Posts Tagged ‘ICT4D Theory’

Reviving Critical Modernism in Development Studies

7 September 2016 3 comments

Critical modernism forms a very small, rather dated trickle of ideas within development studies. How could it be updated to serve as a lens for current research?

Critical modernism can be understood as a wide sweep of ideas, particularly encompassing thinkers such as Habermas and Gramsci[1].  But it has only a small explicit footprint within development studies largely triggered by a chapter in Peet & Hartwick’s book Theories of Development, published in 1999[2].  Itself developed from earlier work, this was particularly a response to “post-development” ideas that arose in the 1980s.

Despite subsequent editions of Theories of Development, the core text on critical modernism by Peet & Hartwick remains unchanged, and the specific notion has gained little overt traction in development literature:

– A few works by Giles Mohan and collaborators in the mid-2000s[3].

– A recent paper taking a critical modernist perspective on rights-based development[4].

– Mark Thompson’s paper which included the question of how Development 2.0 would inform the “debate” on critical modernism within development studies[5].

Unfortunately there wasn’t really a debate, but we can revisit the question, to ask if critical modernism is worth rescuing from its development studies obscurity.

As a start, what is critical modernism?

As the name suggests, it is critical; meaning that – drawing from Marxist political economy – it focuses on the structures of power that shape the processes and outcomes of development.  Practically, it seeks to alter distributions of power in order to improve development outcomes.  Methodologically, it listens to subaltern voices: the voices of those who are excluded and marginalised; whose basic needs have yet to be met.  But it differs from structuralist critical theory through two additions.  First, an incorporation of post-structuralism that acknowledges – alongside the power of resources, institutions and structural relations – the power of discourse and ideas: the power of control over systems of knowledge (see diagram below).  Second, an incorporation of analytical lenses other than just class; for example a feminist lens that recognises patriarchal structures of power.


As the name also suggests, it is modernist: meaning that it accepts (albeit “critically”) and is optimistic about Enlightenment values.  Teleologically, this means critical modernism accepts the idea of development, with a purpose of progress and alleviation of material want[6].  Methodologically, this means an adherence to scientific method, to evidence-based conclusions, and to theorisation.  But it differs from simple modernism in two ways.  First, because it critiques modernism; not the substance of modernism but its current form as reflected in late-stage capitalism.  Second, because it recognise multiple modernities, as modernism interacts with multiple different localities and their contexts around the world.

From here, I suggest four developments of critical modernism, perhaps increasingly contentious:

a) Ontological development: it is an easy step to aver that critical modernism is commensurate with the research philosophy of critical realism. Hence that epistemological and methodological implications of critical realism apply when researching from a critical modernist perspective.

b) Conceptual development: listening to subaltern voices and incorporating the voluntarism of populist critiques of development means critical modernism recognises the agency of the marginalised – the ability of social movements to effect change, and the ability of the marginalised to use the tools (ideas, technologies, discourse) of the powerful to empower themselves. Hence a denial of structural determinism; instead arguing that structures of power shape but do not determine development outcomes. This requires a re-conceptualisation of power that incorporates both structural power (e.g. power over) and agentic power (e.g. power to); and which identifies power as deriving not from a monolithic structure but from multiple sources, both global and local.  Network theories of power may be especially relevant here; for example incorporating the connective power and agency that comes from membership of multiple and multi-scalar networks[7].  In practice, this means seeking universals and commonalities to link within a wider-scale network those local networks (movements and institutions) seeking to empower those at the margins.

c) Methodological development: “Critical modernism listens to what people have to say … Critical modernism finds worth in all experiences”[8]. If we are to take this seriously then it must include listening not just to the marginalised but also those within institutions of power. Critical researchers sometimes fail on this score; standing outside such an institution and painting a caricature that does not engage with, or listen to, its members.  This listening is itself universally critical: not unquestioningly believing all that is said by either the powerful or the powerless.

d) Critical development: as noted above, a central tenet of critical modernism is a “blame the player not the game” approach – “Critical modernism focuses on a critique of capitalism as the social form taken by the modern world rather than on modernism” – arguing that the problem is not modernism per se but capitalism as a particular form within modernism.

