SDG Stories: UNESCO Chair contributing on sustainability of ICT systems

e_sdg-goals_icons-individual-rgb-09In the run-up to this year’s UN General Assembly, the Office of the DG of the UN Office in Geneva has launched a novel initiative on big conversations driving the big goals of the SDGs as part of their Perception Change Project.  The UNESCO Chair in ICT4D is delighted to have been invited to participate in this initiative, alongside other leading figures in the ICT4D world including Houlin Zhao (SG of the ITU, and one of our Honorary Patrons), Kathy Calvin (President and CEIO, UN Foundation), and Nicholas Negroponte (Founder MIT Media Lab).

Our stories are about the question “What are the biggest hopes and challenges we face in providing reliable ICT access to communities as we work towards improved sustainable development?

This was my response:

Seeing the eyes of a group of street children in Ethiopia light up when I let them play with my laptop in February 2002 convinced me in an instant of the potential of technology to be used effectively for learning by some of the poorest people in the world.  However, the plethora of global initiatives that have been designed to use ICTs to contribute to reducing poverty through economic growth over the last 15 years have had the consequence of dramatically increasing inequality at the same time.  The poorest and most marginalised have not benefited sufficiently from the promise of ICTs.

Few people pay appropriate attention to the dark side of technology, and yet we must understand this, and change it, if this potential is fully to be realised for all.  In the context of the SDGs, there is a fundamental challenge.  To be sure ICTs can contribute to the achievement of the SDGs, but few people sufficiently highlight their unsustainability: ICTs have seriously negative environmental impacts, and their usual business model is built on a fundamentally unsustainable logic.  In terms of environmental impact, for example, they have contributed to substantially increased electricity demand, and the amount of waste in space is now presenting very serious threats to future satellite deployment.  The business model, whereby people are encouraged to replace their mobile phones every couple of years, and new hardware often requires the next generation of software, which in turn then requires new hardware, is good for business, but not for sustainability.

If we are serious about using ICTs for sustainable development, we must do much more to address negative aspects such as these, so that the poorest individuals, communities and countries can indeed benefit.

Follow the stories at: http://www.sdgstories.com, or on Twitter using #sdgstories.

Identification for Development: Benefits and Challenges

Volume 2    Issue 7    July 2017

Over the past nine months, we have been listening to the experiences of lower income individuals with identity systems in India, together with the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore (as a research partner), Storythings and the Langtons (as communication experts), and funded by Omidyar Network. We have conducted 150 interviews across rural and urban sites in Karnataka, New Delhi and surrounding Uttar Pradesh, and Assam.  We observed identity-based transactions (such as getting an Aadhaar card, buying a SIM card, being tested for a disability certificate), had a heated radio discussion, and great workshops in Delhi, Bengaluru, Washington DC and Stockholm (at SIF) for input. Our aim was to understand user experiences of identity in a digital world  – what do individuals experience, what are the pain points, how can we move towards more inclusive systems which respect privacy, agency and dignity? All these are particularly relevant in India, where Aadhaar is currently a contentious topic.

Many of our interviewees spoke of the benefit of ID systems – an Aadhaar card which enabled benefits and services; a ration card which allowed subsidized food, kerosene and medicine. On the other hand, at a time when Aadhaar memes are being shared on how it is effectively compulsory, we asked questions on privacy, exclusion, bias and repercussions for groups such as senior citizens dependent on Aadhaar verification for pensions. These concerns are not unique to Aadhaar or the Indian context of course. There have been quite a few reports on identification exclusion in the United States, including immigrants, those homeless and out of prison in Ohio, the story of Alice Faith Pennington in Texas, and the intermediaries who are trying to help those in a catch 22 situation without IDs.

We heard many concerns around all the above.

  • Several women spoke of feeling uncomfortable in “male spaces” and sluggish bureaucracy impacting more on them because of impact on time needed for family care. Men often acted on behalf of women.
  • Non-formal migrants were particularly affected by requirements such as a permanent address, not knowing local networks for help etc.
  • A visually challenged teacher told us about the long process of getting both a blind and disability certificate and that in addition, when he went to get an Aadhaar card, he was pushed about and there was no help.
  • An HIV/AIDS activist laid out his concerns around Aadhaar being necessary to obtain anti-retroviral [ART] drugs: “now what has happened in HIV-positive communities, in all the ART centres, only if we have Aadhaar cards, the ART box is given. They are making it compulsory. Due to this, our identity of HIV positive is being shown. Now that Aadhaar is compulsory, few people don’t even have Aadhaar and even if they do, and because it is linked to everything, their fear has increased. It is already a stigmatised condition. Who have they asked before doing this? Have they asked our opinion?”
  • A transgender activist was highly critical of invasive identification for “screening committees” for transgender certificates.

