Digital Development

If there really is development work to be done everywhere, then how best to go about it?

In my time here, I have come to believe more than ever in engineering, pure and empathetic put-me-in-your-shoes engineering, as one of the most effective strategies for realizing development. (Remember, I am thinking of development as increase in the amount of time that a person or group can foreseeably sustain their lives into the future.)

In the library the other day I came across an interview with the CEO of General Electric, Jeffery Immlet, who I find has been saying and doing very interesting things recently. In the interview Immelt says something to the effect of:

What the developing world needs is not "defeaturization" - factoring down of developed world products to meet budget constraints of its people - rather technology engineered from the ground up to meet the needs and market demands of its populations.

In my opinion Immelt could not have been more correct, or more eloquent, in his statement.

In my field of work ICT4DEV (Internet and communication technology for development), we talk a lot about the problem of the "digital divide", which basically says that the world is divided into technology "haves" and "have-nots". The "have" nations develop quickly using technology to efficiently create wealth. The "have-nots" are left out of economic development because of a modern day electronic chicken and the egg problem; they don't have technology so they cannot develop, but they can't get technology until their economies develop.

In Malawi, I have drastically changed my personal view of the digital divide. I no longer, for instance, believe that a nation or people is worse off simply because they lack access to technology. General lacking of technology is not the problem. In fact technology, in the wrong place at the wrong time, creates more problems. I believe instead that there are groups, nations and people who could greatly further their development if they were able to obtain access to very specific technologies engineered to meet their needs. These technologies are sometimes out of reach; this to me is the digital divide.

The digital divide is not so much a chasm that must be bridged by a transfer of technology invented in the industrialized world, as it is a mountain range that can be carefully scaled when the creativity and market demands of both the industrializing world and industrialized world meet in the middle. It is not so much a poverty problem, as a possible poverty solution.

This difference is subtle, but I think that this perspective changes the way many nerds think about development in the industrializing world. We need to stop thinking that people are "poor" simply because they lack access to a technology. Digital divide crusaders who seek to install inernet access everywhere in the world are mislead if they believe that the technology alone will alleviate poverty.

In specific situations, people who are poor can use technologies, like a tin roof or the internet, to greatly improve the sustainability of their lives. Our goal should be to identify those specific situations and engineer specific technologies to meet those needs and budgets. Thinking this way changes our strategies and our approach to tackling the digital divide. We move away from strategies like "technology transfer" and "defeaturization" and closer to real answers when we are engineering directly to meet market demands and needs of poorer markets.

Here are some organizations that are on the right track: