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What Do We Call Ourselves Now: ICT4D? Digital Development? Or…?

By Wayan Vota on September 27, 2018

digital development vs ict4d

Recently, a young Millennial was shocked when I said I was an ICT4D practitioner. She responded with a credulous, “Who calls it ICT4D anymore?” and went on to make the case that international development has moved beyond thinking of digital development as a specific sub-sector or profession.

Her reaction has me wondering if we even needed a specific term anymore, and if so, what that term should be.

We Need an Organizing Term

First and foremost, I do believe we still need a term to define our sub-sector and profession. No matter if you’re an advocate for mainstreaming or sidestreaming technology efforts, labels do help people understand and place our initiatives within the wider international development ecosystem.

Communicating with constituents via SMS or USSD may be commonplace and mobile data collection may be mainstream, but we still are learning new lessons on how to use emerging technologies, and re-learning older implementation lessons that are too-quickly forgotten.

Having common terms allows us to share these ideas quickly and effectively.

The Case for Continuing with ICT4D

For years, I was a firm believer in putting all our efforts under the larger rubric of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D), which itself is an evolution from IT to ICT.

That’s why this site is called ICTworks, with over 440 posts (out of 1500+) using the term, I run ICT4D Jobs to help people start and grow their ICT4D careers, and I started ICT4Drinks, which is now run by TechChange. My naming convention was backed by CRS and their ICT4D Conference.

I find this term expansive enough to cover everything from microcomputers to machine learning to user-centered design. As a bonus, “ICT4D” is a clear Google search term that leads you directly to resources like ICTworks.

However, I do understand the critiques against it. I think Duncan Edwards says it the best with:

I’ve never really liked the term “ICT4D”. My issue is the “4D”. It feels like or at least implies that it is starting from the wrong place – “I have technology or technology expertise and i will apply it for development” rather than starting with a clear understanding of a problem and what technology might or might not offer. It also feels very top down in a very classic aid world view of development.

The Rise of “Digital Development”

As Richard Heeks pointed out in 2016, there is a concerted effort to replace ICT4D with “digital development” to signal a shift in the way we use technology in development processes.

ICT4D can be seen as using digital technologies as a tool for development, while digital development focuses on technology as the platform and medium for development.

Digital development definitely has its supporters at USAID. The Center for Digital Development is an obvious example, and the Agency uses digital development across its communications – the term “digital development” returns 47 search results on their website, vs. just 5 for ICT4D.

Their focus on “digital” is probably why we see the term gaining precedence across our field. Terms like “mHealth” are giving way to digital health and organization are renaming teams with “digital”, like DAI’s new Center for Digital Acceleration.

Digital development is also an increasingly accurate term for Google Search too. Where once it was too generic, with pages of false positive responses, now it’s 1,000,000+ mentions are pretty accurate, with Google showing these associated search terms:

  • center for digital development
  • usaid digital development forum
  • principles for digital development
  • digital development job description
  • digital development definition
  • digital development meaning

I do feel Jon Camfield‘s critique – that digital is just as overused in development as “cyber” is in military circles. I know I’ve sat in meetings where “digital” is uses as an expansive shorthand noun to mean all technology and innovation.

However, I am slowly enjoying the term “digital development” over ICT4D as it feels more holistic in how we use technologies, and the concept that development itself is changing with the introduction of technology.

“Tech4Good” and ICT4 Everything Else

Around the fringes of our sub-sector is the desire to use the term “Tech4x” which parallels the “x4D” effort that brought us M4D and T4D, or “ICT4x” which gives us ICT4Edu.

Of these efforts, Google Search says that Tech4Good leads the pack with 106,000 search results, while Tech4Dev lags at 18,200 results, and far behind is ICT4Edu at 7,000 results. Oh and while we are on search results, ICT4Drinks, with 5,800 results, beats out Tech4Dem’s 2,600 search results, confirming ICT4Drinks’ continued leadership in Washington DC happy hours.

What is Your Term?

Enough of my ramblings, what is your preferred term for professional association, proposal writing, and Google searches? Is there a better term to talk about our profession? If so, what would you propose?

Check out the comments to see what others think too. You may be surprised at their creativity.

Filed Under: Thought Leadership
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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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8 Comments to “What Do We Call Ourselves Now: ICT4D? Digital Development? Or…?”

  1. Chris Watson says:

    Let’s not call it anything and instead call any development program not leveraging technology and data “classic development.”

    Is Tesla a car company or a software company?

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424053111903480904576512250915629460

  2. Dykki says:

    While I am along with you in your thoughtful and considered blog, Wayan, and favor ‘digital development’ for the moment, the time is not far when we will just call it ‘development’ 😉

  3. Wayan Vota says:

    I agree with both of you – at some point it’s not going to be “digital development” but just “development” – maybe even without “international” in front. People will just assume high degrees of digital litteracy of any development professional – like we now assume office software and Internet navigation skills. I don’t think we’re there quite yet though.

  4. Jon Canfield says:

    Let’s just embrace the insanity and call it cyberdevelopment. Cyber4D?

  5. My only half-hearted objection to “ICT4D” is that many Americans don’t know that ICT is what the rest of the world calls IT.

    That said, generally, I think it’s easy to overthink the disadvantages, particularly when “ICT4D” is short, unique, and well established.

    • Steve Hellen says:

      As part of updating our ICT4D strategy at CRS, we similarly researched trends around this name in our sector and came down in favor of sticking with ICT4D. Acknowledging that it is virtually meaningless outside the aid/development world, it is well known within our sector. Any change would have meant constant explanation: “[new term], you know, what we used to call ICT4D”.

  6. Rob Baker says:

    ICT4DD.

    There. I fixed it. Everyone shut up and get the fuck back to work.

  7. Benjamin Bach says:

    I agree with Rob Baker that it’s about working hard and not paying attention to labels.

    I prefer ICT4D to keep continuity, history and not go any further into unfruitful discussions. After all, “Information and Communication Technologies for Development” will acknowledge that ICTs might not actually help development, and that’s an important point.

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