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Is It Finally Time to Retire Sustainability in ICT4D?

By Josh Woodard on May 6, 2021

sustainability ict4d

Talk – and debate – of the term “sustainability” in ICT4D is nothing new. The theme has been discussed on ICTworks for more than a decade. In recent years, however, it’s really become all the rage.

Build for Sustainability is the fourth Principle for Digital Development. Everywhere you look, people in the sector want to know, how will such and such be sustainable? By which, of course, they are really referring to financial sustainability.

It is time for me to come clean. I used to be a huge fan boy of sustainability. I even own a ‘Build for Sustainability’ t-shirt. (Yes, seriously.) It took me founding a civictech platform though to realize that something was actually quite off with our over-emphasis on sustainability when it comes to ICT4D.

sustainability ict4d

Is Long Lasting Always a Good Thing?

Lately, I’ve been asking myself, is the prolonged life of a digital solution really what we should aspire to? The answer I keep coming back to is, not necessarily.

From my work on Civi, I’ve realized that what matters most when it comes to the social impact we are trying to achieve is not whether Civi survives as a platform, but whether the innovations we are trying to introduce into the market survive. That could be achieved with or without us, although obviously I’d love for us to be the ones achieving widescale impact.

By being so wed to the long-term existence of the digital solutions we support, I wonder if we are not missing out on the opportunity to drive sustainable innovation (to which I would also include innovations in approaches to deploying tech, such as those related to ethics and inclusion).

Sustainable innovation focuses on ensuring that the innovative ideas that we support continue to deliver impact over time, regardless of the vehicle they are delivered by. If ODK, for example, ends up not being sustainable, who cares? As a solution, it has already transformed how mobile data collection is done in the sector and now forms the base code for much of the more successful solutions in that space.

How many trailblazers in the digital technology space were ultimately not sustainable? It’s a long list, including companies like CompuServe, Altavista, Friendster, and many more. (Feel free to reminisce in the comments and share some of your favorite examples of unsustainable pioneers). Their lack of financial sustainability was not actually a bad thing.

Finding a product-market fit that is commercially viable over an extended period of time in a rapid evolving market is a challenge, all the more so when you are one of the first to market. Not to mention that it is pretty much impossible to predict what technology solutions will actually be financially sustainable over the long-term.

Viability, not Sustainability

I know what you’re asking, but if we don’t focus on financial sustainability, aren’t donors just going to be wasting their money on countless failed efforts as in the past? The answer is no, if we focus on the right metrics.

A better alternative to financial sustainability is financial viability. The reason is simple. Financial viability is fairly easy to assess from early on. I can explain to an investor why Civi’s business model is financially viable (i.e. we have feasible revenue streams and a product-market fit), but it gets a lot more wishy-washy if you ask me to accurately explain how we will be sustainable over the long-term, primarily because I cannot predict how the market will evolve that far into the future (i.e. changes in tech trends, new competition, regulatory changes, etc.).

The other nice thing about viability is that you can and should assess it from the offset. That means that when a donor or practitioner receives a proposal for something including a technology solution, they can determine right at that moment whether or not the proposed approach is likely to be financially viable.

If you receive a proposal and it does not or cannot convincingly answer how the solution plans to be viable, don’t fund it. Simple as that. There’s no need to wait until year 4 of the project for them to share a sustainability plan with you. Plus, we all know that once the funding relationship stops, so does the follow up.

So it doesn’t really make sense to fund something on a theoretical long-term plan that they won’t submit until after they spend most of the money already and that we won’t end up tracking after the funding stops.

We have come to a point in the sector where donors should be requiring financial viability plans when it comes to many digital solutions (especially those that are in well-established use cases) as part of the initial funding proposal—while also still leaving space for cutting edge R&D that may not be financially viable.

No investors will give Civi a dime unless we can prove that case from day one, so why are so many donors and donor-funded projects still waiting years into funding for that answer?

In short, financial viability simply means that the solution can demonstrate a clear path to existing on its own, independent of donor support. That could be in terms of commercial viability or as a public good. If they achieve that but are eventually put out of business (i.e. are no longer sustainable) because someone else came along and bested them, that’s actually good thing for innovation and potentially for development as well.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and not necessarily the views and opinions of his employer, which at the time of writing is the United States Agency for International Development.

