv] Kuzdas, C., Wiek, A., Warner, B., Vignola, R., & Morataya, R. (2015) Integrated and participatory analysis of water governance regimes, World Development, 66, 254-268

[v] Renken, J. & Heeks, R. (2013) Conceptualising ICT4D project champions, paper presented at ICTD2013, Cape Town, 7-10 Dec

[vi] Heeks, R. & Renken, J. (2015) Investigating the potential of social network analysis in development studies, paper presented at DSA 2015 conference, Bath, 7-8 Sep

[vii] E.g. Fischer, A.M. (2015) The end of peripheries? On the enduring relevance of structuralism for understanding contemporary global development, Development and Change, 46(4), 700-732

[viii] E.g. Castells, M. (2011). A network theory of power, International Journal of Communication, 5, 773-787

[ix] E.g. Contractor, N., Monge, P. & Leonardi, P.M. (2011) Multidimensional networks and the dynamics of sociomateriality: bringing technology inside the network, International Journal of Communication, 5, 682-720

[x] Heeks, R. & Renken, J. (2015) Investigating the potential of social network analysis in development studies, paper presented at DSA 2015 conference, Bath, 7-8 Sep

Open vs. Closed Institutional Logics in Open Development Projects

“Open development” is a concept with some momentum in the ICT4D field, encouraged particularly by support from IDRC[1].  A core challenge has been theorisation of open development, and here I briefly propose and test the idea that institutional logics can offer such a foundation.

As noted in an earlier blog entry, “institutional logics are broad social forces with both material and symbolic elements that shape the way we think and act.  Religion, family, state, and market are typical logics but running through digital development is a conflict between two other logics:

  • Open logic: a cooperative logic that values openly-accessible inputs, participative and collaborative processes, and shared distribution of benefits.
  • Closed logic: a competitive or controlling logic that values restriction of inputs, processes and benefits to particular individuals or groups.”

We can understand these ideas better by applying them to a real open development ICT4D case; selecting here the iDART system – open source software developed in South Africa by Cell-Life to help pharmacists dispense anti-retroviral drugs to those with HIV/AIDS.  The case has been written up by Melissa Loudon and Ulrike Rivett[2], and is here reinterpreted through a logics lens.

Cell-Life originated as an inter-university collaboration in Cape Town and, as such, has been heavily influenced by the institutional logics that operate within academic organisations.  Universities can be understood as sites of conflict between open and closed institutional logics; with the latter traditionally dominant but the former finding voice.

Examples of the constitution of the two institutional logics and their material (resources, processes, structures) and symbolic (culture) elements are shown in the table below, drawn from the case study[3].

  Open Logic Closed Logic
Resources Open source technologies

 

Freely-accessible data and content

Proprietary technologies

 

Restricted data and content

Processes Inclusive production of knowledge and technology

 

Student-centred learning

Exclusive production of knowledge and technology

 

Didactic teaching

Structures Unbounded peer-to-peer, multi-disciplinary networks Mono-disciplinary silos
Culture Universities seen as learning and action research environments

 

Academics seen as facilitators

Universities seen as ivory tower storehouses of knowledge

 

Academics seen as experts

 

With Cell-Life an enclave of open logic within a wider context of closed logic, conflict between the two logics was inevitable.  Examples include:

  • System development processes: system developers with a background of closed processes encountered with some difficulty very different open logic imperatives within the project.
  • Intellectual property rights: the university’s approach to software – proprietary IP that would be commercialised to the benefit of the university – conflicted with the open source approach underpinning Cell-Life’s work.
  • Software market: direct rivalry occurred between open-source iDART software and competing proprietary pharmacy management software.

There were also conflicts over the closed focus on disciplinary silos vs. the open logic of multi-disciplinary action research.

