From ICT4D to Digital Development?

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.
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.


11 thoughts on “From ICT4D to Digital Development?

  1. Hi Richard,
    Interesting post – particularly the way in which you’ve broken down and mapped the different issue areas.

    I have to confess though, I’ve never really liked the term “ICT4D”. My issue is the “4D”. It feels like or at least implies that it is starting from the wrong place – “I have technology or technology expertise and i will apply it for development” rather than starting with a clear understanding of a problem and what technology might or might not offer. It also feels very top down in a very classic aid world view of development.

    There is lots of really interesting work going on where attempts are being made to make processes of the development and application of ICTs more inclusive or using “user-centred design” approaches. However, even within these i would suggest huge numbers of initiatives are still “ICT 4” rather than “ICT with” or “ICT by”.

    I am not for one minute suggesting “digital development” actually addresses this but it does potentially actually provide a better semantic (and possibly pedantic :)) starting point. As you suggest, a risk of recasting from ICT4D to Digital Development might be the potential reinventing of wheels and missing the wealth of what has been learned under the moniker ICT4D.

    Either way i think “ICT in Development” and “Digital in Development” are potentially more humble and realistic ways of viewing how technology plays a role in development.

    1. We’ll have to disagree on the semantics of ICT4D – it seems to me to be an over-interpretation to attribute top-down or techno-centric meaning to the term. And there have continually been papers and discussions that are prompted by the “4D” component to look beyond the technology, and recognise the development context – demonstrating a value of the term.

      But, beyond the semantics, I also want to recognise the instrumental value of the term; something that perhaps isn’t so often acknowledged. As a tag, as a knowledge aggregator, as an identity, ICT4D has been very useful – reflected in how widespread its use has been – and I’m thus quite hesitant about the emergence of ‘digital development’.

  2. I personally like the term “digital development” more than ICT4D as it feels more holistic in what technologies we include and the concept that development itself is changing with the introduction of technology (mainstreaming vs sidestreaming), however, searching for activities, projects, papers, etc using “digital development” is a fools errand of false positives compared to ICT4D, which is unique to our field.

    1. So – how do we have the best of both worlds – “digital development” but with a clear tag for searches, events, etc?

  3. Thanks Richards for summarizing critical aspects of ICT in development or digital development.

    There are very important lessons that have been summarized: participatory ICT development, inclusion, sustainability, institutions and policies. I agree to what Richard says, ICT4D has been largely seen as techno-centric approach. There are very important processes that are involved to optimize the use of ICT in development. There are few questions that I have been asking:

    – will a better internet and mobile connective lead to development?
    – What is an ICT solution – technological or process or both? We need to really understand what it takes to make an ICT solution work (and in contexts).

    I am not sure what are the new dialogues around ICT4D, but my humble request is to see how ICT makes some difference in lives of poor and they are able to use and control these. Pro-poor ICT may be one such area to focus – just a thought !!

    1. Just to clarify, I don’t associate ICT4D with a techno-centric approach: certainly there is a more technically-oriented fraction of the domain, but I don’t see it as an inherent trait of ICT4D thinking – indeed, one of the values of ICT4D has been its contextualisation of technology. Given that, one might hesitate to say that particular technologies will themselves lead to development – technologies are designed and used by people for particular purposes, and those people’s purposes and capacities are determined by the institutions, social relations, and knowledge systems of their context. So one always has to look at the socio-technical complex of factors that interact within development.

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