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Josh Woodard is the co-founder of Civi, a civictech platform connecting people across the aisle, as well as a senior digital advisor at USAID. You can find more of his writings on his personal site and occasionally via his LinkedIn feed
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30 Comments to “Is It Finally Time to Retire Sustainability in ICT4D?”

  1. Great post and great points, Josh. Whatever the future holds for ODK, they launched an entire ecosystem. And whatever the future holds for SurveyCTO, we helped demonstrate the viability of expanding reach with a commercially-sustainable SaaS model. When we started, I was determined to stay focused on the broader social impact and not become too narrowly focused on the fate of my particular product or organization. But over time, there are a thousand incremental ways that one becomes a partisan for one’s own product, organization, team, users, or model. I think that’s totally natural and maybe even right — but that doesn’t mean that a narrow or even grasping partisanship should be elevated to a Principle in the space. That said, I think that a broader view of sustainability — sustainability of the innovation, contribution, or impact — can still rescue the term and even the Principle. It’s when sustainability becomes interpreted very narrowly that I think we get into trouble.

    • Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Christopher. I agree that if we take a broader view of sustainability, then we term can be rescued. Whether or not the sector will actually move in that direction though is another question.

  2. The other “sustainability” that doesn’t get considered enough in the digital context is environmental sustainability – the energy and resources that go into creating and maintaining devices, products and solutions. Expanding the idea of “sustainability” to incorporate circular economy concepts and concerns would help ensure that digital doesn’t further accelerate climate change.

    • I agree completely, Reyn. My original version actually had a section on environmental sustainability, but the ICTworks editors suggested removing it to keep the post more focused. But since you brought it up, pasted below is that lost section:

      Turning a Blind Eye to that Other Sustainability
      Our over-emphasis on sustainability in the financial sense is also troubling in that it often results in us ignoring the more important definition of sustainability. The one that is encapsulated in the name of those lofty goals we all hold ourselves to, the Sustainable Development Goals. Let’s face it. Digital technology has some challenges when it comes to resource sustainability (and in many ways runs counter to SDG 12 and 13).

      Sure, you hear a lot of talk about how bitcoin is bad for the environment, but how many development projects are actually relying on bitcoin? Want to know what’s an even bigger consumer of power that bitcoin? Data centers. By almost two-to-one. As the world moves increasingly to the cloud, and as demand for more complex tasks, such as those needed for AI, grows, those energy needs will grow in tandem. If our energy grid is not paired to more sustainable sources of energy, then all the worse.

      Moreover, in our march towards a fully connected world where everyone can enjoy the benefits of a smartphone, how many of us are stopping to think about what is required to build those devices? Our smartphones consist of more than two dozen rare earth elements which are rapidly being depleted and whose extraction have been reported to have significant environmental and human rights impacts in some cases. These are just a couple of examples, but there are many more.

      Unless we start to prioritize the development of less resource intensive software applications and more efficient and “green” hardware, digital technology will continue to be a (growing) contributor to resource depletion and environmental degradation. It is time for us as practitioners to take the environmental sustainability of digital technology seriously. We have an opportunity to be leaders in promoting advances in this space, if only we would give it due attention.

      • Thanks for sharing that – totally agree. Editors shouldn’t have cut it! 🙂

      • James BonTempo says:

        I would wager that the contribution of ICT4D initiatives to climate change via data centers is minuscule, at best. Of course, that’s not to suggest that we shouldn’t care about the environmental impact of our digital efforts. Probably one of the most impactful things we can do immediately is to actually run services in the cloud rather than setting up our own physical machines. At that point, what’s important is deciding *which* cloud to use. The top 3 providers—AWS, Google & Microsoft—have all made environmental commitments. This WIRED article is over a year old at this point, but it probably still provides a relatively accurate picture of their efforts: “Amazon, Google, Microsoft: Here’s Who Has the Greenest Cloud” – https://www.wired.com/story/amazon-google-microsoft-green-clouds-and-hyperscale-data-centers/

        • Thanks for sharing that WIRED article, James. Yes, you are right that the overall contribution of ICT4D initiatives to climate change is a drop in the bucket, although still something to be aware of within the grand scheme of things. Your suggestion regarding deciding which cloud to use in light of their environmental commitments is a good one.