When organisational logics conflict, there are a number of potential outcomes including “decoupling”, “compromise”, and “selective coupling”[4].  In this case, two main outcomes were seen:

  1. Compromise: a hybrid approach that combines aspects of both open and closed logics. System development processes were neither completely open nor closed, but a mix of the two.  Users were involved through feedback on prototypes but the Cell-Life team retained control over the development process, often acting as proxies for users and acting as overall custodians of the system.  Some but not all user revision requests were incorporated.
  2. Protected Niche: Cell-Life created a protected niche of open logic, with barriers created against closed logic. After five years within the university system, Cell-Life was spun-off as a non-profit entity, thus increasing the structural barriers and distance to the dominant closed logic of the university system.  The software itself was developed to focus particularly on low-resource, rural pharmacies; a market niche not targeted by closed-logic-based commercial vendors.

What can we conclude?

First, that the idea of open vs. closed institutional logics is applicable to open development projects.  Institutional logics offers a new language; a new way to describe and explain what has happened on the project.  From this brief analysis, it’s not clear what new insights it provides beyond this; but that may be the nature of this post-hoc, external reinterpretation.  There is certainly a case for pre-hoc application of institutional logics – definitely, to analyse open development; likely, to analyse ICT4D more broadly – to help describe the outcome of conflicting logics; to explain when one logic dominates another; to understand how to deal with conflicting logics in practice; and to identify the role of open development/ICT4D champions as institutional entrepreneurs.

Second, and assuming we could generalise the idea of conflict between open and closed logics, this suggests that achieving true “open development” may be very difficult: there will always be pressure to hybridise.  But not only might fully-open development be unfeasible, it might also be undesirable.  Indeed, both extremes might be undesirable: closed development because it leads to inequality and exclusion, open development because it leads to disincentives to action and potentially-ineffective or chaotic outcomes[5].

One can see the latter in the case study, which restricts the openness of processes not only because of the pressures of closed logic, but also for reasons of project effectiveness and efficiency.  The evidence base here is just preliminary, but could suggest – assuming most development systems lean further to the closed than open end of the spectrum – that the objective should be “more-open development” rather than “fully-open development”.

[1] Reilly, K.M.A. & McMahon, R. (2015) Quality of Openness, IDRC, Ottawa

[2] Loudon, M. & Rivett, U. (2013) Enacting openness in ICT4D research, in: Open Development, M.L. Smith & K.M.A. Reilly (eds), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 53-77; an earlier version available as: Loudon, M. & Rivett, U. (2011) Enacting openness in ICT4D research, Information Technologies & International Development, 7(1), 33-46; some details from Rivett, U. & Tapson, J. (2009) The Cell-Life Project: converging technologies in the context of HIV/AIDS, Gateways, 2, 82-97

[3] See also Lounsbury, M. & Pollack, S. (2001) Institutionalizing civic engagement: shifting logics and the cultural repackaging of service-learning in US higher education, Organization, 8(2), 319-339

[4] See Nicholson, B., Malik, F., Morgan, S. & Heeks, R. (2015) Exploring hybrids of commercial and welfare logics in impact sourcing, , in: Openness in ICT4D, P. Nielsen (ed.), Department of Informatics, University of Oslo, Norway, 78-91; which draws on Pache, A.-C. & Santos, F. (2013) Inside the hybrid organization: selective coupling as a response to competing institutional logics, Academy of Management Journal, 56(4), 972-1001

[5] See, e.g., Heeks, R. (2015) The curse of hyper-transparency, ICT4DBlog, 27 Feb; and Dahlander, L. & Gann, D.M. (2010) How open is innovation?Research policy, 39(6), 699-709

Policies for Inclusive Innovation

29 April 2016 3 comments

For inclusive innovation to prosper, new policy initiatives are needed, argues the working paper “Policies to Support Inclusive Innovation”.  Inclusive innovation is the means by which new goods and services are developed for and by marginal groups (the poor, women, the disabled, ethnic minorities, etc).  It is central to addressing inequality in society, and thus increasingly on the agenda of global development actors.  (See here for a more detailed explanation of inclusive innovation.)