Identification processes are not new. But the introduction of networked systems has introduced two major challenges: the huge impact if there are any mistakes; and secondly data is more easily accessible to many more people. Again, this is not unique to India, but the burden of proving you are lies heavily on individuals and impacts even more on those who don’t have time or resources to do so.

While we agree with the above World Bank Principles (and we are cautious of generalizing from 150 interviews), we still saw confusion around processes, and what individuals perceived as an opaque state, leading to the rise of intermediaries – some helpful, others exploitative. We need more evidence on “user” needs and concerns; stronger citizen’s rights with regards to identification processes, and more efficient and effective grievance redressal. In the words of the transgender activist: “when there is an identity card, it has to be beneficial for the people of the community. We do not want cards which create problems for the community.”

http://www.identitiesproject.com

Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development

Volume 2    Issue 6    June 2017

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have immense potential.  However, they are created by people for specific purposes; they reflect the interests of individuals and the companies, or organisations, for which they work.  They can be used to do good, or to do evil.  They usually have unintended consequences.

In the context of debates over “development”, ICTs can thus be used for enhancing economic growth, or for reducing inequality.  However, can they be used to do both at the same time?  Much evidence exists to suggest that with the emphasis over the last 20 years on economic growth as the mantra of “development”, embedded in the MDGs and now the SDGs, ICTs have played an important role in enhancing development (Unwin, 2009).  At the same time, though, their design, implementation and use have led to significantly increased inequalities in the world: between the rich and the poor, between men and women, between those with fewer “disabilities” and those with more “disabilities”, between richer countries and poorer countries, between those living in rural and urban areas …  Despite their potential to be used anarchically and disruptively, ICTs therefore seem to have been used primarily to reinforce existing power differences and inequalities – both by design and by accident.  At its simplest, ICTs usually act primarily as accelerators, both of growth and of inequality.

What we mean by “ICT for Development” (ICT4D) depends fundamentally on what we consider “development” should be.  If reducing inequality does not matter, and economic growth is indeed the aim of “development”, then ICT4D has been successful.  However, for those who are concerned about the implications of an ever more unequal world, as reflected in part in the commitments made towards SDG 10 (Reducing inequality within and among countries), then ICT4D has largely failed.

Based on my practice and research over the last 20 years, I have therefore crafted a different kind of book about ICT4D, intended to encourage everyone to reflect on their own roles in ICT4D, and to reclaim the moral agenda about using ICTs to enable poor and marginalised people to empower themselves.  It is called simply Reclaiming ICT4D (OUP, 2017).  In concept, it draws heavily on Jürgen Habermas’s Critical Theory focusing on interests, on empowerment and emancipation, on the complex intertwining of theory and practice, and on the power of self-reflection.

Reclaiming ICT4D calls for a radical rethinking of ICT4D and advocates the need for six transformations:

  • Designing and implementing technical solutions that prioritise the poorest and most marginalised people and communities
  • Reshaping the role of government and regulation
  • Crafting effective multi-stakeholder partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society
  • Ensuring that digital systems are resilient in the face of security threats
  • Paying greater attention to effective learning and understanding at all levels and in all sectors
  • Placing the poor at the centre of all that we do – working with the poor, and not just for them.

For those attending the 2017 WSIS Forum in Geneva, the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D is convening a workshop on Reclaiming ICT4D at 11.00 on Friday 16th June (Room Popov 1).  Do join us to discuss these issues, and to develop an agenda that will enable the poorest and most marginalised to be empowered through the appropriate use of ICTs.  Outputs will be reported on the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D platform.

Above all, ICT4D is a moral agenda.  It is about what is right and what is wrong.  It is about what each of us does to make a difference.

UNESCO Chair in ICT4D session at WSIS Forum 2017

coverTo coincide with the recent publication of Tim Unwin’s new book entitled Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development (Oxford University Press, 2017), the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D is convening a workshop on Friday 16th June (11.00-12.45 in Room Popov 1) at the 2017 WSIS Forum being held in Geneva.  The key premise of the workshop is that the global spread of ICTs has increased inequality, and that the poorest and most marginalised have therefore failed sufficiently to benefit.  The workshop will explore whether the continued focus on the ways through which ICTs can contribute to economic growth will inevitably lead to ever increasing, and dangerous, inequality, and will make recommendations as to how different stakeholders can best ensure that the poorest and most marginalised can indeed benefit from their use.

