Development Transformation as the Goal for Digital Transformation

Richard Heeks, Bookie Ezeomah, Gianluca Iazzolino, Aarti Krishnan, Rose Pritchard & Qingna Zhou

There’s a lot of talk currently about digital transformation for development.  Sometimes styled “DX4D”, a quick definition would be radical change in development processes and structures enabled by digital systems.

Digital transformation is thus not a goal.  Instead, development transformation is the goal and starting point.  But what kind of development transformation?

In this post, we summarise what development transformation would mean under different development paradigms, and some implications for digital.  The table below is not exhaustive of the various paradigms and it rather brutally simplifies rich and complex ideas.  However, it does help clarify two key DX4D tenets:

  • Vision Matters: unless you know where you want to get to, digital can’t help take you there.
  • Visions Differ: different paradigms aim for very different destinations and, hence, different journeys in the application of digital.

If you have paradigms you’d like to add or you have improvements to offer on what’s in the table, do let us know.

Development Paradigm Essence? Transformation? Digital Implications?
Neoliberal Markets and market relations are the central foundation for economic development.  They, and not government regulation or vested interests, are the best way to allocate development resources and to generate productivity improvements and growth.  The state acts to support market-driven development. Neoliberalism is thus about the reformatting of politics, society and individuals according to market logics, the pursuit of profits, and individual responsibility principles. Stabilisation to reduce government expenditure.  Liberalisation to roll back state regulation, subsidies and other interventions in markets and the private sector.  Privatisation to transfer ownership from public to private sector. Digital, particularly via platforms, must enable the formation and presence of markets in all sectors, and a step change in market functioning via datafication and machine-readability of market actors and processes. Digital will also enable the development of private sector responsibility for public service delivery, and major improvements in efficiency of remaining public sector functions.
Structuralist Particular socio-economic structures inhibit development.  For dependency variants, it is unequal relationships of exchange between core and periphery, whether understood in terms of countries, regions, or more immaterial geographies.  For Marxist and related anti-capitalist paradigms, it is unequal relationships of exchange between capital and labour. The exploitative socio-economic structures must be broken away from and/or replaced.  From a dependency perspective, at the extreme, this means autarky and a focus on localised systems of production and consumption.  From a Marxist perspective, it means the end of capitalism and its replacement with structures of common ownership. Digital must support radical structural change based around localised production and/or cooperative or similar ownership structures.
Sustainable Ensuring resource usage does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs; with variants ranging from green growth through to de-growth. Major reductions in resource usage including improvements in efficiency of resource-using processes.  Major reductions in polluting outputs from processes. Internalisation of negative environmental externalities so as to gauge the true cost of economic growth. Digital must support a step-change in resource usage and polluting outputs of all economic and social processes, including those involving digital itself.  Digital must also support environmental mapping and monitoring to track progress of sustainability. 
Human Development Development as freedom; in particular economic, political, social, security and informational freedom for all so that no-one is left behind and all have the opportunity to be and to do what they wish.     Changing contexts so that there is equality of opportunity and equality of choice; especially for those currently denied those opportunities.     Digital must be not just accessible but usable and appropriable by all.  It must then support the ability of all to choose the kind of lives and livelihoods that they value; thus requiring some customisation to individual contexts rather than a blanket equality of access to assets, institutions and livelihoods.
Decolonisation Reversal of the current and legacy negative impacts of colonisation. Enabling sovereignty and “self-determination of indigenous peoples over their land, cultures, and political and economic systems”[1].  Also understood – and drawing on the post-development roots of one strand of decolonisation – as the identification, challenging and revision or replacements of “assumptions, ideas, values and practices that reflect a colonizer’s dominating influence and especially a Eurocentric dominating influence”[2]. Digital must be accessible, usable and appropriable by indigenous peoples, enabling them to exercise self-determination.  Digital sovereignty will enable local “control over digital assets, such as data, content or digital infrastructure, or over the use of those assets”[3] and prevent uncontrolled extraction of value from these assets by others. For the latter understanding of decolonising transformation, digital must empower those who have been disempowered by Eurocentric domination of epistemics and discourse, and enable them to engage with and challenge that domination.  

Photo by Javier Miranda on Unsplash

[1] https://globalsolidaritylocalaction.sites.haverford.edu/what-is-decolonization-why-is-it-important/

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/decolonize

[3] https://oxil.uk/publications/2021-01-20-plum-digital-sovereignty/Plum_Aug_2020_Digital_Sovereignty_states_enterprise_citizens%20%281%29.pdf

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