Posts Tagged ‘Digital Development’

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


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


From ICT4D to Digital Development?

30 March 2016 10 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.
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.

Digital Dividends: Thoughts on the 2016 World Development Report

13 January 2016 1 comment

Some years back, helping run a session at the World Bank, I introduced myself to a table of participants.  “Oh yes”, came the sniffy response, “you’re the ICT failure guy”.  This was a World Bank that believed in – and heavily promoted – the development benefits of ICTs, and had little time for any contrary evidence.

Judging from this year’s World Development Report – “Digital Dividends” – that rose-tinted optimism has been replaced by a much more realistic, and somewhat downbeat, perspective on ICT4D; a perspective that’s emerged from strong engagement with the current evidence base.

Three Divides

WDR2016 is a tale of three divides.

The first is an impact divide: a gap between ICT’s widespread diffusion and its actual delivery of benefits – the “digital dividends” of the title.  As one would expect, the Report does a great job of laying out those dividends, particularly through pithy frameworks and graphics.  It shows the way in which ICT affordances of efficiency, inclusivity and innovation have driven productivity, growth and jobs in the economic sphere, and more capable and responsive governments in the political sphere.

Yet alongside the digital dividend has come:

  • a digital deficit: inequalities in the distribution of these benefits with a few “haves”, many “have nots”, and far more “have lesses”; and
  • digital ills: cybercrime and curtailment of online freedoms that sit beside the ICT4D unmentionable, online pornography.

The cause of these problems – at least the digital deficit – is the two other divides.

The digital divide is familiar territory: the problems of accessibility and affordability with customary prescriptions that mix competition and regulation, and at least a mention for the applicability problems that arise from digital illiteracy.  But of more interest is the strong recognition that a social divide is the main determinant of the pattern of ICT4D impacts: a gap between the regulations, skills, and institutions needed to deliver digital dividends for all vs. the actual regulations, skills and institutions present within developing countries.

Those who believe in a contextualised, socio-technical approach to ICT4D will nod along to all this.  Even the consequent prescriptions – “regulations that allow firms to connect and compete; skills that technology augments rather than replaces; and institutions that are capable and accountable” – while they have an expected flavour of neo-liberalism, constitute a broader digital policy agenda than often promoted in the past by the World Bank.

Digital Development

This broader agenda reflects a bigger picture issue: the Report is one more marker of the transition from “ICT4D” to “digital development”.  The absence of ICT4D (it gets no mentions save a bibliographic reference to one of my papers) in favour of digital development is more than just a change in terminology but – as I’ve written in an earlier report (see here for edited version) – reflects the slow change from ICTs being a tool that assists development to their being the platform that mediates development.

The agenda for digital development will be substantially shaped by the Sustainable Development Goals, with their three essentials of transformation, inclusion and sustainability:

  • As noted above, WDR2016 identifies how much ICTs have already delivered; how reality has so far undershot the transformative potential of ICTs, due to technical and social divides; but also what the solutions might be.
  • Inclusion – or rather lack thereof – is also a key Report theme, citing concentration of economic and political power, state and corporate control of citizens, and inequality of economic impacts. The Report’s focus on economic and political domains means it has much less to say about ICTs and inequalities in other domains such as social and family and cultural life.  It is also rather mixed in its perspective on ICTs and inclusion: at times arguing inequalities “persist, not because of digital technologies, but in spite of them”, but in other places explaining how ICTs have facilitated digital monopolies, automation of middle-income jobs, and digital authoritarianism.
  • Sustainability and its operationalisation through resilience gets a brief acknowledgement but – as I’ve noted in my “ICT4D2016” paper – much remains to be done to really get a grip on the coming e-sustainability and e-resilience agenda.

The practice of digital development will be substantially shaped by Development 2.0: the ICT-enabled innovations that challenge existing development structures and processes: users as digital producers, the power of the crowd, digital participation, network structures, data-intensive development, and open development.  In largely reviewing the existing evidence base, “Digital Dividends” has less to say about these.  But they are identifiable within the Report as part of the coming flow.

WDR1998/99 (“Knowledge for Development”) had an important impact in kick-starting ICT4D.  WDR2016 faces a different world – one far more mature, and perhaps a little jaded in its experience of ICTs and development, but it reflects this evolution well and will be a vital pointer for the “digital development” future.


Disclosure: I was an invited Advisory Panel member for WDR2016.

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