On tech production/innovation in the global south and ICTD research*

By Seyram Avle

*This is an edited version of a short talk (less than 10 minutes if I remember correctly) that I gave at a joint University of Michigan and Michigan State University mini-symposium on ICTD on October 30, 2015  about the upcoming ICTD conference to be held in June in Ann Arbor (I’m the program committee). I wanted to talk about bringing more of what tech industries in developing countries are doing into conversation with ICTD research and the Q & A session somewhat accomplished that, in that it focused on shedding more light on the industry in Ghana with a room full of ICTD researchers… I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation with them and others who will be at the conference. Begins after the jump.

**Image from the office of Africa’s Talking (Nairobi, Kenya)
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I’ve been thinking about the production culture and industry evolving around ICTs in places like Ghana. Production culture is about the practices, beliefs and situated actions targeted at designing, building, and distributing ICTS in the country. Industry logics speak to the broader political economy (both local and global) that impact how the collection of firms, individuals etc. that make up the industry go about building, designing, distributing ICT products, both software and hardware.

Let’s think of ICTD as a field is writing a history of technology in the global south. Is it doing it by coming at it from a place of lack/want, on what external agents bring in and neglecting much of what is already happening? We have a definition of what innovation is and what design looks like in part due to interdisciplinary work done in fields such as HCI and design, documenting, questioning, and theorizing tech developments in silicon valley, research hand national labs, the military, etc. in the US and other western contexts. On the other hand, a lot of the research from the south is about how agents from outside that group think about what is missing and what to add, what they need, and less so about what may already be happening outside of the immediate area of interest. As a group of researchers concerned with the present and future well being of fellow humans in less privileged societies, I think we will be shortchanging the very group we seek to help if the record we leave posterity is that of mostly failed projects and funder agency ego stroking.

In thinking through my own work, one way that an explicit focus on industry can work its way into ICTD’s mandate is to document, make sense, and theorize what is already taking place in the global south. That is, for us to to look more closely at where design and innovations are already happening in situ. It requires a shifting of lens, repositioning of self, and rethinking the questions we ask. For me, that means moving from a position in which “my work is development related to the extent that it resides in a developing country” to more of a “my work is development related because it reflects how people living in a developing country, are utilizing what is around them, creating and tapping into networks, and seriously building things for their own societies”.

I’ll give an example. I went to Ghana to speak to a range of actors in what is still a growing tech industry, surveyed some more after I returned, and basically tried to make sense of who is doing what, why, and how they are doing it. I interviewed CEOs of very established, multinational but Ghana founded and based tech firms as well as recent college grads armed only with an idea and generalized basic tech skills. My goal was to document, understand, and make sense of what to me was an industry with its own peculiarities in its social, cultural, economic and political milieu. Part of the motivation then, and still is, that we can’t challenge dominant notions and discourses on what design is, what it looks like if we have little to compare it to. There’s work from China’s manufacturing sector (for instance Silvia Lindtner et al’s work) challenging that but there’s still a lot of work left to move the discourse of design and technology innovation forward towards a multiplicity of contexts the way user appropriation work has done. It’s still very easy to slip into claiming that all/most innovation comes from Silicon Valley (the “center” in the center-periphery narratives) and diffuses elsewhere. Switching where we begin the work is how I’ve been looking at it.

My informants answered a range of questions about their backgrounds, interest, motivations for doing technology, what products and services there were building, what their business strategies were, etc. I didn’t ask about development or ICTD. The questions were framed as more oriented towards business and the economy, the role of the government in supporting industry, etc. I wasn’t planning an intervention or thinking about what development means.

One key theme that emerged that struck me, was the ways that technology entrepreneurship was framed. It was presented to me as a set of practices, as an identity, and as an economic position, al of which do different kinds of work. One kind of work was the aspirational – the tech entrepreneur is a highly valued and valorized identity that new entrants into the market aimed at. Some of the people mentioned were the likes of Bill Gates, others were Herman Chinery-Hesse, one of the first Ghanaians to build a tech company, Patrick Awuah (founder of Ashesi University), people in Ghana building things they wanted to emulate. If we think about this through the lens that Kentaro Toyama (author of Geek Heresy) has recently been talking about, i.e. getting at people’s needs and aspirations, and then seeing how we can help with the resources we have, I think we can do development work by asking what is going on in industry by looking at the goals and aspirations, and building on from there.

Another theme from the Ghana work was how the practice of design and its purposes were framed. There was a certain instrumental functionality applied to what these technologists were building. One was the requirement that what they designed filled a need, not just as a market function, i.e. “there’s this need and I’m only providing a business response”. It was often framed within a broader need, as one step towards a bigger problem. So, the person building software to help process insurance claims, was addressing a very local (but also global south) challenge of hospital record keeping. The one building games was targeting a generation of Africans who were absent in a particular space – gaming – but also towards building a company that trained people to think across story telling, engineering, computer science, English majors, etc. to build a dynamic system. [I talk about some of this in a paper (with Silvia) accepted for the upcoming CHI conference]

We could take a skeptical view and say “oh Silicon Valley techies also say they want to change the world”. However it won’t be a helpful view and doesn’t really advance the conversation. Those identifying peculiar needs from the sample I’m drawing from weren’t necessarily trying to save the world. They didn’t present idyllic view of some techno utopia to come; which isn’t to say those trying, say, through social enterprises are. I’m interpreting this as a somewhat pragmatic response of making use of what is available in a resource-constrained environment and innovating around that challenge, understanding that some challenges are things they cannot directly change. The innovation might be in the training they do of recent university grads, or it might be allowing people to pay utility bills via multiple platforms through the ubiquitous mobile phone, leaving utility provision to others skilled at providing that. But the applications are not being built just for smart phones; many targeted ‘dumb ones, basic java enabled ones… across the spectrum of phones available and users, not just rich not just poor but both plus the growing middle class.

So, while we are looking for those vulnerable populations or the ever present farmer and fisherman in need of our interventions, we can also look for who in the local market is already thinking about this farmer and building something that we can add on. In fact, there are more than a couple that were working (for e.g. Farmable, Esoko, etc), some of which are profitable while still serving a critical need for the poor (who make up the majority of customers in some cases). The market isn’t inherently evil. It has its distortions but it can be useful for thinking about collaborating instead of starting whole new projects that cannot scale outside the particular context we implement them in. Participatory design for instance gets at some of this. Studying what the local industry is already doing, then should also be fulfilling some of the ‘development mandate’ in perhaps more sustainable ways.

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