  3. Well said, Josh. In the early days of mWater we were often asked about ‘sustainability,’ which had reached full on development fad status around that time. It is a strange question to ask a tech startup, which is by its nature an experiment that might succeed or fail based on any number of unforeseeable factors. In those days, donors thought they could provide a small initial investment in a social good startup and then it would scale up without any additional support from them. They imagined all sorts of unrealistic sources of finance, including private venture capital and impact investors. But in reality, if an innovation is going to scale up in the development sector, then the donors and development partners will need to change their programming to incorporate the new model and replace older, less effective approaches. In other words, sustainability is more a question of donor behavior and openness to innovation than of the startups, who are just trying to discover a valid business model. If a particular technology platform stops solving problems that users have, it should not be sustained. As you suggest, it is more important that the changes which occur in the governments and organizations that use our technology, such as data-driven management of public services, take root and are sustained. If they are, then it will be easy for them to swap out the technology platform in the future if that becomes necessary.

    • Thanks for sharing these perspectives, John. Donors and development partners definitely need to rethink how they approach supporting tech innovations and be clearer in their expectations. There is a place at time for supporting unproven experimentation that do yet have proven business models. In other cases, it is past that point of unproven experimentation and expectations in those cases must therefore be different.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      The sustainability quote of the year: “sustainability is more a question of donor behavior and openness to innovation than of the startups”

  4. Paul Tuthill says:

    Josh,

    I think you’ve made a lot of good points here. I would first like to seek to clarify the definition of “sustainability” in the context that we are using it in. You mention having financial resourcing, which is a big part, but I think there are other aspects to consider. Does the project rely on infrastructure, backstopping support, or negotiated agreements provided by the donor or an implementing partner? Does it rely on support or services provided by other projects that themselves might be ending?

    In addition, I don’t believe that sustainability necessarily means permanence. On a long enough timeline all technologies are replaced, as they should be, when better alternatives are adopted. And not all systems are meant to be sustainable under any definition. Some are meant to support a project while it is ongoing, and at the termination of the project we can apply Marie Kondo’s thinking, thank the platform for its service and then deactivate it. Sometimes planning for sustainability means planning on how to responsibly retire a system after it has served its purpose.

    I was involved in a project whose sustainability plan was to hand off the platform to a state government MoH at the end of the project. The cost of the servers was fairly small, and thought to be easily absorbed by the ministry. It was a custom built solution, and was very elaborate with many moving parts. As I was sitting in the training with the MoH staff learning about the 92 or so simple steps in maintaining the system I realized how absurd the plan was. Did we plan for sustainability? Yes. Was the platform sustained? No, of course not. It was dropped like a hot potato three days after the MoH took it over. No one could ever maintain someone else’s elaborate custom solution like that, especially not overstretched MoH staff. By creating an unworkable sustainability plan we ended up doing the exact opposite of what we set out to do.

    So I’m not willing to retire planning for sustainability. I’m all for redefining what sustainability should mean, however.

    • You are completely right, Paul. Sustainability does entail much more than financial resourcing. However, I find that all too often when people in our sector talk about sustainability of tech they reduce it down to just the financial element. I also agree that we shouldn’t really retire it. The title of the post was meant as a thought-provoking question, but ultimately, I think we agree that we need to redefine what it means and how we measure it. I would also add that a bad plan, is not really a plan at all. We need to hold people to a higher standard when it comes to those plans.

  5. Marla Petal says:

    Great points – that apply mostly to well-funded major efforts. However, the domain actually contains zillions of well-meaning and less well-funded efforts that amount to resources down the drain.

    I have personally been early nay-sayer to at least 3 projects of <$100,000 that were predictably going to fail after spending time and money (and did fail before launch). I've also been party to another 3 that spent $100-200K and failed after launch… not ONLY on sustainability, but that was the major failing. (The bigger long-term fails I can think of had other Principles that were unfulfilled).

    As with many things, these off-the-radar efforts may add up to a larger pool than those better conceived and with more funding.

    We still need "sustainability" as a concept to keep us on track. However, it would be fine and dandy to revise our understanding of "sustainability" to also address "agility" and "viability". Totally agree that financial viability is important. However, the bigger issue that is unaddressed is how so many efforts lock themselves into a black box with no agility… and that's the reason that they aren't sustainable. In this day and age, any ICT project needs to be conceived of to be agile and scalable – and that doesn't seem to have been captured by the principles.

  6. James BonTempo says:

    How many non-digital development interventions are sustainable? How many “traditional” interventions have lasted the test of time? For those that have, how many have done so only because of continued donor funding? Or alternately, how many have “graduated” from donor funding?

