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Technology Foundations for Digital Development

If there is to be a coming digital development paradigm, on what technologies will it be based?

Mobile, broadband, and mobile broadband (hence smartphones and tablets) will be a key foundation for the digital development paradigm.  They are already present or rapidly diffusing in developing countries.

As these diffuse, cloud, social media and other Web 2.0 applications necessary for digital platforms will become dominant.  The highest growth rates for cloud are already in the global South[1].  Social media is already dominated by the global South: by 2016 North America and Europe made up just 26% of global social network users, with 52% in Asia (including Oceania), 13% in Central/South America, and 9% in the Middle East and Africa[2].

Looking further ahead, of technologies likely to have a significant impact on development, the Internet of things is a main contender: the online connectivity of increasing numbers of objects.  The main growth area – 50 billion devices predicted by 2020[3] – is seen to be two types of connection.  First, stand-alone sensors – for example providing agricultural readings from fields, or medical readings from health centres.  Second, sensors integrated into mainstream objects from cars and refrigerators to toilets and shoes.

All these applications become smart when they move from a passive ability to collect and transmit data to an active ability to take a decision and action on the basis of that data: smart irrigation systems that automatically water dry crops; smart electricity grids that automatically isolate and re-route around transmission failures.   Even more than cloud, smart systems bring significant potential to increase efficiency and effectiveness of infrastructure and business, alongside significant potential to increase dependency and vulnerabilities to cybercrime and surveillance[4].

Digital ICTs have already moved us along the time dimension to a world of 24/7 everywhen connectivity (see Figure 1[5]).  Thanks to telecommunications advances, anywhere can now be connected, and we are slowly erasing the blank spaces on the digital map and moving towards everywhere being connected.  In terms of nodes, pretty well anyone and anything could now be connected thanks to ubiquitous computing.  There is still a very long way to go but within a generation almost everyone will be connected, and we will be steadily moving closer to everything being connected thus vastly multiplying the number of “points of potential control, resistance, and contestation”[6].

Figure 1: The Growing Domain of Digital Connectivity

We can therefore think of three generations of technological infrastructure for digital development (see Figure 2).  The first, already well-rooted, is based largely around mobile devices.  The second, currently emerging, is based around digital platforms and the Internet including Web 2.0 applications.  The third, currently nascent, will be based around a ubiquitous computing model of sensors, embedded processing and near-universal connectivity, and widespread use of smart applications.

Figure 2: The Generations of Digital Infrastructure for Development

Digital development is the subject of a Development Informatics working paper: “Examining “Digital Development”: The Shape of Things to Come?”, and is the topic for other blog entries.


[1] UNCSTD (2013) Issues Paper on ICTs for Inclusive Social and Economic Development, UN Commission on Science Technology and Development, Geneva

[2] WAS (2016) Digital in 2016, We Are Social, Singapore

[3] Pew Research Center (2014) The Internet of Things Will Thrive by 2025, Pew Research Center, Washington, DC

[4] UNCSTD (ibid.)

[5] Adapted from ITU (2005) The Internet of Things, International Telecommunication Union, Geneva

[6] p24 of Deibert, R. & Rohozinski, R. (2012) Contesting cyberspace and the coming crisis of authority, in: Access Contested: Security, Identity, and Resistance in Asian Cyberspace, Deibert, R.J., Palfrey, J.G., Rohozinski, R. & Zittrain, J. (eds), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 21-41

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