But inclusive innovation suffers from a series of failures – of innovation development, design, diffusion and use – that provide a rationale for policy intervention:

  • Formal innovators focus insufficiently on the poor.
  • Informal actors are delinked from innovation systems.
  • Those serving peripheral markets have weak adaptive capacity.
  • Low-income users lack capability to use innovations effectively.
  • Underlying policies and context are weak or absent.

These can then be flipped directly into five main inclusive innovation policy objectives:

  1. Orient Formal Innovation Systems Towards the Poor. Measures will include creating new innovation partnerships, supporting local innovative research, and reducing risk by providing market incentives for inclusive innovation.
  2. Promote Grassroots Innovators. Measures will include linking grassroots actors into formal innovation systems e.g. via intermediaries, and incentivising development and diffusion of grassroots innovations.
  3. Improve Absorptive Capacity of Low-Income Groups. Measures will include building skills to absorb and adapt innovations that meet the needs of marginalised groups, and supporting innovation hubs and clusters.
  4. Drive More Effective Use of Innovations among Low-Income Groups. Measures include supply-side actions to accelerate affordability of innovations, and demand-side actions to build the skills and knowledge necessary for effective use of innovations.
  5. Reduce Structural Barriers to Inclusive Innovation. Measures include altering government regulations that exclude or are biased against low-income actors, including altering sourcing rules.

However, such policy measures will only be enacted if there are broader policy changes.  This firstly means changing the worldview of policy makers so that they understand there is an important two-way connection between innovation and social inclusion; that marginalised actors are both consumers and producers of inclusive innovation.  It also means creating “Inclusive Innovation Policy Collaboratories” that bring together a wide range of stakeholders, and which adopt an experimental and iterative approach to the policy measures outlined above.

The diagram below provides an overview summary of inclusive innovation policy background and recommendations.

Inclusive Innovation Policy Overview

From ICT4D to Digital Development?

30 March 2016 7 comments

As a term, “ICT4D” is a strong and generally positive force.  It acts as a magnet to aggregate knowledge and practice.  It provides a clear and unambiguous tag for searches and material and events.  The “4D” component provides a purpose for activity.  Without it, we would lose more than we gain.

There was the well-meaning but ultimately-disadvantageous attempt to supplant it with “ICTD”, and there has been its fractionation as the field has grown into “M4D”, “HCI4D”, “ICT4E”, etc.  Now there’s the faint whiff of a new(ish) kid on the block: “digital development”.

At the turn of the century, “digital development” showed signs of becoming the chosen term for application of ICTs to development, before ICT4D nipped in from 2001 to squeeze it out.  It had a moment in the sun during the 2000s when it was used to help explain the digital divide.  And now it has received some recent resuscitation.  In 2014, UNCSTD commissioned a report on Digital Development, and USAID set up a Digital Development team as part of its Global Development Lab.  In 2015, the widely-cited “Principles for Digital Development” were launched.  In 2016, it got a cluster of mentions in the World Development Report, “Digital Dividends”.

As a term, “digital development” has plenty going against it: it’s generically ambiguous (searches bring up material on development of fingers and toes); it’s specifically ambiguous (searches bring up material on development of digital devices, or child development of digital technology capabilities); it doesn’t offer a snappy tag or signal; it has no inherent purpose.  Personally, I think it better we badge this “ICT4D 3.0” given the many benefits of the ICT4D label.  (Actually, “ICT4D 2.0” would be better still but I already jumped the gun on that one back in 2009.)

Nonetheless, “digital development” is a term with a bit of momentum behind it, and also a sense from recent entrants to the field – admittedly only gleaned from conversations at the WDR2016 London launch – that it is somehow new, and different from ICT4D.  So, at the Centre for Development Informatics, we decided to run with that and see where it got us: holding a brown-bag lunch at which everyone was asked to assume there is some kind of phase change from ICT4D to Digital Development and, given that, to give examples or indicators of that change.