    Are we being harder on digital interventions than we are on the non-digital ones?

    • You ask good questions, James. I would hope that all people working in the humanitarian and development sectors would be equally interested in ensuring that the initiatives they work on have longer-term viability, in whatever fashion that might take, should such viability be necessary. Certain initiatives are by nature time-bound, and so there’s no need for them to live beyond that time. Others will likely always require some form of public or donor support, because they are deemed important yet they do not have viable business models on their own. All of this context and nuance is important.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      James, I do think ICT4D initiatives are held to a different financial sustainability standard than say traditional civil society or health programs. I don’t hear of democracy and governance or elementary school programs expected to generate revenues from users or have a private sector savior.

  7. It’s an apples to oranges comparison you’re making, Wayan. ICT4D is a set of tools and approaches used to achieve some other development objective, such as something in education or civil society. It is the means to some other end, not the end itself. Does that mean that tech should always be financially viable? Not necessarily. But if the org or company offering it does so on the pretenses of it being able to continue on post-donor funding then it is not unreasonable to expect that they’ll have a well thought out plan to execute that.

  8. Mike Frost says:

    I’m glad that you are raising the question of sustainability. Global donors are obviously feeling the pressure to graduate digital health tools to be self-sustaining, and we’ve seen several of the named “global goods” move to freemium or private models this last year.

    I am more in line with Wayan’s comment. The purpose of donor-driven global health is to reach the unreached, and solve the health challenges that haven’t been possible through traditional means. It is a little strange to see the donors positioning themselves over the last few years as incubators for tech companies, where the goal is to develop a finance model. If malaria treatment had been a promising market, we wouldn’t have spent 30 years between new treatments. Ebola in West Africa would not have caused such disruption, because commercial disease surveillance options would have caught it early. Donor funded public health always has been, and should be, about addressing gaps in market-driven healthcare.

    To me, there is an inherent mismatch between the current calls for self-sustaining financial stability, and the goal to address unmet needs in health. Those needs are unmet because there is no market. And to require a market for the digital health solutions that will reach them is nonsensical. Every “global good” that finds a sustainable financial model is basically one less global good. Making a profit means shifting the focus away from those that are most in need, to those that can pay.

    There is no end to digital health solutions in the private sector. If sustainable technology is the goal, we can stop now and start using all of the apps and platforms in use in the US and Europe. But if the goal is to extend the use of technology to those countries and health areas that cannot sustain themselves as a market, then digital health shouldn’t be a money maker any more than the polio vaccine should be a money maker.

    • James BonTempo says:

      “To me, there is an inherent mismatch between the current calls for self-sustaining financial stability, and the goal to address unmet needs in health. Those needs are unmet because there is no market.”

      What a great point! The natural corollary is that the only reasonable funding model for Digital Health is donor funding.

  9. Those are great points, Mike, but I wonder: do you think there’s a kind of middle-ground for health tech to be sustainably built and maintained for the market of global health programs, agencies, and nonprofits? If there are technologies that can help programs achieve their objectives — and there are donors funding those objectives — can you not imagine vendors who build and maintain those technologies, based on some kind of sustainable financial model? I’m just trying to figure out whether a market, in your view, has to be made up of only private-sector customers, or whether serving nonprofits, gov’t health agencies, and so on can also be, in a sense, market-driven. I’m wondering if you think that donors have to be in the business of directly funding health tech, or whether you think that grantees might themselves form a market worthy of some vendor competition, etc. Does that make sense?

  10. Mike Frost says:

    Christopher, I think that there is clearly a market for companies and NGOs that are implementing digital health solutions, under the current approach. This is a market that donors can report on and should be proud of. It includes many companies located in the countries that we serve. I think that this market depends on the presence of donor funded platforms and objectives. If every global good became privatized, then the platform developer and implementer could probably continue to be sustained by the market that they target, but that market would be defined by a financial approach that generates profit. This would not naturally target unmet need, and would leave the same gaps that are always there, that we are supposed to be addressing with the SDGs. I don’t think that an ecosystem of privatized, self-sustaining solutions will ever cover unmet need.

