The Truth About Disruptive Development
The West shouldn’t create solutions to problems we don’t understand using fashionable mobile technologies.
Ten years ago, I was preparing for my first contribution to mobile technology—the result of two years of work that would lead to the development of a conservation service called wildlive!, and which would mark the release of one of the earliest reports on the application of mobile technology in conservation and development. A lot has happened since then. There’s been an explosive interest and excitement—and, yes, hype—in mobile, and a sense that the technology can be the savior of, well, everything.
Back in 2003, you’d be able to fit everyone working in mobile for development (m4d) into a small cafe. Today you’d need at least a football stadium. m4d—and its big brother, ICT4D (information communication technologies for development)—have become big business. Although I didn’t need more proof of mobile’s supreme status in development, last month I attended Vodafone’s Mobile for Good summit in London. It was a high profile affair, and an extremely upbeat one. Yet I left with mixed feelings about where m4d is headed.
My five takeaways after a day of talks, debates, and demonstrations were:
- Everyone is still excited by the potential of mobile.
- The same projects surface over and over again as proof that mobile works.
- Mobile is still largely seen as a solution, not a tool.
- It’s up to the developed world to get mobile working for the poor.
- The top-down mindset is alive and well.
Suffice to say, all of these conclusions troubled me as I sat on the train home.
I’ve been thinking for some time about the future of m4d, and how far we’ve come over the past decade. I’ve written frequently about the opportunities mobile technology offers the development community and my fears that we may end up missing a golden opportunity. I’ve long been a champion of platforms and of understanding how we might build tools for people to take and deploy on their own terms. Yes, we should provide local entrepreneurs and grassroots nonprofits with tools—and where appropriate and requested, expertise—but we shouldn’t develop solutions to problems we don’t understand. We shouldn’t take ownership of a problem that isn’t ours, and we certainly shouldn’t build “solutions” from thousands of miles away and then jump on a plane in search of a home for them.
But this is still, on the whole, what seems to be happening. And this, I’m beginning to believe, is rapidly becoming ICT4D’s inconvenient truth.
A fulfilled future for ICT4D (of which m4d is an increasingly dominant part) is not the one I see playing out today. Its future is not in the hands of Western corporations or international NGOs meeting in high profile gatherings, and it’s not in American and European education establishments that busily train computer scientists and business graduates to fix the problems of “others.”
The whole development agenda is shifting. I predict we will see a major disconnect between what “we” think needs to be done, and what those closest to the problems think needs to be done. Call it disruptive development, if you like. As I told the UK Guardian in a December 2012 interview, “The rise of homegrown solutions to development problems will be most crucial in future. That means African software developers increasingly designing and developing solutions to African problems, many of which have previously been tackled by outsiders. This, I think, will be the biggest change in how development is ‘done.’”
I’m not the only person saying this. Many working at the intersection of African development and technology have been making the same argument for some time. The real change, and the big difference, is that this transition is finally happening. ICT4D is changing, and the balance of power is changing with it.
FrontlineSMS, a free, open source software I developed that has been used by developing world NGOs to distribute and collect information via text messages, is, I believe, part of this story. It started with field research in South Africa and the idea that users should be empowered to develop solutions to their own problems, if they so wish. There are many reasons why FrontlineSMS continues to work. One primary one is the decision of the new management team to shift software development to Nairobi, allowing us to tap into a rich vein of local developer and user talent. But fundamentally, FrontlineSMS’s platform continues to resonate with innovators, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and problem owners across the developing world because it allows them to problem solve locally and effectively.
This local context is becoming increasingly powerful—as university students across Africa graduate with computer science and business management degrees; as innovation hubs spring up across the continent meeting a demand for places to meet, work, and network with like-minded problem solvers and entrepreneurs; and as investors launch funds that show they’re starting to take young African tech startups seriously.
This activity hasn’t escaped big business. Google, IBM, Microsoft, Nokia, Hewlett Packard, and Samsung have been opening offices across the continent, snapping up much of the talent in the process (ironically often at the expense—and despair—of local NGOs). But while technology businesses take note and develop local capacity that enables them to develop more appropriate local solutions, the broader development “community” seems trapped in an older mindset of technology transfer.
Technology transfer, of course, is big business—there’s no shortage of donor money out there for projects that seek to implement the latest and greatest proven Western innovations in a development context, and there are tens of thousands of jobs that keep the whole machine running. A lot has to change if the development community is to face these new realities, yet it’s looking more likely that the destiny of the discipline lies in the hands of the very people it originally set out to help.
So, if the future of ICT4D is not university students, NGOs, or business graduates devising solutions in labs and hubs thousands of miles away from their intended users, what is it?
Here is my prediction: Development is at a watershed moment, powered by accessible and affordable liberating technologies and an emerging army of determined, local talent. This local talent is gradually acquiring the skills, resources, and support it needs to take back ownership of many of its problems—problems of which it never took original ownership because those skills and resources were not available. Well, now they are.
The ICT4D community—educational establishments, donors, and technologists, among them—need to collectively recognize that it needs to adjust to this new reality, and work with technologists, entrepreneurs, and grassroots nonprofits across the developing world to accelerate what has become an inevitable shift. Or it can continue along its present path, and become increasingly irrelevant. “Innovate or die” doesn’t just apply to the technologies plied by the ICT4D community. It applies to the ICT4D community itself.