Our summary of the phase change differences is shown in the table below.  A blog is not the place to provide a detailed explanation of the content, but I’ll note some main features:

  • Our bumper slogan was that digital technologies are a tool for development under ICT4D, but wiil be the platform and medium for development under Digital Development.
  • Digital Development both informs and is informed by a wider sense of phase change from “international development” to “global development” (discussed at a different brown-bag event of which more, perhaps, anon). One particular aspect of this – still a matter of much debate – is that development becomes a universal process, not one restricted to developing countries; a changing geography also seen within the shift in content from MDGs to SDGs.
  • It seeks to incorporate earlier ideas like “Development 2.0” (seen as exemplifying some of the new development models of a Digital Development era) and “ICT4D 2.0” (seen as the innovation worldview that underpins Digital Development).
  • It draws significantly from existing ideas on the network society and internet studies, and seeks to incorporate them into the global development domain. That intersection of digital and development is where most work still needs to be done.  Castells & Himanen recently had a stab at this but it remains a work in progress.  Alongside research into, and examples of, all the elements in the right-hand column, thinking about the digital/development intersection therefore forms the main agenda to take forward.
META-ISSUE ISSUE ICT4D DIGITAL DEVELOPMENT
Development Development goals MDGs SDGs (Inclusion, Sustainability, Transformation)
Nature of development International Development (global South) Global Development (universal)
Technology Infrastructure Partial (individually-connected ICTs; global North dominant presence) Ubiquitous (cloud-based “digital nervous system” of converged ICTs; global South dominant presence)
Key technologies PC, internet, mobile phone Smartphone, broadband, sensor, 3D printer
Focus Conspicuous artefacts, devices Data, information (artefacts become unobtrusive, tacit in life)
Data Text-dominant Audio-visual-dominant
Development Application Development role Tool for development Platform and medium for development
Development models “Development 1.0”: digitising and improving existing development processes

 

 

“Development 2.0”: redesigning development processes and systems (users as digital producers, the power of the crowd, digital participation, network structures, data-intensive development, and open development)
“Intensive development” and discrete digital economy “Extensive development” and pervasive digital economy
Innovation model “ICT4D 1.0”: inclusive pro-poor (laboratory), semi-closed, linear “ICT4D 2.0”: inclusive para-poor/per-poor (participative, grassroots), semi-open, agile & iterative
Development Systems Development geography Places and nodes Spaces, hybrid places, relations, and flows (breakdown of time/space barriers)
Development structures Linearity: hierarchies and chains Complexity: multi-scalar, interconnected (but still hierarchical) networks and ecosystems
Networks: local, national; simple and loose-connected; physical Networks: transnational, global; complex and inter-connected; physical and virtual
Generic impacts: stability, development Generic impacts: volatility, ripple of shocks, uncertainty, precariousness, potential regression
Development processes Human (decisions & actions) Smart (algorithmic decision-making; automated action)
Development logics Closed-dominant Form (models/structures) and practices (processes) change but still closed-dominant
Development Agency Capabilities Digital immigrant Digital native
Technology usage Partial, intermittent Digital immersion
From physical collective to individual use (introspection) From individual to virtual collective use (performance)
Development Impacts Economic development Enhanced capitalism Frictionless capitalism
Political development Accelerated liberalism Accelerated pluralism
Impacts worldview Positive Positive and negative
Development Policy Policy structures Feudal: partly-mainstreamed (cells within sectoral silos) Federal: fully-mainstreamed (foundation to all sectoral policy/strategy) & sidestreamed (cross-cutting coherence)
Development issues Inclusion: digital divide (absolute exclusion) Inclusion: network position (relative exclusion and adverse inclusion)
Sustainability: of ICT4D projects Sustainability: of development; resilience
Transformation: only digitisation and improvement as potential impacts Transformation: redesign and transformation as potential impacts
Value chain focus Readiness to Uptake as constraints to positive impacts Impact: positive and negative
Development Informatics Research Research issues Incremental impacts: digitisation and improvement of traditional development Disruptive impacts: redesign and transformation, including digital economy and digital politics
Readiness and adoption Political economy and digital harm
Technology and context Agency, institutions, and structural relations
Conceptual models Traditional disciplinary conceptions Network models, complex adaptive systems
Digital divide models Political economy models
Technology acceptance model Institutional logics

My thanks to all CDI colleagues (MSc ICT4D students, PhD researchers, and staff) who contributed at and after the brown-bag lunch, and without whom there would be no table.

