Tech, innovation and development: what I’m reading

11 September 2018
Insight
Scattered pile of crypto coins. Photo: https://www.quoteinspector.com/ CC BY-ND 4.0

The fourth industrial revolution is profoundly and rapidly altering the world we live in. For those struggling to end poverty, inequality and exclusion, the scale of the digital and technological divide will in many ways determine whether certain societies and sectors catch the wave or drown.

Even the companies and industries that have wrought this change are unable to keep up with the consequences of digitalisation, automation and data saturation. In his recent public appearances, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg looked as much a deer in the headlights as a defiant mogul astride the global economy.

Thus a signal debate of our era has become whether this hectic transformation is levelling the playing field by putting powerful tools in the hands of everyone, or further concentrating power and wealth into the hands of monopolists and oligarchs.

It feels like the ‘international development community’ is still behind the curve. Go search for the word ‘digital’ in the list of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with its 169 targets, and 230 indicators. Results = 0.

At ODI we’re examining the enabling and disabling power of tech to address our biggest challenges: ending poverty, creating inclusive growth, addressing climate change, ending conflict and violence. Others are working on this too, and there are exciting signs everywhere, but it feels like the ‘international development community’ is still behind the curve. Go search for the word ‘digital’ in the list of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with its 169 targets, and 230 indicators. Results = 0.

A few thoughts on what I’m reading

We’ve got some learning to do. Let’s start first with the cold water. Geek heresy: rescuing social change from the cult of technology is unapologetic contribution from technologist Kentaro Toyama that confronts the techno-evangelism of Silicon Valley. Toyama looks at some great and terrible examples of innovation and concludes that it's humans, not the latest app or super-cheap laptop, that will move our world forward.

But it’s not either/or. We know that new technology when deployed effectively can make stunning differences. Vaccines, fertiliser, mobile phones – all have changed billions of lives since the start of the ‘modern’ development enterprise.

So it’s always fun to scan the horizon for the next big thing. 50 breakthroughs: critical scientific and technological advances needed for sustainable global development is a fat list of innovations that could make a substantial difference to the lives of the poor, by the Institute for Transformative Technologies. From global health to food security, from access to electricity to gender equity, the study identifies something for everyone.

I must have gone to three or four blockchain events before I understood what it meant, and a few more after that to understand where the hype meets reality. If you’re worried that you’ve already missed the blockchain revolution, you haven’t, but here are two good primers to get you up to speed.

I must have gone to three or four blockchain events before I understood what it meant, and a few more after that to understand where the hype meets reality.

Transforming the social sector: Bitcoin and blockchain for good is an overview of the challenges and opportunities of leveraging digital currencies and blockchain projects for social impact. It outlines some interesting projects – for example the World Food Programme piloting the use of cryptocurrency vouchers to deliver aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan (easy to trace, hard to steal).

Then there is A revolution in trust: distributed ledger technology in relief & development, a smart guide to using distributed ledgers – or decentralised databases – in relief operations by humanitarian power-house Mercy Corps. The guide analyses how this will enable agencies to build apps and develop use cases that facilitate information sharing and beneficiary tracking across the sector.

And last, two very different bigger picture meditations. The first, Will the digital revolution deliver for the world’s poor? (pdf)from 2015 but still very relevant – is by Brookings on the potential for digital technologies to reach and benefit the world’s poor. By starting from the finding that, historically, businesses have shown little interest in serving the poor, the brief explores the economic and social implications of the digital revolution to come up with innovative, long-term solutions.

The other is the best-selling Homo Deus from the historian Yuval Noah Harari, which makes some interesting, often preposterous-sounding predictions about the future. Like several recent books – Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and Hans Rosling’s Factfulness – as a prologue it reviews the incredible gains in human lifespan, food security, education and conflict reduction. It’s a fun read, but I couldn’t help but picture his vision of a world heading toward immortal artificial intelligence more like Blade Runner (except more hot than rainy), with all the problems of humanity still piling up even as a few robots and trillionaires dance on Olympus.  

We must be problem-led, not technology-led

So what to make of all this? First, it’s clear that digital technology and connectivity are integral to the way the world will work, and therefore successful development will need to reduce the growing gap between those who can access these tools and those who can’t, as this paper on digitalisation and manufacturing in Africa makes clear.

The goal is to empower people to grasp their opportunity, not to attempt to create a world where they don’t need to. 

Another big takeaway, for me, is about the need to be problem-led, not technology-led. Technological diffusion is, after all, a lot easier than behavioural change. The goal is to empower people to grasp their opportunity, not to attempt to create a world where they don’t need to. 

I worked on the establishment of the US Global Development Lab, which was an attempt to coordinate government resources and create new ones, find new partners, encourage study and implementation of innovation, and spur development of new technologies and practices as well as adoption of existing ones. The Lab wanted to be a catalyst both for ‘moonshots’ or transformative breakthrough technology, as well as diffusion of tech and innovation across the development portfolio.

Its biggest challenge? Making its work relevant to what the rest of the US development community was doing every day – addressing issues that needed resources and political will more than new technologies.

Paying attention to the policy and regulatory frameworks is key. Well-meaning governments and institutions that focus on the tech alone don’t just risk missing opportunities – they may inadvertently help digital technology become a tool that excludes people, concentrates wealth, spreads misinformation and suppresses voice.

Hopefully, new initiatives will absorb those lessons. The Pathways for Prosperity Commission on Technology and Inclusive Development is making an effort this year to bring together government, business and academia to discuss and stimulate debate around inclusive growth in an era of technological disruption. I’m sure the word digitalisation will appear in their report.

What other must-reads on technology and development have you come across? Or other initiatives leading the way? Let me know via the comments so we can expand the conversation.