But the same logic must also be applied to capitalism.  Adding the requirements for rationality and evidence base, one can argue three things.  First, that capitalism – as well as being the driver for inequality and environmental unsustainability – has been the driver for many of the material gains experienced in the global South in the past two decades[9].  Second, that capitalism is not a form but forms[10].  And that the problems lie not with the substance of capitalism, but with particular forms that it has taken; notably the lightly-regulated forms of neoliberal capitalism and emergent digital capitalism.  Capitalism is not “a corrupt form of modernism”[11] but a corruptible form of modernism.  Third, that while socialism – even communism – may be highly effective in enabling the transformation from a largely agrarian society into early-stage industrialisation, alternatives to capitalism have largely failed to deliver sustainable later-stage development gains[12].

Here, we teeter to the very edge of what it means to be critical; well beyond what Peet & Hartwick – with their old-school calls for collective ownership of all means of production and all social institutions – would recognise.  The key dividing line lies between those who think capitalism is the problem, and those who think it will be – in some form – part of the solution.

(Likewise politically.  Critical modernism eschews kneejerk direct democracy in favour of reasoned, deliberative democracy.  But belief in evidence would accept this form of participative democracy only where – in practice – it proves more effective than representative democracy at delivering development.)

To summarise a (revised) critical modernist approach to development studies:

– Critical through central attention to the distributions of power that underlie distributions of development outcomes; and seeking to alter those distributions in favour of the less-powerful.

– A network conceptualisation of power that includes both structure and agency; both power over and power to.

– Critical acceptance of values of modernity including reasoning and democracy, development and progress, science and technology.

– An ontology and epistemology of critical realism

– Methodology based on scientific method and evidence that listens to both the powerless and powerful.

– Perhaps, a focus more on alternative forms of capitalism than alternatives to capitalism.

[1] Mumby, D.K. (1997) Modernism, postmodernism, and communication studies: a rereading of an ongoing debate, Communication Theory, 7(1), 1-28

[2] Latest edition: Peet, R. & Hartwick, R. (2015) Theories of Development, 3rd edn, Guilford Press, New York, NY

[3] E.g. Hickey, S. & Mohan, G. (2004) Relocating participation within a radical politics of development: critical modernism and citizenship, in: Participation – From Tyranny to Transformation?, S. Hickey & G. Mohan (eds), Zed Books, London, 59-74

[4] Langford, M. (2015) Rights, development and critical modernity, Development and Change, 46(4), 777-802

[5] Thompson, M. (2008) ICT and development studies: towards development 2.0, Journal of International Development, 20, 821-835

[6] Reflecting the views of many social movements that want not a rejection of development, but progress, material gains, and which often believe strongly in the power of science and technology (Hickey & Mohan (ibid)).

[7] Bennett, W.L. & Segerberg, A. (2012) The logic of connective action, Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 739-768

[8] Peet & Hartwick (ibid:313).

[9] Hulme, D. (2016) Should Rich Nations Help the Poor?, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK

[10] Henderson, J. (1996) Globalisation and forms of capitalism, Competition & Change, 1(4), 403-410

[11] Peet & Hartwick (ibid:314).

[12] O’Neil, P.H. (2015) Essentials of Comparative Politics, WW Norton & Company, New York, NY; Kornai, J. (2000) What the change of system from socialism to capitalism does and does not mean, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14(1), 27-42

Network Geography and Global Development: Dependency Redux?

6 June 2016 1 comment

The SDGs can be taken as a marker of transition from international development to global development worldviews.  Among other aspects of global development is a universalisation of development: development is everywhere; not just associated with the global South.  What does this mean for the geography of development?

One response would be to retain a physical, spatial approach to geography, but to move on from the old bipolarity of developed vs. developing; North vs. South.  Alongside moving upward to the global, this would move downward to the local; for example to regions, cities, “pockets of poverty” and the like[i].

An alternative would be to move to a network geography of development.  Social networks and transportation links mean networks have always been fundamental to development.  But telecommunication links – particularly digital links during the 21st century – have significantly accelerated the presence and salience and complexity of networks in development.  These exist as physical networks (such as physical infrastructure grids), virtual networks (such as online communities of practice) and most often as hybrid networks (such as supply chains and their parallel digital representations), so a network geography combines the physical and non-physical.  The explosive growth of networks in development demands greater use of network-based conceptualisations, including network geographies[ii].

