Last month I joined a panel hosted by the Guardian on the contribution of innovation and technology to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Luckily they said that it was fine to come from a position of ‘skeptical realism.’
To drum up some good skeptical realist thoughts, I did what every innovative person does – posted a question on Facebook. A great discussion among friends who work in development, innovation and technology ensued. (Some might accuse me of ‘crowdsourcing’ ideas for the panel, but I think of it as more of a group discussion enabled by the Internet.) In the end, I didn’t get to say most of what we discussed on Facebook while on the panel, so I’m summarizing here.
To start off, I tend to think that the most interesting thing about the SDGs is that they are not written for ‘those developing countries over there.’ Rather, all countries are supposed to meet them. (I’m still not sure how many people or politicians in the US are aware of this.)
Framing them as global goals forces recognition that we have global issues to deal with — inequality and exclusion happen within countries and among countries everywhere. This opens doors for a shift in the narrative and framing of ‘development.’ (See Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries; and Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.)
These core elements of the SDGs — exclusion and inequality – are two things that we also need to be aware of when we talk about innovation and technology. And while innovation and technology can contribute to development and inclusion…by connecting people and providing more access to information; helping improve access to services; creating space for new voices to speak their minds; contributing in some ways to improved government and international agency accountability; improving income generation; and so on… it’s important to be aware of who is excluded from creating, accessing, using and benefiting from tech and tech-enabled processes and advances.
Who creates and/or controls the tech? Who is pushed off platforms because of abuse or violence? Who is taken advantage of through tech? Who is using tech to control others? Who is seen as ‘innovative’ and who is ignored? For whom are most systems and services designed? Who is an entrepreneur by choice vs. an informal worker by necessity? There are so many questions to ask at both macro and micro levels.
But that’s not the whole of it. Even if all the issues of access and use were resolved, there are still problems with framing innovation and technology as one of the main solutions to the world’s problems. A core weakness of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was that they were heavy on quantifiable goals and weak on reaching the most vulnerable and on improving governance. Many innovation and technology solutions suffer the same problem.
Sometimes we try to solve the wrong problems with tech, or we try to solve the wrong problems altogether, without listening to and involving the people who best understand the nature of those problems, without looking at the structural changes needed for sustainable impact, and without addressing exclusion at the micro-level (within and among districts, communities, neighborhoods or households).
Often a technological solution is brought in for questionable reasons. There is too little analysis of the political economy in development work as DE noted on the discussion thread. Too few people are asking who is pushing for a technology solution. Why technology? Who gains? What is the motivation? As Ory Okollah asked recently, Why are Africans expected to innovate and entrepreneur our way out of our problems? We need to get past our collective fascination with invention of products and move onward to a more holistic understanding of innovation that involves sustainable implementation, change, and improvement over the longer term.
Innovation is a process, not a product. As MBC said on the discussion thread, “Don’t confuse doing it first with doing it best.” Innovation is not an event, a moment, a one-time challenge, a product, a simple solution. Innovation is technology agnostic, noted LS. So we need to get past the goal of creating and distributing more products. We need to think more about innovating and tweaking processes, developing new paradigms and adjusting and improving on ways of doing things that we already know work. Sometimes technology helps, but that is not always the case.
We need more practical innovation. We should be looking at old ideas in a new context (citing from Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From) said AM. “The problem is that we need systems change and no one wants to talk about that or do it because it’s boring and slow.”
The heretical IT dared suggest that there’s too much attention to high profile innovation. “We could do with more continual small innovation and improvements and adaptations with a strong focus on participants/end users. This doesn’t make big headlines but it does help us get to actual results,” he said.
Along with that, IW suggested we need more innovative thinking and listening, and less innovative technology. “This might mean senior aid officials spending a half a day per week engaging with the people they are supposed to be helping.”
One innovative behavior change might be that of overcoming the ‘expert knowledge’ problem said DE. We need to ensure that the intended users or participants in an innovation or a technology or technological approach are involved and supported to frame the problem, and to define and shape the innovation over time. This means we also need to rely on existing knowledge – immediate and documented – on what has worked, how and when and where and why and what hasn’t, and to make the effort to examine how this knowledge might be relevant and useful for the current context and situation. As Robert Chambers said many years ago: the links of modern scientific knowledge with wealth, power, and prestige condition outsiders to despise and ignore rural peoples’ own knowledge. Rural people’s knowledge and modern scientific knowledge are complementary in their strengths and weaknesses.
Several people asked whether the most innovative thing in the current context is simply political will and seeing past an election cycle, a point that Kentaro Toyama often makes. We need renewed focus on political will and capacity and a focus on people rather than generic tech solutions.
In addition, we need paradigm shifts and more work to make the current system inclusive and fit for purpose. Most of our existing institutions and systems, including that of ‘development’ carry all of the old prejudices and ‘isms’. We need more questioning of these systems and more thinking about realistic alternatives – led and designed by people who have been traditionally excluded and pushed out. As a sector, we’ve focused a LOT on technocratic approaches over the past several years, and we’ve stopped being afraid to get technical. Now we need to stop being afraid to get political.
In summary, there is certainly a place for technology and for innovation in the SDGs, but the innovation narrative needs an overhaul. Just as we’ve seen with terms like ‘social good’ and ‘user centered design’ – we’ve collectively imbued these ideas and methods with properties that they don’t actually have and we’ve fetishized them. Re-claiming the term innovation, said HL, and taking it back to a real process with more realistic expectations might do us a lot of good.