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.

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