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Did You Know ICT4D Is Dead? Long Live ICT4D!

By Guest Writer on January 11, 2024

ict4d global impact

At the 2023 Global Digital Development Forum, I prepared a lightning talk on ICT4D and its continued use as a term to describe the intersection of tech and social good. The following is an (only slightly) expanded version of the lightning talk.

Many of us working in global technology, digital development, tech for good, and related fields over the last decade-plus are likely familiar with the term “Information and Communication Technology for Development,” or ICT4D.

It’s been a useful term, and has helped bridge the divide across disciplines and allowed teams with very different backgrounds, structures, and incentives to coordinate around a shared cross-discipline that prioritized putting people first when using technology to address social problems.

What happened to ICT4D?

ict4d is dead

But for the last few years, the term ICT4D, as we know it, has been on life support, and in fact, may already be dead. This term that was all at once a research discipline, community of practice, and rallying ideology for the intersection of technology and development has become less and less visible, useful, and engaging in the spaces where we work.

This isn’t to say that the concept itself is going anywhere — if anything, the impact of technology on society has become one of the most important issues of our era. In fact, I would argue that the underpinnings of ICT4D are stronger than ever — they’ve simply developed and been transformed and integrated into other spaces.

I’ve been working in ICT4D and related fields for the last 17 years, and like many readers of ICTworks, I have acted as champion, translator, and ambassador for ICT4D. I’ve defined and described it to communities, clients, colleagues, and C-suites alike in ongoing efforts to highlight the value of an ICT4D-focused lens on countless projects and programs.

So if technology and social impact are so critically important, then why am I advocating that the ICT4D concept itself is outdated? Shouldn’t we be doubling down on its importance? To answer that, we need to back up a little and look at ICT4D’s origins, current definitions, and why it’s no longer up to the task. If you want a more solid historical framework for ICT4D, I highly recommend Richard Heeks’ thoughts on the topic.

A crash course in ICT4D

ict4d tools list
The tl;dr version of ICT4D is that it arose in the 1990s with the proliferation of computing and the Internet around the world. The focus of ICT4D was to explicitly use technology for “development outcomes”.

But really, ICT4D 1.0 started in the 2000s — the era of telecenters and cybercafes, of top-down interventions, the Millennium Development Goals, One Laptop Per Child, and other “fun, innovative” ideas. But don’t get too comfortable, because something came along to push all that to the side.

ICT4D 2.0 took form in the 2010s, with a focus on integrating technology into specific development sectors. This was the era of the e’s and m’s — e-government, e-health, e-learning, m-health, and m-education, to name a few. With 2.0 there was a focus on people as individuals, with agency, with preferences, and with a unique phone number. It was the sector recognizing that with the proliferation of more personal-use technologies, services should be personalized to the sector-specific need for that individual.

Many organizations, teams, and people still are living within “ICT4D 2.0.”

The idea has been that this technology thing, the digital tools, data integration — they all serve as instruments, supplements, or add-ons to the “traditional” work of social impact and international development.

But we’ve also already moved into a new phase — a new paradigm. “Digital” hasn’t just become a critical tool — it’s become everything. It has shifted from being a separate entity or tool to “show and tell” to the essential fiber of development work. Our sector is to digital what water is to a fish — so ubiquitous that it’s become almost invisibly non-distinct.

Digital tools, data, and software have “eaten” the world, and they’ve consumed the  global development space. It’s no longer about one-off digital platforms or tools here and there; it’s the all-consuming landscape of digital transformation, where technology is seamlessly woven into and mediates every aspect of our lives, and, it goes without saying— not always for good!

Where does that leave us with ICT4D? There are three main reasons why the term isn’t up to the task: scope, complexity, and specialization.

Three shortcomings of ICT4D

1. Scope

The ICT4D umbrella has had to become remarkably large to accommodate everything everyone wanted it to be. Here is just my sampling of the categories that you’ll find under the umbrella of ICT4D today — I’m sure there are many others!

This is a lot. All are incredibly important areas, but far too much for ICT4D to orchestrate under its cross-cutting applications.

2. Complexity

In addition to becoming unwieldy under its own weight, the underlying systems of ICT4D have become much more complex. Or, at the very least, we’re now recognizing a complexity that was likely there all along. Here are some recent examples that are now common-place in the tech-for-good discourse: technology is not neutral; technology is an amplifier; it’s a Wicked problem; it’s a complex, adaptive system.

And in case you thought we had any chance of getting a handle on things, generative AI has come along to completely and profoundly rock the tech and social impact space — no doubt with some incredibly exciting opportunities, but also with many potential challenges in areas such as inequality, privacy, and ownership.