Understanding WDR2016 as a Conflict of Closed vs Open Institutional Logics

11 February 2016 3 comments

How can we explain the negative consequences associated with ICTs: the digital deficit and digital ills identified in the 2016 World Development Report?

As summarised earlier, the Report itself blames the digital deficit – inequity in the distribution of ICT benefits to a few “haves” rather than the many “have nots” – on two divides: a digital divide of very uneven access to the digital infrastructure; and a social divide of inadequate policies, skills, and (public sector) institutions.  And it ranges a little wider in identifying authoritarian states, vested interests, and monopolies as the source of some negative ICT-related impacts.

The Report therefore starts to manoeuvre around two classic ICT4D shortcomings[1]:

  • The teleological error: the association of ICTs solely with their intended purposes; assuming that policy needs only focus on removing barriers to diffusion and adoption to deliver development.
  • The structural error: the association of ICTs solely with “imminent development” (incremental, short-term, development driven by individual agency), ignoring the association of ICTs with “immanent development” (the development that emerges from the deep structures of society).

But we can push further than the Report does to look at those deep structures, using the ideas of institutional logics.  Institutional logics are broad social forces with both material and symbolic elements that shape the way we think and act.  Religion, family, state, and market are typical logics but running through digital development is a conflict between two other logics:

  • Open logic: a cooperative logic that values openly-accessible inputs, participative and collaborative processes, and shared distribution of benefits.
  • Closed logic: a competitive or controlling logic that values restriction of inputs, processes and benefits to particular individuals or groups.

At least in the economic and political spheres, closed logic is the dominant global force but challenged sporadically by open logic[2].  On that basis, we can see three patterns reflected in the Report:

  • Reinforcement: cases in which the dominant closed logic is reproduced, or extended, or augmented through use of ICTs. Examples abound: electronic surveillance of citizens by autocratic regimes; the lack of impact of e-procurement systems on bribe-paying and bid participation rates; capture of e-participation systems by political elites; and development of digital monopolies.
  • Insurgence: cases in which the subordinate open logic is strengthened through use of ICTs. For instance, crowdsourcing to report and reduce electoral violence and fraud, creation of open learning systems, or crowdfunding platforms.  But these are fewer and weaker than the reinforcement examples.  So there is a sense of marginality: incremental gains that do not disturb the underlying closed logic – sometimes perhaps deliberate “openwash” that coats closed logic with an open veneer.
  • Metamorphosis: cases in which ICTs initially support open logic which is then translated into closed logic. A number of the Report’s sharing economy examples have followed this trajectory; for example, mutating from non-profit to for-profit.

The Sustainable Development Goals are clear that development to date has been too incremental, and needs to be transformational.  If we take that seriously, then ICT4D must attend to its teleological and structural errors; in particular, asking how ICTs can accompany or even facilitate structural transformation.

This does not mean spurning closed logic and supporting only open logic – competition, control and cooperation are all fundamental human impulses, and none of them alone can deliver development.  But ICTs cannot help deliver the SDGs’ radical agenda if they simply help closed logic grow at the expense of open logic.

This means more ICT4D research on the role of digital technology vis-a-vis the immanent development that emerges from society’s deep structures, and more ICT4D practice that recognises and engages with those structures.

[1] Adapted from Murphy, J.T. & Carmody, P. (2015) Africa’s Information Revolution, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, UK.

[2] See, e.g., Fuchs, C. (2008) Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age, Routledge, New York.

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