Three main geographies can be applied to understand these networks.  First, a processual geography that focuses on the flows between nodes in the network (e.g. flows of aid between networks of development NGOs[iii]).  Second, a structural geography that focuses on the shape of the network (e.g. the impact of different network structures on water governance in Costa Rica[iv]).  Third, a relational geography that combines aspects of both flow and shape (e.g. the resource networks drawn on by development champions[v]).

Conceptualisation of these network geographies has come from a number of sources[vi].  Examples include social capital drawing from new institutional economics, global production networks drawing from economic geography, networked governance drawing from political science, embeddedness drawing from new economic sociology, and complex adaptive systems drawing from complexity theory.

However, if the spatial geography of old is to be supplanted, it will be by a new spatial geography; one that replaces position in the physical world with position in the network (physical, virtual, hybrid).  The positional network geography of development has often used the binary of being either inside or outside the network (e.g. Castells’ notion of the excluded “Fourth World”, or conceptions of the digital divide).  More sophisticated versions have added the category of “have lesses” between the “haves” and the “have nots”; those who are within the network but at the periphery.  Given, at least for digital networks, the dwindling numbers who are truly excluded, this is a more appropriate conceptualisation.  The positional geography of development thus becomes a geography of network position: distinguishing those actors at the core of the network from those at the periphery who are marginal and precarious.

While this might be an idea suitable for the 21st century nature of global development, it has earlier origins.  It sounds very similar to dependency theory, with its ideas of core and periphery.  Though long out of favour, this could provide one approach to a positional network geography of development; a revival supported by some in development studies[vii].

Aspects of dependency theory relevant to a wider network geography of development include:

  • Moving beyond the simple binary of core/periphery to world systems theory’s core/semi-periphery/periphery; or even to the idea of a spectrum of network positions.
  • Associating network position with differentiated roles vis-a-vis the production and capture of value, and with differentiated flows and ownership of resources.
  • Recognising the reproduction of network position through power; particularly the power of innovation, knowledge and technology.

A positional network geography of development would need to move away from dependency’s nation-state-centric approach, recognising many other units of analysis; and it would need to recognise the (constrained) potential for mobility of network position.  Work on global production networks has taken some of these ideas and demonstrated their relevance to another unit of analysis, but this needs to be extended to all forms of networks; not just global but regional and local; not just productive but political and social.  Indeed, one would need to recognise that any development actor lies not within a single network but within multiple networks; potentially with somewhat different positions in each.  These would include locally-embedded as well as disembedded networks.

Further developments needed include:

  • Recognition of the relational, institutional and cognitive/symbolic sources of power within the network; and the potential for network-specific conceptions of power[viii].
  • Recognition of the role played by the new technologies that increasingly mediate, enable and constrain the networks of global development; requiring some socio-materiality to be incorporated[ix].
  • Recognition of the increasing potential for quantification of positionality via social network analysis; a tool which can add absent methodological rigour[x].


[i] Horner, R. (2016) Unpacking the emergence of global development, unpublished draft

[ii] Bebbington, A. & Kothari, U. (2006) Transnational development networks, Environment and Planning A, 38(5), 849-866

[iii] Bebbington, A. (2004) NGOs and uneven development, Progress in Human Geography, 28(6), 725-745

[iv] Kuzdas, C., Wiek, A., Warner, B., Vignola, R., & Morataya, R. (2015) Integrated and participatory analysis of water governance regimes, World Development, 66, 254-268

[v] Renken, J. & Heeks, R. (2013) Conceptualising ICT4D project champions, paper presented at ICTD2013, Cape Town, 7-10 Dec

[vi] Heeks, R. & Renken, J. (2015) Investigating the potential of social network analysis in development studies, paper presented at DSA 2015 conference, Bath, 7-8 Sep

[vii] E.g. Fischer, A.M. (2015) The end of peripheries? On the enduring relevance of structuralism for understanding contemporary global development, Development and Change, 46(4), 700-732

[viii] E.g. Castells, M. (2011). A network theory of power, International Journal of Communication, 5, 773-787

[ix] E.g. Contractor, N., Monge, P. & Leonardi, P.M. (2011) Multidimensional networks and the dynamics of sociomateriality: bringing technology inside the network, International Journal of Communication, 5, 682-720

[x] Heeks, R. & Renken, J. (2015) Investigating the potential of social network analysis in development studies, paper presented at DSA 2015 conference, Bath, 7-8 Sep

Open vs. Closed Institutional Logics in Open Development Projects

“Open development” is a concept with some momentum in the ICT4D field, encouraged particularly by support from IDRC[1].  A core challenge has been theorisation of open development, and here I briefly propose and test the idea that institutional logics can offer such a foundation.