3. Specialization

ICT4D has also had to become much more specialized as its core functions are being spun off into multiple related disciplines, practices, and sectors. For example, privacy alone has Privacy International, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Access Now, and many others.

With this evolution, ICT4D as a singular concept has had to bear too much weight. The landscape has become too big, too complex, and too specialized.

And yet, our burden as a community of ICT4D practitioners and researchers is more important than ever — to ensure that our digitally enabled world is framed by inclusion, equity, responsibility, and “bent towards…being good.” I do believe the spirit of ICT4D is alive and well, continuing to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing digital and global landscape.

Possible ICT4D alternatives

I’m not sure if the community needs a 1:1 replacement for ICT4D — as I’ve shown I think it goes beyond marketing for a 5-letter only moderately inaccessible acronym. “Digital Development” specifically and “Digital Transformation” more generally seem to be taking up much of the high-level attention today in a similar way that ICT4D did 15 years ago. There are arguments to be made for more general emphasis on the following terms and in their respective niches, too, which I think are all spiritual relatives to ICT4D:

  • Design/Systems Thinking
  • Human-centered Design
  • Tech/Data/AI For Good
  • Social Impact/Innovation
  • Digital Inclusion
  • Data Responsibility
  • Ethical/Impact Tech

The reality is that there might not be a singular way forward on this — and that individuals, teams, and organizations will have to assess where their focus, interest, and expertise are best oriented, and to align themselves accordingly.

A new approach

One of the ways we have done this at RTI International is to consolidate our digital program and operations teams under one unified structure and shared team. It’s a structure that I highly recommend to teams working in this space — it’s allowed us to be much more responsive, flexible, and coordinated across the board.

But it’s also been transformative in providing everyone the same sense of investment and accomplishment in making “digital” work at all levels of the Institute’s activities — from coordinating our global IT infrastructure to helping implement a quick-turnaround data collection activity. The ICT4D efforts are no longer external to the IT and digital transformation teams — we are one and the same.

While we are in a transitional time for ICT4D, we have to make sure that what comes next is stronger and more committed to solving the challenging, multi-faceted, entrenched problems of today with new approaches, new mindsets, and most of all…new acronyms.

Gabriel Krieshok is the Senior Director of Global Technology at RTI International.

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One Comment to “Did You Know ICT4D Is Dead? Long Live ICT4D!”

  1. Darrell E. Owen says:

    Being 75 years old, I’ve had the rich opportunity of being engaged in this space for nearly 55 years, including 25 years in the international development space…mostly through USAID, but also the World Bank, ITU, and several other organizations.

    My engagement included hands on involvement at the corporate, government, and international arena. Moving from mainframes to mini-computers to desktop handheld computing. From private local area networks to wide area networks to the Internet. And from the internal organization focus to an international development engagement…be it within USAID, the Leland Initiative (LI), the Last Mile Initiative (LMI), the Global Broadband and Innovation (GBI)Program, or providing country-level hands on support for local initiatives in several dozen countries.

    Glancing back at this timeframe, I have seen and participated in several transformations…each adding expansion and greater sophistication. The following is a quick picture of observed transitions and my characterizations of the phases:

    IT – Information Technology – this was the initial adoption of computer technologies which for the most part were stand alone computing devices/computers. There was no Communications. This dominated the 1960 and 1970s…but also extended into the early1980s.

    ICT- Information and Communication Technologies – this was launched with the Connection of computers via private local area networks and wide area networks, and eventually the public Internet. This was a 1980s and 1990s era transition. The international development community adopted the ICT4D monicker to describe this dynamic with a focus on international development.

    DD – Digital Development was launched in the 2000s on the foundation of integrating-melding computing and telecommunications…with the emerging Internet being the essential driver and glue. While DD could be applied within any given organization, industry, or globally, typically the terminology has been applied to the international development “industry,” to reflect the focus on socio-economic development.

    Digitization – this term has emerged over the last decade plus, and reflects not simply the digital elements, but the much broader environmental components needed to maximize the benefits to be derived from the technologies. This includes public and private sector policies, procedures, practices, etc. It’s no longer sufficient to simply “add technology”, but rather there must be a fully integrated approach that incorporates facilitating strategies, policies, processes, procedures, and technologies across the board. And it must expand to include those adding the value, as well as those deriving the value.

    My current assessment is that the international development community is currently in the transition phase from Digital Development to Digitization—where the approach must be comprehensive and add to and derive value from across the entire ecosystem of those public and private sector entities that are engaged. No small talk.