Posts Tagged ‘Innovation’

A Tale of Two Workshops: the Internet and the future of creativity and publishing in the Arab World

Recently I had the chance to facilitate two thematically related workshops given to two different audiences. The first was part of the Arab Digital Book Expression Program and was given to a group of young Egyptians who are interested in independent e-book publishing. The second workshop was given to a number of professionals and publishing house owners from the Egyptian Publishers’ Union. Both workshops broadly addressed how the Internet is affecting extant systems of publishing, copyright laws, as well as the how it is empowering content creators and changing the role of the publishers (the sessions were slightly tailored to be relevant to the interests of the two groups). The reactions of these two groups of participants highlighted the rift in expectations about the impact of emerging network technologies on creativity and the publishing world, and by consequence draw attention to the main obstacles against the emergence of alternative publishing models and a freer environment of knowledge and creativity in the Arab World.

In many ways, the difference between these two groups and how they responded to the themes tackled in the two sessions mirrors dynamics of change (and resistance to it) that have been triggered by the Arab uprisings, and underscore some of the key drivers behind these transformations. The questions from the publishers group were revealing of a prevailing sentiment in the publishing industry; that which regards the Internet mainly as a threat to their business models, and which still envisions the role of the publisher merely as a sort of logistical intermediary of culture. While this sentiment is not unique to Arab publishers, it is important to note how many still fail to grasp that new technologies offer as many, or perhaps more, opportunities as they do imperil paradigms of knowledge creation and distribution that predate the Internet.

The other group was comprised of young people with diverse interests, including art, film making, political activism, among others. This group did not appear to be, on average, more technologically-savvy than the publishers group, but all its members shared an interest in how they can independently create and distribute their creative literary work. Everyone in this session seemed very eager to explore the opportunities and tools presented in some of the topics discussed, even beyond what the time limit of the session allowed. The energy and enthusiasm in this group exemplifies an emerging ethos of a technologically-democratised creativity, more accessible co-creation of knowledge and a less restricted ecosystem of cultural production.

Across the Arab World, reactionary forces still cling to their authoritarian roots and place hurdle after another in the face of movements pushing for progress, the latter being largely driven by young people, who are a demographic majority in many Arab countries like Egypt. Given the great uncertainty in the political transitions the Arab World is experiencing, it is far from assured there will be any kind of genuine democratic transformations in the near future in some or all of these countries. One thing we can claim with some modicum of conviction, though, is that the disruptions created by the events of the Arab uprisings have created new contexts of political contention that makes it increasingly difficult for authoritarian regimes to play the ‘long game’ and preserve the status quo. Similarly, if Arab publishers – including those in the realms of music, film and digital content – continue to regard the Internet as merely disruptive and remain entrenched in business models that are rapidly falling out of relevance, they miss opportunities that they can capitalise upon sooner than later. The very notion of what a publisher is and does is changing. Internet skeptics miss the forest for the trees when they try to think of contemporary modes of creativity in terms of the pre hyper-connectivity world.

The big picture is this: The Internet is changing is not only the roles of cultural intermediaries in our communities, but also creating new ones. The incipient horizon is of a world where the cultural public sphere embodies the notion of ‘building upon’, and the role of publishers shifts from being ‘gate-keepers’ of knowledge and creativity to facilitators in and catalysts of an unrestricted cross-pollination of prospects for creative pursuits. Instead of focusing on how to continue policing the boundaries of access to creative resources, a task that is increasingly becoming technically impractical and rationally untenable, Arab publishers should switch their attention to how best to tailor their core functions to a world where preparation for printing and physical distribution are not the main value added by a publisher to the creative production process. If we are currently hoping for a sociopolitical renaissance in the Arab World, an unrestricted domain of cultural production and creativity will have an integral role to play in it.

Developmental hackspaces: Fostering a meta-participatory ethos for Information and Communication Technologies for Development

The program for the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies for Development Conference includes a paper session titled “Expanding Participation”, which invokes thinking about the clearly rising convergence of many conceptual and practical repertoires of development research, practice and emerging information and communications technologies (ICTs). The sustained interest in participation (as a large and diverse set of methodologies, practices and frameworks) and how it continues to inform the general developmental zeitgeist is paralleled by the steady evolution in technologies and technological practices that have their own embedded manifestations of the participatory ethos. Technically-focused communities such as the open source movement and technologies such as crowdsourcing, with characteristics of openness, social collaboration, and unrestricted information flows mirror the inclusiveness inherent in participatory processes in development work.

With such a similitude in the participative and increasingly democratized cultures characterizing the current evolution in development and technical communities, an important question arises: Are we, as development researchers and practitioners, adequately capitalizing on the potential opportunities created (as a result for such a convergence of shared values) for collaboration with our technical counterparts? Are we able to reimagine development within a context of the accelerating rate of change that the increasingly rapid rate of technological advancement brings about? How are we able to reconceive our ‘traditional’ ways of thinking about the global developmental priorities in a world characterized by such an accelerating rate of change?

The purpose of this blog post is not to offer any adequate answers to these questions, but to present a call to action on an issue with direct bearing on formulating these answers. How can development practitioners and technology professionals capitalize on shared values, more effectively collaborate on solving complex developmental issues and foster a reciprocal cross-pollination of ideas that is mutually valuable in finding practical and sustainable solutions in an increasingly dynamic global environment?  The collaborative spaces already exist, considering the multitude of cross-disciplinary conferences, research programs and development interventions that combine input from and invite partnership between those working in both realms of development practice and technological innovation, as well as local stakeholders and institutions. That is, the attention to inclusiveness and participation as central notions of collaborative efforts across joint undertakings between the development and technology domains is already extant and arguably on the rise. What needs more attention is factors affecting the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of collaboration between those working in development practice and their opposite numbers in the technology and innovation world, and this is what is meant by ‘meta-participatory’ in the title of this post.

Many of the attributes that both groups have in common have already been discussed. What about divergences? What stands in the way of a more vibrant alliance between development and technology? In many cases, it all about finding the right balance. Here are two key observations:

  • Disparate views on the role of technology for development: this is an elementary – even obvious – observation, but remains fundamental to bridging gaps in conception of technological tools and processes for development. Without risking treading into territory mined with multifarious and often polarized debates on the subject, and for the purpose of the main thrust of this post, it would suffice to say that development practitioners need to adopt a little more techno-fetishism, while technologists would probably do well to accept an additional degree of practical conservatism. In other words, we need to balance long-term, futuristic outlooks on the possibilities of what technology can (or cannot) do for development with short-term, pragmatic focuses on specific interventions. An equilibrium of far-sighted vision and effective action cannot exist otherwise.
  • Conflicting working ‘tempos’: technologists often have a ‘keyed-up’ working pace. Prototypes are built, deployed, tested and improved upon in a cycle that is analogous to but much faster than the slow-paced, deliberative, power-sensitive process that lies at the core of participatory methodologies. In collaborative projects, finding a practical balance of pace is difficult, but achievable.

The late Steve Jobs, one of the technological icons of present times, once said “…innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem”. Sudden moments of clarity and late night phone calls aside, if we are to truly co-construct knowledge about how find technologically-catalyzed solutions for global development challenges, we need to break out of our respective disciplinary silos and start reciprocally but constructively shooting holes in our preconceived notions about how to find these solutions. We need to open sourcedevelopment by building upon the shared values of participation and inclusiveness and promoting a joint discourse of ideas at the intersection of practical intervention, technological innovation and ethical considerations.