As noted in an earlier blog entry, “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.”

We can understand these ideas better by applying them to a real open development ICT4D case; selecting here the iDART system – open source software developed in South Africa by Cell-Life to help pharmacists dispense anti-retroviral drugs to those with HIV/AIDS.  The case has been written up by Melissa Loudon and Ulrike Rivett[2], and is here reinterpreted through a logics lens.

Cell-Life originated as an inter-university collaboration in Cape Town and, as such, has been heavily influenced by the institutional logics that operate within academic organisations.  Universities can be understood as sites of conflict between open and closed institutional logics; with the latter traditionally dominant but the former finding voice.

Examples of the constitution of the two institutional logics and their material (resources, processes, structures) and symbolic (culture) elements are shown in the table below, drawn from the case study[3].

  Open Logic Closed Logic
Resources Open source technologies


Freely-accessible data and content

Proprietary technologies


Restricted data and content

Processes Inclusive production of knowledge and technology


Student-centred learning

Exclusive production of knowledge and technology


Didactic teaching

Structures Unbounded peer-to-peer, multi-disciplinary networks Mono-disciplinary silos
Culture Universities seen as learning and action research environments


Academics seen as facilitators

Universities seen as ivory tower storehouses of knowledge


Academics seen as experts


With Cell-Life an enclave of open logic within a wider context of closed logic, conflict between the two logics was inevitable.  Examples include:

  • System development processes: system developers with a background of closed processes encountered with some difficulty very different open logic imperatives within the project.
  • Intellectual property rights: the university’s approach to software – proprietary IP that would be commercialised to the benefit of the university – conflicted with the open source approach underpinning Cell-Life’s work.
  • Software market: direct rivalry occurred between open-source iDART software and competing proprietary pharmacy management software.

There were also conflicts over the closed focus on disciplinary silos vs. the open logic of multi-disciplinary action research.

When organisational logics conflict, there are a number of potential outcomes including “decoupling”, “compromise”, and “selective coupling”[4].  In this case, two main outcomes were seen:

  1. Compromise: a hybrid approach that combines aspects of both open and closed logics. System development processes were neither completely open nor closed, but a mix of the two.  Users were involved through feedback on prototypes but the Cell-Life team retained control over the development process, often acting as proxies for users and acting as overall custodians of the system.  Some but not all user revision requests were incorporated.
  2. Protected Niche: Cell-Life created a protected niche of open logic, with barriers created against closed logic. After five years within the university system, Cell-Life was spun-off as a non-profit entity, thus increasing the structural barriers and distance to the dominant closed logic of the university system.  The software itself was developed to focus particularly on low-resource, rural pharmacies; a market niche not targeted by closed-logic-based commercial vendors.

What can we conclude?

First, that the idea of open vs. closed institutional logics is applicable to open development projects.  Institutional logics offers a new language; a new way to describe and explain what has happened on the project.  From this brief analysis, it’s not clear what new insights it provides beyond this; but that may be the nature of this post-hoc, external reinterpretation.  There is certainly a case for pre-hoc application of institutional logics – definitely, to analyse open development; likely, to analyse ICT4D more broadly – to help describe the outcome of conflicting logics; to explain when one logic dominates another; to understand how to deal with conflicting logics in practice; and to identify the role of open development/ICT4D champions as institutional entrepreneurs.

Second, and assuming we could generalise the idea of conflict between open and closed logics, this suggests that achieving true “open development” may be very difficult: there will always be pressure to hybridise.  But not only might fully-open development be unfeasible, it might also be undesirable.  Indeed, both extremes might be undesirable: closed development because it leads to inequality and exclusion, open development because it leads to disincentives to action and potentially-ineffective or chaotic outcomes[5].

One can see the latter in the case study, which restricts the openness of processes not only because of the pressures of closed logic, but also for reasons of project effectiveness and efficiency.  The evidence base here is just preliminary, but could suggest – assuming most development systems lean further to the closed than open end of the spectrum – that the objective should be “more-open development” rather than “fully-open development”.

[1] Reilly, K.M.A. & McMahon, R. (2015) Quality of Openness, IDRC, Ottawa

[2] Loudon, M. & Rivett, U. (2013) Enacting openness in ICT4D research, in: Open Development, M.L. Smith & K.M.A. Reilly (eds), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 53-77; an earlier version available as: Loudon, M. & Rivett, U. (2011) Enacting openness in ICT4D research, Information Technologies & International Development, 7(1), 33-46; some details from Rivett, U. & Tapson, J. (2009) The Cell-Life Project: converging technologies in the context of HIV/AIDS, Gateways, 2, 82-97

[3] See also Lounsbury, M. & Pollack, S. (2001) Institutionalizing civic engagement: shifting logics and the cultural repackaging of service-learning in US higher education, Organization, 8(2), 319-339

[4] See Nicholson, B., Malik, F., Morgan, S. & Heeks, R. (2015) Exploring hybrids of commercial and welfare logics in impact sourcing, , in: Openness in ICT4D, P. Nielsen (ed.), Department of Informatics, University of Oslo, Norway, 78-91; which draws on Pache, A.-C. & Santos, F. (2013) Inside the hybrid organization: selective coupling as a response to competing institutional logics, Academy of Management Journal, 56(4), 972-1001

[5] See, e.g., Heeks, R. (2015) The curse of hyper-transparency, ICT4DBlog, 27 Feb; and Dahlander, L. & Gann, D.M. (2010) How open is innovation?Research policy, 39(6), 699-709

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.

Actor-Network Theory, Technology and Development

What can actor-network theory offer to our understanding of technology and development?

This blog entry summarises the answer from an open access paper in the journal Development Studies Research: “Technological Change in Developing Countries: Opening the Black Box of Process Using Actor–Network Theory”, and it builds on an earlier entry on ANT and development.

Technology rather dropped from the development agenda during the 1980s and 1990s, but has re-emerged strongly in the 21st century; not least due to the spectacular diffusion of ICTs.

Yet, to date, conceptualisation of technological change in developing countries has had three problematic gaps:

  • It has been de-humanised: organisations are recognised as actors but people – as identifiable individuals with agency – rarely appear in the technology and development literature.
  • Technology may be understood as a physical artefact, as a system of elements, as the embodiment of knowledge. But it is not seen as playing any active role: technology is acted-upon but is not itself acting.
  • Research has tended to study factors or social structures affecting processes of technological change. But it does not describe those processes in detail: actual practices of change tend to be black-boxed.

In sum, research to date has typically stood outside the technology processes it seeks to investigate; freezing them in time and concealing their main actors.

As luck would have it, these are just the kind of lacunae that actor-network theory was intended to address.  Yet application of ANT to cases of technological change in developing countries has been rare; and within development studies literature, almost non-existent.  So new ANT-based case studies of technology and development are required to assess what insights actor-network theory can offer.

One such case study – applying Callon’s “moments of translation” to a digital information system in the Sri Lankan public sector – is presented in the Development Studies Research paper (which should be accessed for full details).  It finds that an initial network supporting technological change fell apart in mid-project, and had to be reconstructed around a new technology design and a new vision for future change.

Three challenges emerged in applying ANT:

  • Methodological: admission of subjectivity in framing an ANT-based case, and problems of thinning out detail to fit a journal-length account.
  • Analytical: that ANT can provide a rich description of how things happen, but stutters in seeking to analyse why.
  • Instrumental: the difficulty of extracting practical guidance from ANT other than rather “Machiavellian” prescriptions.

On the other hand, the case analysis shows that ANT can open the black box of technological change processes and offer new insights:

  • Networks: explaining the networks of relations that both support and oppose technological change, and also the detailed process by which they come to be formed, dissolved, etc.
  • Technology: exposing the active role that technology plays in international development – shaping, enabling, co-operating, resisting, etc.
  • Human practices: providing a detailed account of the role played by individuals and groups in technological change; particularly the way in which lead actors modify the perceived interests and even identities of others involved.

ANT therefore shows us not just that human interests, identities and relations change in a technology-and-development project; it also explains in what way they change, how it is that those changes come about, and how they relate to the project’s trajectory.

The case analysis shows that ANT will not help answer questions about the impact of context on technological process, or about the developmental impact (in the traditional sense) of technology. However, it may help to answer questions such as:

  • How do we explain the trajectory of a technology and development project?
  • How does a particular innovation in a developing country diffuse, scale up or sink without trace?
  • What role does technology play in processes of technological change?
  • How does power manifest itself in such processes? How are apparently relatively powerless actors sometimes able to influence the direction of technological change? How are apparently relatively powerful actors sometimes not able to get their way on a technology project?

As the technology used in development becomes more complex, more interconnected, more intertwined into the lives and livelihoods of developing communities, and changing at an ever-faster pace; then ANT will likely become more relevant and more useful as a conceptual frame.


Understanding ICT4D and Capabilities via User Roles

There has been a small but substantive engagement to understand how the capability approach of Sen and others could be applied in the ICT4D field (e.g. Andersson et al 2012, Kleine 2013).  One of the key challenges is the granularity of the capability approach.  It requires us to break down development not merely to the level of individuals but to the level of single capabilities or functionings.  Thus, at least in theory, generating a list that is many billions-long.

The capabilities approach can therefore only be operationalised by aggregation: a simplification that groups capabilities into a relatively few categories (e.g. Alkire 2002), or which aggregates from the individual to the group (e.g. Thapa et al 2012).

In this blog entry, I propose a different type of aggregation, via the notion of the “roles” people play in relation to ICTs.  Developing from the concept of roles within the workplace (e.g. Biddle 1986, Huvila 2008), we can define a role as a set of tasks and behaviours that are performed by an individual.  Roles therefore represent something halfway between a realised functioning and a livelihood.  They are shaped by “a mix of both social dynamics and technological affordances” (Postigo 2011:184).

Here, a set of roles will be analysed that people can play vis-à-vis ICT; represented as a ladder, as shown in the figure below.  In simple terms, climbing the ladder could be read as a greater intensity of engagement with the technology.  It is also a ladder of technological capability; each step reflecting higher-level competencies (skills, knowledge and perhaps also attitudes) that are required for this type of ICT use but which are also created by this type of ICT use.  And it also represents Sen’s ideas, with each successive role being a greater level of realised functioning.

ICT Roles Ladder

Figure 1: Ladder of ICT-Related Roles

The various roles can be understood in relation to categories of ICT use.  These are summarised in the figure and detailed below, selecting examples of particular relevance to those in low-income communities.  For further details, see the online paper: “ICTs and Poverty Eradication: Comparing Economic, Livelihoods and Capabilities Models”.


In these roles, members of poor communities are not direct users of either the technology or the information and services it carries:

  • Delinked: there is no obvious connection between particular ICT applications and poor communities.  An example might be applications within a large corporation which does not produce goods or services of relevance to poor communities.
  • Indirect: this represents a very large category of ICT applications in organisations in which the poor have no direct connection with the ICT, but in which the ICT application does deliver some benefit.  Examples might include the use of ICTs in large firms to improve supply, distribution and marketing to base-of-the-pyramid markets.

Other ICT Uses to Enterprise ICT Use:

In these roles, the poor make direct use of either the technology or the information and services it carries.  They can do this either as entrepreneurs or in other roles:

  • Intermediated consumer: this can represent all three main levels of consumption-related use of ICTs – one-way broadcast of information, interaction, transaction – but in no case is the consumer a direct ICT user; hence there is limited ICT-enabled change in role.  A typical example might be the delivery of e-government services, undertaken at kiosks and service centres staffed by intermediaries.
  • Passive consumer: a role in which there is direct use of the ICTs but just to receive “broadcast” information e.g. about health or market prices.
  • Active user: digitally-enabled interaction and transaction with socio-economic contacts; for example, the remittance of “mobile money” from urban migrants to rural relatives, or the use of telecentres by farmers to get agricultural guidance from distant advisers.

