A few months ago, I heard Joi Ito, the current director of MIT’s Media Lab speak. One of the points I found the most telling in his talk was the idea of how the Internet has disrupted the traditional order of operations in creating a new technological innovation, especially at the global level. Due to heavy research and development costs, overhead, and patent protection, technological innovation pre-Internet often came in a very top-down approach at the behest of large government organizations or private corporations.
The Internet changed all of that; the Internet allowed individuals or small groups of people with little to no assets to create something and find investors to bring it to scale. One of Ito’s examples was YouTube, which was hatched by three software developers in 2005. Not knowing what the precise use of YouTube would be, the developers concentrated on creating the product, and eventually attached it to an online dating service that allowed customers to upload video clips. With time, YouTube migrated to MySpace before becoming its own platform that was eventually bought by Google.
This sort of disruption is seen on a daily basis in New York. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg even started a large campaign called Made in NY, which gives media backing to more than 3,000 tech start-ups in the city. From social media, to analytics, to online shopping, to crowdfunding, interactive mapping, and more, the transformative potential of the next wave of Internet behemoths is well known and well documented.
Indeed, this wave of innovation and entrepreneurship extends far beyond the reaches of major tech cities; in fact, it goes beyond small cities in the States – including my hometown of Richmond, VA. GSMA’s Mobile for Development Intelligence recently published a report on scaling mobile technology in economically developing contexts. In the report, they write about seven Internet innovation centers across Africa, including iHub in Nairobi.
If Internet technological innovation at this level has made it this far, if Internet technology is so pervasive in our lives, why then has it not been embraced at a strategic level in much of the international development community? ICT brings efficient, low-cost solutions, which are two characteristics continually sought out by an increasingly financially strained donor community. Among many other reasons, I believe one of the driving factors is that the disruption that has occurred in the ICT community has not happened in international development world.
One of the favorite international development expressions is,
“In the context of.”
We as development practitioners are taught to build a “context” – a case – for everything that we do, and often for good reason. Solving one small problem in an environment with little infrastructure, high gender inequality, the majority of a population impoverished, and with highly imperfect systems means that nothing can be looked at in isolation.
A lack of due diligence before deploying a solution could very easily negatively affect those we are trying to help. Distributing computers to slum-dwelling youth to better education resources might put them at high risk for violence by non-recipients trying to steal the computer. Connecting adult females to job boards targeting women might ostracize these new workforce participants from their community. Automatically distributing internationally sourced food at the end of a bad crop season might crowd out farmers who cannot afford to sell their stocks at a lower price.
It takes time to understand a context, to understand how a solution to one problem can and should work in conjunction with solutions in the same community. It takes time to conduct literature reviews, secure ongoing donor funding, find political support, and build an argument as to how, why and when a solution should be implemented.
What this then means is that the pace of ICT solutions on the technical side often outpaces the international development side. As we all know, a perfectly executed piece of software, hardware, operating system, whatever, is useless if unused. Without constant market feedback loops telling us whether a solution has worked, the iterative process to innovation loses steam quickly.
I have no doubt that ICT-based international development solutions will continue to grow in prominence and relevance in coming years. However, in order to achieve a better value add, the international development community – practitioners, donors, governments – will have to change the approach. We have to figure out how to disrupt ourselves.