It will begin with short (5 minute) perspectives from some amazing people (listed in alphabetical order of first names):

  • Alex Wong (Head, Global Challenge Partnerships & Member of the Executive Committee; Head of the Future of the Internet Global Challenge Initiative, World Economic Forum) on The power of partnership
  • Dr. Bushra Hassan (School of Psychology, University of Sussex) on The wisdom of marginalised women
  • Charlotte Smart (Digital Policy and Programme Manager, Department for International Development, UK) on The delivery of donors
  • Michael Kende (Senior Advisor, Analysis Mason, and former Chief Economist of the Internet Society) on The trust in technology
  • Nigel Hickson (VP IGO Engagement, ICANN) on The design of the domain name system
  • Torbjörn Fredriksson (Head of ICT Analysis Section of the Division on Technology and Logistics, UNCTAD) on The energy of entrepreneurship

Following these short, and undoubtedly provocative, presentations there will be an open discussion focusing on participants’ thoughts as to what are the most important priorities for action that different stakeholders must take so that the poorest and most marginalised people and communities can indeed be empowered through the use of ICTs.

The workshop is open to everyone with interests in ways through which ICTs can indeed benefit poor people, and there will also be an opportunity after the workshop for participants to purchase copies of Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development at a 40% reduction from list price.

We very much look forward to seeing you in Geneva at the 2017 WSIS Forum.

Silvia Masiero’s seminar on big data and poverty in India

Silvia Masiero (Loughborough University, and Affiliated Member of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D) has just finished a fascinating seminar at the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D on The Affordances of Big Data for Poverty Reduction: Evidence from India, which raised many interesting questions about the relative benefits and challenges of biometric data, especially in the context of demonetisation in India.  Slides of the presentation are available here, and her recent ICT4D briefing on the same subject is here.

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The UNESCO Chair in ICT4D at the start of 2017

founders-smallThe UNESCO Chair in ICT4D would like to take this opportunity to wish all of our members and colleagues a very successful year ahead in 2017.  Given the events of 2016, the next year seems likely to be highly volatile on the geopolitical front, but hopefully we can all move together effectively to enable more of the world’s poorest and most marginalised to benefit appropriately from ICTs.

To this end, at the start of 2017, we are launching an exciting new series of informal discussions for postgraduates involved in the UNESCO Chair’s activities, entitled Technology and empowerment: multidisciplinary conversations, the first of which will be on 13th January from 1-2 in McCrea 229 at Royal Holloway, University of London.  These are intended for postgraduates working on multidisciplinary aspects of ICT4D, and are open to anyone who is interested.

Two other news items at the start of the year are of interest:

  •  Our first ICT4D briefing of the year, by Silvia Masiero on Big data for anti-poverty policies, is now available.  Please share details widely, and do contact the editor Endrit Kromidha (through our contact page) should you be interested in writing a short briefing this year
  • Silvia will also be presenting a seminar at Royal Holloway, University of London, on 2nd February 2017, at 13.00-14.00 in the Queen’s Building (QB136).  This is entitled The Affordances of Big Data for Poverty Reduction: Evidence from India – do please share details with anyone who might be interested in attending.
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Making money from meeting the SDGs? An overarching approach to sustainable development

I am delighted to have been asked to moderate the session on “Making money from meeting the SDGs?” at ITU Telecom World in Bangkok on Monday 14th November (4:45 PM – 6:00 PM, Jupiter 10), although I wonder a little why I have been chosen for this task given my past criticisms of the SDGs!  Perhaps the “?” in the session title will give me a little freedom to explore some of the many challenges and complexities in this theme.  Following in the footsteps of the Millennium Development Goals (2000), the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) still generally focus on the idea that economic growth will eliminate poverty; indeed, they assert that poverty can truly be ended.  This is a myth, and a dangerous one. For those who define poverty in a relative sense, poverty will always be with us.  It can certainly be reduced, but never ended.   It is therefore good to see the SDGs also focusing on social inclusion, with SDG 10 explicitly addressing inequality.  We need to pay much more attention to ways through which ICTs can thus reduce inequality, rather than primarily focusing on their contribution to economic growth, which has often actually led to increasing inequality.

This session will explore the implications of such tensions specifically for the role of ICT businesses in delivering the SDGs.  Key questions to be examined include:

  • How can the ICT sector contribute to accelerating the achievement of the SDGs by providing ICT-enabled solutions and building feasible business models?
  • Is the SDG agenda relevant for the ICT industry?
  • What roles should the ICT industry, and its corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments in particular, play in working towards the SDGs?
  • Can the SDG framework provide an opportunity to accelerate transformative ICT-enabled solutions around new solutions like big data or IoT?

