Home > Political Economy of Digital Development > Understanding WDR2016 as a Conflict of Closed vs Open Institutional Logics

Understanding WDR2016 as a Conflict of Closed vs Open Institutional Logics

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.

  1. Juan Gómez
    15 February 2016 at 2:42 pm

    The metamorphosis pattern is very interesting and has been studied in the socio-technical transition management literature. Smith’s work shows that the guiding vision of the organic food movement was deluded once it faced the mainstream food industry [1]. At end, the structural impact of the organic food movement was conditioned by the incumbent regime.
    This perspective can easily be used in digital development research to understand this metamorphosis pattern.

    [1] Smith, A. Green niches in sustainable development: the case of organic food in the United Kingdom. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 2006, 24(3), 439–458

    • Richard Heeks
      15 February 2016 at 3:39 pm

      That is what Murphy & Carmody (cited in the blog entry) do – an interesting and valuable application of Geels’ socio-technical transitions model.

  1. 24 May 2016 at 9:17 am

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