ICTs: A New Basis for Development

 Information and Communication Technologies:

A New Basis for Development

Balaji Parthasarathy and Julian M. Bass

Although information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been closely identified with microelectronics-based computing since the mid-twentieth century, they have existed ever since the means to represent information, such as language, graphics (including scripts) and number systems, were invented. While the invention of writing or telegraphy in earlier centuries means that microelectronics is just one more in a sequence of forces transforming ICT, there are at least two reasons why this transformation is considered significant enough to be the basis of a third industrial revolution. 

First, advances in microelectronics make it possible to obtain and deliver information from and to any corner of the globe, in real time, on a scale unparalleled in history.  The historical relevance of such possibilities is heightened by concurrent economic and social transformations.  The acceptance of economic globalization, for instance, has increased the demand for information about distant markets.  Similarly, as the virtues of political democracy are emphasized, access to information is viewed as a fundamental right.  Second, ICTs are changing and becoming increasingly powerful, affordable and versatile tools for socio-economic development. As a result, it is no more than a broad and fuzzy term to describe a variety of activities, ranging from issues connected with the technology, such as computer hardware and software, to the deployment of the technology for information processing in application domains as distinct as design, cartography and medicine.

Similarly, development goals and the means to achieve them are also disparate: they can range from ensuring macroeconomic growth to enhancing the capacities of individuals. Not surprisingly, they are politically contentious, due to which efforts to “bridge the digital divide”, however well-intentioned, typically lack analytical clarity and lead nowhere.

Research Modalities

These arguments suggest an urgent need to better conceptualize ICTD by spanning a range of intellectual disciplines with their attendant methodologies. Further, researchers, research practitioners and policy makers can effectively deliver benefits only by drawing on diverse organizational structures including academia, the state, and non-governmental (for profit and not-for-profit) entities.

A lifecycle model of ICTs for Dynamic and Open Development

Figure 1 Conceptual Model
Open development is the new, ICT-enabled flow of information, capital and access to innovation, among other things, which enhances the capability of individuals to achieve what they value. This enhanced capability is manifest in new forms of economic dynamism. Examples of such economic dynamism include the emergence of:-
  • groups at the “Bottom of the Pyramid” as valued consumers, innovators and producers,
  • business practices such as off-shoring, and
  • new forms of healthcare delivery using innovative devices

The new economic dynamism leads to different forms of mobility including:-

  • social mobility, which is leading to the formation of new networks of flexible geometry, and
  • spatial mobility, which is the change in human flows and settlement patterns.

This, in turn, triggers institutional change, meaning shifting values, norms, rules, and regulations. Institutional change creates new possibilities for open development on the one hand, and for social, environmental and economic sustainability on the other.

With respect to environmental sustainability, ICTs can help with measuring, informing, predicting, planning, coping and adapting for mitigation of major concerns such as climate change. Initiatives can include smart grids, intelligent transport, green buildings, and disaster management systems. Thinking about sustainability also opens up principles for resilient design. Resilience is a social systems concept characterised by robustness and an ability to adapt to new challenges that may range from economic shocks to threats to peace and security.

This is the report of the ICT for Development Workshop, Bangalore, India, January 2010. The workshop was funded by the Science and Innovation Network of the UK Deputy High Commissioners Office, Bangalore.