Underlying these are difficult issues about the ethics of making money from development, and the extent to which the ICT sector is indeed sustainable.  All too often, the private sector, governments and even civil society are now using the idea of “development” to build their ICT interests, rather than actually using ICTs to contribute to development understood as reducing inequalities; we increasingly have “development for ICTs” (D4ICT) rather than “ICTs for development” (ICT4D).  To be sure, businesses have a fundamentally important role in contributing to economic growth, but there is still little agreement, for example, on how best to deliver connectivity to the poorest and most marginalized, so that inequality can be reduced. As my forthcoming book argues, we need to reclaim ICTs truly for development in the interests of the poorest and most marginalized.

We have a great panel with whom to explore these difficult questions.  Following opening remarks by Chaesub Lee (Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, ITU), we will dive straight into addressing the above questions with the following panelists (listed in alphabetical order of first names):

  • Astrid Tuminez (Senior Director, Government Affairs. Microsoft)
  • Lawrence Yanovitch (President of GSMA Foundation)
  • Luis Neves (Chairman Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), and Climate Change and Sustainability Officer, Executive Vice President, at Deutsche Telekom Group)
  • Mai Oldgard (Head of Sustainability, Telenor)
  • Tomas Lamanauskas (Group Director Public Policy, VimpelCom).

Magic happens when people from different backgrounds are brought together to discuss challenging issues.  This session will therefore not have any formal presentations, but will instead seek to engage the panelists in discussion amongst themselves and with the audience.  We will generate new ideas that participants will be able to take away and apply in their everyday practices.  Looking forward to seeing you on the Monday afternoon of Telecom World in Bangkok!

ICTs empowering people with disabilities

People with disabilities are amongst the most marginalised people in the world, especially in some of the poorer countries of Africa and Asia.  Yet, those with greater disabilities can be empowered far more through the appropriate use of ICTs than can those who claim to have no disabilities.  The global community needs to do very much more to develop appropriate policies and practices to ensure that people with disabilities are not further marginalised because they are unable to access and use ICTs effectively.  To this end, I am developing a small website that provides information and useful links for all those working on ICTs and disabilities – do visit https://disabilityict4d.wordpress.com/ – and more importantly please share information about this hugely important agenda.

Tim

ICTs and the SDGS: an economic perspective

 

group-smallThe ITU is preparing a new book, provisionally to be entitled “ICT4SDGs: Economic Growth, Innovation and
Job Creation” in advance of the WTDC meeting in Buenos Aires in October 2017 http://www.itu.int/net/events/eventdetails.asp… . This was explored in some detail over two days in September at a fascinating discussion convened in Geneva.

sdg-groupI have been invited to lead on a 6,000 word chapter, provisionally entitled “Sustainability in Development: Critical Elements” that has an initial summary as follows: “the chapter identifies how ICTs engage with the sustainability agenda and the various elements of the ecosystem (such as: education, finance/capital, infrastructure, policy, market, culture/environment, opportunities) and the stakeholders that are indispensable for ensuring resilient and sustainable development activities in developing countries in spite of some chronic shortages coupled with fast changing and fluid situations that can negatively hamper the efforts”.

I want this chapter very much to be a collective, bottom-up effort, and am exploring various collective ways of generating content – although this is hugely difficult given the tight word limit! At this stage, it would be great to receive suggestions as to (a) what content the chapter should focus on, and (b) examples of case studies of successes and failures with respect to the use of ICTs for sustainable development. Please share any thoughts with me – before the end of September!

For those who may be unfamiliar with my own critical comments on the linkages between ICTs and the SDG agenda do see https://unwin.wordpress.com/…/icts-and-the-failure-of-the-…/, and on the abuse of the term ecosystem https://unwin.wordpress.com/2014/03/16/icts-and-ecosystems/ . Rest assured, though, that the chapter for the ITU will reflect very different perspectives, and I hope that it will indeed represent the interests and concerns of the wider ICT4D community.

Tim

UNESCO Chair in ICT4D partners ITU Kaleidoscope conference

The UNESCO Chair in ICT4D has recently become a partner of ITU’s Kaleidoscope academic conference which will be held in Bangkok on 14-16 November 2016 on the theme of ICTs for Sustainable Development. We look forward to participating actively in this event, and contributing to the ITU’s academic research endeavours.itu_kaleidoscope_web_395158

Tim