Volume 2 Issue 9 September 2017
Two years ago, together with former colleagues at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and supported by the School of International Futures (SOIF), I worked on a research project that used foresight tools to explore ‘knowledge sharing in the digital age’. The ‘foresight approach’ involves a range of methods for getting perspectives on the future and creating a roadmap to inform policy and practice. We were looking 15 years ahead and engaged with a range of stakeholders, mainly from the African context. Through workshops and interviews we identified key drivers of change and used the foresight tools to describe different imagined scenarios. The result was policy recommendations for achieving preferred outcomes in a world characterised by the freedoms which we would like to enjoy. In this briefing, I have chosen to revisit this topic as a short ‘thought piece’.
ICTs play an ever-increasing role in supporting innovation and in how knowledge is created and shared. Our society is being reshaped for better and for worse, and the effects of ICTs are not neutral. For almost any ICT you can name, there are good and bad affordances. For example, take the role of drones in gathering data: we can celebrate some aspects of the role they can play in collecting life-saving information in a disaster situation such as the Nepal earthquake in May 2015. We can also resent and challenge the intrusiveness, invasion of privacy and danger to air travel that can result if their use is not regulated. However, if the information they can help to gather is not made freely available, and simply supports powerful people in wealthy organisations or governments, then what are the implications for future generations?
The digital divide exists within a daunting set of growing inequalities related to economic opportunity, power and knowledge. The ways in which knowledge is mediated and made available in our society is having a major impact on these other divides. Mediation itself takes place in different ways between people, between people and ICT devices, and between ICT devices. The last category may sound surprising, but in a world where we now refer to the ‘internet of things’ and some of those ‘things’ themselves reflect growing ‘artificial intelligence’, it could be argued that knowledge can increasingly be developed by, and shared between, technology based non-human objects. In simple ways, and without artificial intelligence driving it, we already see music devices and gadgets updating their software, and home devices such as Amazon’s Alexa products, playing a role in both mediating communication, and pushing and pulling information between the human world and the online repositories of digital files and products.
The world is now characterised by news and social media platforms’ intent on delivering alternative facts, fake news and fake research results. Alongside this they harvest insights through algorithms that analyse our online behaviours and preferences. ‘Big data’ becomes big business driven by a global internet machine which if we are not careful will support the interests of ‘the few not the many’ (to turn around an overused party-political phrase!). So, what are our options for creating a future where we can retain a sense of identity, values and freedoms? I certainly do not claim to have the solutions to such huge global challenges facing society, but offer three suggestions to the ICT4D community, all of which underpin the way knowledge can be created and shared in a digital age:
- Support ‘Openness’. Open models are discussed in the book Open Development (Smith and Reilly, 2013). These approaches have their challenges and total openness is likely to be unachievable, as systems are rarely totally open. However, open approaches support a different knowledge economy agenda that is more inclusive, accessible and aimed at addressing inequalities.
- Advocate for ‘Net Neutrality’. This principle and why it is so important is explained effectively in YouTube videos by Common Craft and Now this. Retaining total net neutrality may not be realistic. However, the principle of equitable access to internet based services is one of huge significance in determining how the internet develops and how knowledge is created and shared. If net neutrality is sacrificed, inequalities in terms of access and usage will flourish in the digital world.
- Develop skilled and trusted ‘knowledge intermediaries’. More and more information is held digitally. It is increasingly challenging to validate and assess the quality of what is found on the Internet. Skilled data scientists and information management professionals are in a sense the new librarians. We need trusted experts who work to provide knowledge as a public good for civil society, so that we can hold governments and big corporations to account, and access knowledge openly that enables us and our children to gain the best education and quality of life that we can.
We face what at times appear to be irresistible and negative forces, where freedoms are under threat and security and surveillance is growing. Yet, the world is now a far more connected place, and writing this in Yangon, I reflect that the scope for interacting with and learning from people, from diverse locations, cultures and backgrounds, is growing day by day. As ordinary people develop connections through their use of ICTS, they can seek to be more empowered and create an open movement and strong voice that can help lead us all to a brighter future.
The ICT4D community is well placed to ensure that ICTs are used for future good. I recommend developing skills in the foresight approach as a means to understand and shape the future. In some of my own work with Development Dreamers I have been experimenting with lighter versions of the foresight approach and will be happy to network and collaborate with others who have an interest in this.