Invariably, at every conference on technology for development I’ve been to, someone pipes up with the line “start with the problem, not with the technology.” While there is certainly validity in an approach to development rooted in assessment of needs before applying solutions, I wonder if we can acknowledge at the same time that technology has its own unique draw, and might be a situation where the rules are bent a bit. I was thinking about that this morning at the ICTD2010 conference in London (or somewhere near it), and tweeted (approximately):
No one ever got into development because they love logframes, yet some do because they love technology and want to apply it. Stop saying ICT4D isn’t about the technology.
We can’t ignore the fact that technology is fun, computers and mobiles are exciting, and getting and putting out information instantly is gratifying. At IREX, in fact, we’ve seen that technology itself can be used as a launching pad for other development objectives. Tech Age Girls uses technology training to give marginalized young women a foot in the door into a lucrative field, social status for their knowledge and skills, and a platform for community leadership. With libraries, we’ve seen usage of once neglected institutions explode once computers are delivered – even if their purpose in the community is only vaguely defined – and experimentation and content creation follow. Exactly how community problems can be addressed only appears concretely after communities gain a familiarity with the possibilities.
Applying technology to development has brought in all sorts of new talent and resources. Useful tools have been designed by software designers who wanted to do something meaningful with their spare time. Major companies like Microsoft and Intel have dedicated resources to solving development problems. None of this would be happening if tech didn’t just have its own appeal. As one of my colleagues at the conference today pointed out, there was never a field “Cars for development” or “Televisions for development.” ICT4D is a field at all because it is inherently exciting.
The problem doesn’t always have to come first. I am reminded of a quote by Benjamin Franklin, responding to someone seeing humans take to the air for the first time in a hot air balloon. “What is the use of flying in the air?“ his neighbor commented. “Of what use is a newborn baby?” responded Franklin. Technology is adaptable, flexible, mashable. People can learn to apply tools to different contexts and problems by playing and tinkering and experimenting. In countries lacking updated educational methodology, the presence of computers and internet might present the only outlet for creative minds to play. You can’t discount the role of pure curiosity in development.
This is not a call to blindly throw all manner of technologies into development projects. But I think it is ok to recognize that technology for technology’s sake does have a useful role in development work. We don’t always need to design down to the detail ahead of time – making available exciting ideas and seeing where communities go with them is also ok.