  11. Judy Payne says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Josh. I surely am one that has used “sustainability” lots, to urge hard thinking about whether a digital solution developed with donor funds could continue after donor funding ended. I never meant that a solution would go on forever or even very long. I did hope that it could continue at least for awhile after donor funding ended to benefit a larger fraction of the target community that it was developed to help. I figured, nothing can scale further if it isn’t sustainability. Using the term “viability” doesn’t change this challenge. I agree that we are not shooting for the permanence of any digital solution. I do think we need to make sure to add “organizational” viability to the questions asked. Who will operate the app, maintain it, adapt it? Sustainability (or viability) doesn’t just mean finding someone willing to pay for hosting an app (a definition I have heard recently).

    Let’s refine the definition of sustainability or replace it with viability, but just because we use the term “viability” does not mean that those developing an app with donor funding will be more likely to ask the question up front before they develop the app.

  12. Jonathan Jackson says:

    Sustainability is a loaded word, but I tend to like it. When I talk about “sustainability,” I mean is the value the digital health solution providing is worth the cost/complexity in the current global health ecosystem, on a recurring basis. The capex and opex of standing-up and running that program is higher value than other health system interventions – like drugs or cold-chain equipment. If its not, those other health-systems interventions should be funded not digital health. And if it is high-value, the MoH or donors should be “happy” to pay / maintain a high-value intervention, just like buying drugs every year or maintaining a cold-chain.

    When we buy IT systems internally at our orgs, the rational actor should be “happy” to pay year-over-year for them because they are getting good value, or drop them and replace them if they are not (no one is really happy spending money… but you get the idea). Our current project-based financing approach I believe is particularly poorly suited for enabling governments to have visibility into that value. That’s why I advocate for our digital health “market shaping” ( effort to unlock local innovation and efficiencies: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BvbnXNkcudZCuC40oe5lw1sXYiWYfRWQOl9OjXfIOPg/edit).

    Also, Sustainability is often talking about 4 things in a convoluted way:
    1) The org behind the global good
    2) The software global good itself
    3) The manifestation of that software as a cloud or on-premise digital service
    4) The program using that digital service to create impact.

    I’m aligned with Mike that many of the most important clients digital health needs to serve are in ecosystems that can’t afford to invest enough for 3 and 4 to generate profit, let alone enough money to also contribute to the sustainability of 1) and 2). As long as 3) and 4) is high enough value for the health system, then its worth getting as creative as you need to be to make sure 1) and 2) are also sustained. But if you force 1) and 2) to be sustained by monetizing 3) and 4), most (all?) tech can’t make that work without dropping large segment of public sector services in global health.

    • Mike Frost says:

      Just nudging this comment, because I think it is well informed and articulated. It may be that there are clear divisions of the four categories that donors do not want to support directly, but it would help those of working on global goods to know that explicitly. I have no doubt that CommCare, for example, could be monetized in the private sector, and ignore public health goals entirely. But if that is not what donors want, then they should advocate for and fund the tools that they are using to achieve their goals. It may be the case that in the future more countries will be able to fund these tools directly without donor support, but of course at that point they may also be able to fund many of their health objectives without donor support. In the meantime, it seems strange that digital global goods are the intervention that is singled out as somehow needing to pay their own way to achieve global health objectives.

      • I know that your comments are partly directed at the discussion in the comments and not entirely at the original post itself, however, to clarify from my perspective, when I talk about financial viability I do not mean that in terms of profitability. Financial viability can take multiple pathways, including as a public good. So I was not saying that all digital interventions need to pay their own way. Rather, my point was that it still behooves the digital solution provider and/or the development implementer to make a clear case for the viability of that solution beyond the life of a single grant or contract. If they can make a compelling case that the solution should be funded indefinitely by donors because of the value it brings to the sector, then that’s a case they should make.

        • Mike Frost says:

          “If they can make a compelling case that the solution should be funded indefinitely by donors because of the value it brings to the sector, then that’s a case they should make.”

          I feel like that is a case that is made every time a digital global good wins a grant or project. If the data / intervention that is being funded could be had from some other existing source, then it wouldn’t be awarded. If the donor finds an alternative source for what they want, then they should proceed with that. As a public health specialist working at a global good, my opinion is that these digital health solutions are making huge and necessary contributions to the donor objectives already, and these contributions are self evident.

          • If the case is already being made in the public health space, then great. That would align with what the point I was making. Although I do not necessarily agree that just because a donor funds something that it means that they couldn’t find an alternative source elsewhere. Many donors lack the internal capacity to effectively evaluate digital as the people who make funding decisions are often technical specialists (e.g. public health specialist) but not digital specialists.