Lessons Learned: A Shift in ICT Programs

The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking. - Einstein

Just like any other industry, the ICT for Development (ICT4D) field has experienced significant shifts. As major international development stakeholders have begun focusing on funding ICT projects, these shifts have widespread implications for how programs develop in the field.

The tone of the conversation surrounding ICT4D seems to be changing, as more emphasis is being placed on the strategy and implementations of projects instead of the infinite potential of technology. We have been a part of this converstaion, rethinking the question sustainability, ICT as a means and not a goal, and escaping the tunnel vision of technology.  Richard Heeks wrote about the early history of these changes in a paper entitled The ICT4D 2.0 Manifesto. Mr. Heeks explained the difference in earlier attitude between the first programs, and the projects in the field today. Early programs relied upon "technovelty" and focused more on spreading access as quickly as possible instead of on thoughtful implementation. He generalizes the outcome of those early projects into a few words: “failure...and anecdote[s].” Often programs would return with great stories about how technology had changed one individual's life, without analysis to the larger effects. Past the promotional materials, positive impact became difficult to assess, which in turn led to many projects today being framed by sustainability, scalability, and evaluation. 

In that same spirit, IFES sponsored an event that featured discussion on "Digital Development," taking examples of social media use from Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Kenya. As speakers talked about their projects, and the effect they had, they all listed off their lessons learned, including:

"Building trust and credibility is crucial"

"Research tech context before strategizing"

"Technology should serve the goal, not be the goal"

"Try to find out if there is an alternative to technology"

"Use the technology that is already in place to limit training needs" 

No one brought up discussion about what type of coding worked best, or the software program they used, nor did anyone boast about the transformative effect of technology. Fail Faire, an event that discusses the failures that occur in the ICT4D realm, recently held a conference in London. Inveneo posted the 9 lessons given by the speakers there. Yet again, the lessons did not talk about the potential of technology, or even best practices in that regard. It spoke to the importance of ensuring that all steps of the process and planning involve beneficiaries. Otherwise, the programs will have limited success due to lack of sustainability.

With the amount of knowledge coming back from field pilot programs, hopefully these lessons are taking hold and creating opportunity for the next round of discussions. There are still many questions when it comes to ICT4D projects, such as how to scale to larger populations or to different environments, how to best use funds to encourage local entrepreneurship, or how to coordinate efforts to create efficiencies. However these discussions develop, the very existence of these introspective discussions indicate a desire for the entire field to progress and to not get caught up in the technovelty of it all.