Enterprise ICT Use to ICT Sector:

In this role, those in poor communities make direct use of ICTs:

  • Producer: creation of enduring digital content.  This could be undertaken by an entrepreneur, for example, advertising goods and services on a voice-activated information service.  But it also overlaps into the ICT sector category; for example, musicians or video producers recording then sharing content on mobile phones.

ICT Sector:

In these roles, the use of ICTs is so central to the livelihood that it is seen as lying within the ICT sector:

  • Worker: employment in an ICT-based activity (one that could not exist without ICTs); for example, those employed to undertake data entry and other digitisation tasks as part of IT impact sourcing contracts.
  • Entrepreneur: creation of a self-employed ICT-based livelihood (one that could not exist without ICTs); for example, the umbrella people selling phone calls by the roadside, or those who set up PC kiosks providing digital photography, e-ticketing and e-government services.
  • Innovator: adaptation of the technology by modifying the technology itself such as the “street hacks” that alter mobiles to accept dual SIMs, or by modifying ICT-enabled processes such as the mobile money agents who adapt methods of service delivery to match their local context.

Any attempt to aggregate capabilities has its downsides, since it must necessarily simplify away some of the richness of Sen’s ideas.  However, the use of roles – whether those proposed above or others – as an analytical approach offers a fairly straightforward and robust way of evaluating ICT4D initiatives, which does some justice to the intentions and insights of the capability approach.

Further work now needs to be done to dig into the literature on work-roles, life-roles, social-roles and role theory, in order to provide a stronger foundation for the role ladder.

Understanding Inclusive Innovation

27 August 2013 5 comments

If you work on technology, you need to understand innovation.  If you work on technology and development, you need to understand inclusive innovation.

In simple terms, inclusive innovation is the means by which new goods and services are developed for and/or by those who have been excluded from the development mainstream; particularly the billions living on lowest incomes.  So new technologies for the base of the pyramid – mobile phones, mobile services, telecentres, better seed varieties, vaccines, etc – can all be included.

We can chart the rapid rise of interest in inclusive innovation in various spheres.  In the past few years, the World Bank, IDRC, GIZ, OECD and other development agencies have all launched inclusive innovation actions.  India, Thailand, China, South Africa, Indonesia and other national governments have added inclusive innovation elements into their policies.  And – as shown in Figure 1 below – academic publications related to the topic have been growing fast.

IncInnov GS Publications

Figure 1: Google Scholar Academic Publications for “Inclusive Innovation”

But what exactly is “inclusive innovation”?

The growth in publications means an increasing diversity of views, which now demand some overall conceptualisation.  This has two key aspects: firstly who, secondly what.

Inclusive innovation means someone is being included.  But who?  It must be some group that is typically marginalised within or excluded from mainstream processes of development.  Sometimes this may be women or youth or the disabled or the elderly.  But dominant attention has been on “the poor”; those on lowest incomes which may typically be defined as some small number of US dollars – US$1, US$1.25, US$2, US$2.50, etc – per day.  (There is also the issue of who, within this group, is then to be included via the innovation: will it be the whole group or just some part: perhaps the less-poor, or the men, or the adults?  This raises further questions about representation and heterogeneity and inequalities within the excluded group.)

And if (some of) this group are now being included in some way, in what are they being included?

It seems most helpful to understand the different views as a “ladder of inclusive innovation” (see Figure 2 below): a set of steps, with each succeeding step representing a greater notion of inclusivity in relation to innovation.  In more detail these are:

  • Level 1/Intention: an innovation is inclusive if the intention of that innovation is to address the needs or wants or problems of the excluded group.  This does not relate to any concrete activity but merely the abstract motivation behind the innovation.
  • Level 2/Consumption: an innovation is inclusive if it is adopted and used by the excluded group.  This requires that innovation be developed into concrete goods or services; that these can be accessed and afforded by the excluded group; and that the group has the motivation and capabilities to absorb the innovation.  All of those stages could be seen as sub-elements of this level of the inclusive innovation ladder, though all will be required for consumption so they are not hierarchical sub-steps (as appear in later levels).
  • Level 3/Impact: an innovation is inclusive if it has a positive impact on the livelihoods of the excluded group.  That positive impact may be understood in different ways.  More quantitative, economic perspectives would define this in terms of greater productivity and/or greater welfare/utility (e.g. greater ability to consume).  Other perspectives would define the impact of innovation in terms of well-being, livelihood assets, capabilities (in a Senian sense), or many other foundational understandings of what development is.  For those with concerns about inequality, this could include a condition that the benefits were restricted to the excluded group, or were greater than those achieved by ‘included’ groups using the innovation.  One can therefore differentiate an absolute vs. relative notion of inclusive impact of innovation, the latter being a sub-step above the former.
  • Level 4/Process: an innovation is inclusive if the excluded group is involved in the development of the innovation.  It is highly unlikely that the entire group could be involved so – as noted above – this immediately shrinks down to “members of the excluded group”.  This level needs to be broken down according to the sub-processes of innovation: invention, design, development, production, distribution.  These would create a set of sub-steps with, for example, an assumption of greater value of inclusion in the upstream elements than the downstream elements.  Further complicating matters, the extent of involvement is equated with different levels of inclusion.  Again, there would be sub-steps akin to those seen when discussing participation in development, with higher sub-steps representing deeper involvement.  Borrowing from Arnstein’s[1] ladder of participation, sub-steps can include: being informed, being consulted, collaborating, being empowered, controlling.
  • Level 5/Structure: an innovation is inclusive if it is created within a structure that is itself inclusive.  The argument here is that inclusive processes may be temporary or shallow in what they achieve.  Deep inclusion requires that the underlying institutions, organisations and relations that make up an innovation system are inclusive[2].  This might require either significant structural reform of existing innovation systems, or the creation of alternative innovation systems.
  • Level 6/Post-Structure: an innovation is inclusive if it is created within a frame of knowledge and discourse that is itself inclusive.  (Some) post-structuralists would argue that our underlying frames of knowledge – even our very language – are the foundations of power which determine societal outcomes.  Only if the framings of key actors involved in the innovation allow for inclusion of the excluded; only then can an innovation be truly inclusive.

IncInnov Ladder Model

Figure 2: Understanding the Different Levels of Inclusive Innovation

The levels are akin to steps on a ladder because each level involves a gradual deepening and/or broadening of the extent of inclusion of the excluded group in relation to innovation.  In general each level accepts the inclusion of the levels below, but pushes the extent of inclusion further.  Thus, for example, those concerned with inclusion of impact accept – necessarily – the value and actuality of inclusivity of intention and consumption, but feel this is not sufficient to fully justify the label of ‘inclusive innovation’.

The corollary is that a commentator standing at any particular step of the ladder would not regard views or practice at lower levels to represent true inclusive innovation.  Taking the example of those at the base-of-the-pyramid as the excluded group, commentators at Level 4 would feel innovation is only inclusive if those on low incomes somehow participate in the innovation process; perhaps typically in the development of the new good or service.  A new good or service which benefited the poor without this (i.e. an innovation at Level 3 developed non-participatively by a large firm or by government) would not be regarded as an inclusive innovation.

One may also detect a move from the positive towards the normative in ascending the ladder, with a decreasing number of real-world examples as one ascends.  Thus there are many examples of new goods and services which are developed and consumed by excluded groups, some of which have a beneficial impact.  Involvement of excluded groups in innovation processes is not frequent but it does occur.  However, one may be harder-pressed to find examples of structures let alone widely-shared knowledge frames in practice: these levels may represent aspirations more than realities at present.

Armed with the ladder model, we will find that dialogue, research, policy-making, practice, etc. are easier to achieve because all parties have the basis for framing their own understanding of inclusive innovation, and that of others.

However, this is just a first attempt.  So comments or pointers to other conceptualisations of inclusive innovation are welcome.

(This model and related text are extracted from “Inclusive Innovation: Definition, Conceptualisation and Future Research Priorities” by Richard Heeks, Mirta Amalia, Robert Kintu & Nishant Shah; a conference paper for AIE 2013 which can be found at:

[1] Arnstein, S.R. (1969) A ladder of citizen participation, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216-224

[2] For further details on the relation between innovation systems and inclusive innovation, see: Foster, C. & Heeks, R. (2013) Conceptualising inclusive innovation: modifying systems of innovation frameworks to understand diffusion of new technology to low-income consumers, European Journal of Development Research, 25(3), 333-355 [see also:]

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