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An Emerging Digital for Development Paradigm for ICT4D 3.0

By Richard Heeks on December 28, 2022


What has changed in the decade or so since the ideas of a new “ICT4D 2.0” phase were first mooted? New building blocks of development: digital roles, digital products and digital business models. We could call what is emerging “ICT4D 3.0.” However, ICT4D 3.0? An Emerging “Digital for Development” Paradigm argues that the changes are such that we could talk of a paradigmatic shift and suggests that the elements could be collated as a new digital for development paradigm.

Three Historical Phases of Technology in Development

The long-term relationship between digital information and communication technologies and international development could be divided into three paradigms—“pre-digital,” “ICT4D” and “digital-for-development”—that rise and fall over time.

The pre-digital paradigm dominated from the mid-1940s to mid-1990s and conceptualised a separation between digital ICTs and development. During this period, digital ICTs were increasingly available, but they were initially ignored by the development mainstream. When, later, digital technologies began to diffuse into developing countries, they were still isolated from the development mainstream. ICTs were used to support the internal processes of large public and private organisations or to create elite IT sector jobs in a few countries. But they did not touch the lives of the great majority of those living in the global South.

The ICT4D paradigm has emerged since the mid-1990s, first as ICT4D 1.0 and then as ICT4D 2.0. It has conceptualised digital ICTs as a useful tool for development. The paradigm arose because of the rough synchrony between general availability of the internet— a tool in search of purposes, and the Millennium Development Goals—a purpose in search of tools. ICTs were initially idolised as the tool for delivery of development but later began to be integrated more into development plans and projects as a tool for delivery of development.

The isolationism of the pre-digital paradigm remains present: we still find policy content and policy structures that segregate ICTs. But integrationism is progressing, mainstreaming ICTs as a tool to achieve the various development goals.

  • From the development side, we see this expressed in national policy portfolios, in Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers and in UN Development Assistance Frameworks.
  • From the ICT side, we see this expressed in national ICT policies and World Summit on the Information Society action lines.

Emerging Digital for Development Paradigm

Yet, just at the moment when this paradigm in its ICT4D 2.0 form is starting to be widely adopted within national and international development systems, a new form is hoving into view. This is the digital for development paradigm. If one wanted to summarise the key difference to the ICT4D paradigm, one could say that it conceptualises ICT not as one tool among many that enables particular aspects of development but as the platform that increasingly mediates development.

Mobile, broadband, smartphones, social media, cloud and platforms are already integral to digital and development. They have created this “digital nervous system” for development that is spreading fast in terms of reach, scope and depth, spurred further by the new telecommunication technologies that fill in the relatively few remaining blank spaces on the digital map and by the growth of the internet of things. The technologies of Industry 4.0 play a more formative role as yet but are likely to have a substantial impact in the coming decade.

That technological base is digitising development, leading to a datafication and digitalisation of development processes. This is already having widespread implications for development efficiency and effectiveness but also for issues of social justice, inequality and more. The base is also digitalising the demographics of development:

  • Shifting the online world’s centre of power East and South,
  • Creating digital natives who may differ in some ways from past user groups,
  • Pushing users up the ladder of digital engagement and capabilities,
  • Changing how users experience the world even as the technology itself fades into the quotidian background of individual lives.

Complex, virtualised, platform-based networks are increasingly the structural basis for development, delivering goods and services that are increasingly dematerialised and customisable via a set of new business models that can disrupt traditional development through their efficiency, virtuality, openness, etc.

Looking back at the summary descriptors for ICT4D 2.0, some issues remain the same: the potential view of the poor, and models of innovation. But other elements have changed: the iconic technology is now the digital platform, the key goals are the SDGs, and the key issue is now impact alone. And there are new issues of importance: the universality of the technology, concerns about both development downsides as well as benefits, and the different nature of user engagement with the technology.

We can, therefore, at least start to talk of a new paradigm, a new worldview in the relation between the technology and development. We could call this “ICT4D 3.0,” and there would be good reasons for that, indicating the continuity with past ideas and reinforcing the identity value of the “ICT4D” label. But it could also be a good moment to change terminology to “digital,” calling this either a “digital development” paradigm or, with a clearer sense of purpose and less opportunity for confusion with other meanings, a “digital for development” paradigm.

It is still early days in understanding the current inflection point in the relationship between digital ICTs and international development. Hopefully, this paper can act as a launch pad for further work, tracing the detail of any new paradigm but also looking for “big picture” aspects of the paradigm.

A lightly edited version of Richard Heek’s new paper, ICT4D 3.0? An Emerging “Digital for Development” Paradigm.

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Written by
Richard Heeks is Professor of Digital Development in the Global Development Institute, part of the School of Environment, Education and Development at the University of Manchester. He is Director of the Centre for Digital Development.
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One Comment to “An Emerging Digital for Development Paradigm for ICT4D 3.0”

  1. Darrell Owen says:

    This paper is very consistent with my experience over 25 years—from 1993-2018…much of it working directly for USAID or through a number of contractors. Initially this included supporting the Leland Initiative, later establishing the foundation for the Last Mile Initiative (LMI), and later designing and being involved in the execution of the Global Broadband and Innovation (GBI). My engagement included working at the HQ in designing, shaping and managing the initiatives, but also working on the ground in a number of countries, implementing specific initiatives.

    Towards the end of my active engagement, I paused and wrote a book, “Development through Digitization: Addressing the LDC Challenge,” to capture and pass on to others, my experiences and lessons learned. The book concludes with a Development through Digitization (DtD) model, along with a discussion on the need for the international development community to sharpen the focus, as there remains a tremendous amount of work to be done in this space.