Making money from meeting the SDGs? An overarching approach to sustainable development

I am delighted to have been asked to moderate the session on “Making money from meeting the SDGs?” at ITU Telecom World in Bangkok on Monday 14th November (4:45 PM – 6:00 PM, Jupiter 10), although I wonder a little why I have been chosen for this task given my past criticisms of the SDGs!  Perhaps the “?” in the session title will give me a little freedom to explore some of the many challenges and complexities in this theme.  Following in the footsteps of the Millennium Development Goals (2000), the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) still generally focus on the idea that economic growth will eliminate poverty; indeed, they assert that poverty can truly be ended.  This is a myth, and a dangerous one. For those who define poverty in a relative sense, poverty will always be with us.  It can certainly be reduced, but never ended.   It is therefore good to see the SDGs also focusing on social inclusion, with SDG 10 explicitly addressing inequality.  We need to pay much more attention to ways through which ICTs can thus reduce inequality, rather than primarily focusing on their contribution to economic growth, which has often actually led to increasing inequality.

This session will explore the implications of such tensions specifically for the role of ICT businesses in delivering the SDGs.  Key questions to be examined include:

  • How can the ICT sector contribute to accelerating the achievement of the SDGs by providing ICT-enabled solutions and building feasible business models?
  • Is the SDG agenda relevant for the ICT industry?
  • What roles should the ICT industry, and its corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments in particular, play in working towards the SDGs?
  • Can the SDG framework provide an opportunity to accelerate transformative ICT-enabled solutions around new solutions like big data or IoT?

Underlying these are difficult issues about the ethics of making money from development, and the extent to which the ICT sector is indeed sustainable.  All too often, the private sector, governments and even civil society are now using the idea of “development” to build their ICT interests, rather than actually using ICTs to contribute to development understood as reducing inequalities; we increasingly have “development for ICTs” (D4ICT) rather than “ICTs for development” (ICT4D).  To be sure, businesses have a fundamentally important role in contributing to economic growth, but there is still little agreement, for example, on how best to deliver connectivity to the poorest and most marginalized, so that inequality can be reduced. As my forthcoming book argues, we need to reclaim ICTs truly for development in the interests of the poorest and most marginalized.

We have a great panel with whom to explore these difficult questions.  Following opening remarks by Chaesub Lee (Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, ITU), we will dive straight into addressing the above questions with the following panelists (listed in alphabetical order of first names):

  • Astrid Tuminez (Senior Director, Government Affairs. Microsoft)
  • Lawrence Yanovitch (President of GSMA Foundation)
  • Luis Neves (Chairman Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), and Climate Change and Sustainability Officer, Executive Vice President, at Deutsche Telekom Group)
  • Mai Oldgard (Head of Sustainability, Telenor)
  • Tomas Lamanauskas (Group Director Public Policy, VimpelCom).

Magic happens when people from different backgrounds are brought together to discuss challenging issues.  This session will therefore not have any formal presentations, but will instead seek to engage the panelists in discussion amongst themselves and with the audience.  We will generate new ideas that participants will be able to take away and apply in their everyday practices.  Looking forward to seeing you on the Monday afternoon of Telecom World in Bangkok!

Information and Communication Technologies: resolving inequalities

It was great to be invited to give a lecture in the Societat Catalana de Geografia in Barcelona on the subject of “Information and Communication Technologies: resolving inequalities?” on Tuesday 4th October in the Ciclo de Conferencias Programa Jean Monnet convened by my great friend Prof. Jordi Marti Henneberg on the theme of Los Desafîos de lintegración Europea.  This was such an honour, especially since I had the privilege of following the former President of the European Union Josep Borrell’s excellent lecture earlier in the day on El Brexit y sus consequencias en la goberabilidad de la Unión Europea.

lectureThis was an opportunity for me to explore the relevance to the European context of some of my ideas about ICTs and inequality gleaned from research and practice in Africa and Asia.  In essence, my argument was that we need to balance the economic growth agenda with much greater focus on using ICTs to reduce inequalities if we are truly to use ICTs to support greater European integration.  To do this, I concluded by suggesting  that we need to concentrate on seven key actions:

  • working with the poor rather than for the poor
  • pro-poor technological innovation – not the “next billion” but the “first” billion
  • governments have a  key role to play through the use of regulation as facilitation in the interests of the poor and marginalised
  • crafting of appropriate multi-sector partnerships
  • managing security and resilience against the dark side
  • enhancing learning and understanding, both within governments and by individuals
  • working with the most disadvantaged, people with disabilities, street children, and women in patriarchal societies

UNESCO/Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah prize for Digital Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities

Just to note that there is a new deadline of 14th October 2016 for nominations for the 2016 UNESCO/ Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah prize for Digital Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities – do please consider applying or suggest nominations.  It is a great opportunity to raise the profile of institutional and individual successes in using ICTs to empower people with disabilities, and thereby share good practices that can help to enhance accessibility and empower people with disabilities.

ICTs and volunteered geographic information

A literature review of academic research articles on volunteered geographic information (VGI) has revealed a recent, and very interesting, turn in how VGI is being viewed by academics, with implications for practitioners in ICT4D.  In many ways, as I explain below, this turn is actually a return to old questions about authority, indigeneity, and ‘development’.

Two recent articles indicate this turn, which deepens a critique of VGI as something separate from the act of its creation (Sieber and Haklay, 2015).  Goodchild (2007 and 2016) has been at the forefront of defining and legitimising uses of VGI in academia, but in his theorisations it is often couched more in terms of geographic information science, less so in terms of democratisation and participation.

Idris et al (in press) have written, for example, a very illuminating article on ‘engaging’ with indigenous people as ‘sensors’ for ecotourism.  The terminology here is telling, and it comes from Goodchild (2007).  The idea that a citizen (or indigenous person) can transform themselves into a sensor for contributing potentially useful spatial data on the geoweb (i.e. the ‘mappy’ fraction of the web) has a couple of facets that are worth examining, aside from the very passive connotation of the word.

To what extent do the sensors themselves benefit from their contributions?  What are the repercussions for protection of sensitive indigenous and local knowledge systems (such as the location of endangered or keystone wildlife species)?  These are issues that go back to the early days of GIS when Rundstrom (1995) was beginning to ask questions about epistemological diversity in relation to indigenous peoples and mapping/GIS.

I have written about these issues myself, elsewhere, in relation to northern Canada where social media maps hold the potential to reveal indigenous knowledge and sensitive information to outsiders.  The result has often been a patch-work of local maps and map-networks that serve the needs of inhabitants of specific areas, securitised to some extent against outside viewing and user generated content.  This securitisation has to be balanced against the potential uses of such data for development involving outside influence on the data.

The Canadian context is vast, differentiated, and vastly different from many other (indigenous) nations, where sensitivities and emphases lie in directions specific to historical development, trajectories and narratives, especially in relation to the state.

With VGI, crowdsourcing, and neo-geographies of the web continuing to evolve, the old questions keep recurring, and the idea of how much ‘authority’ and accuracy geographic information needs to have to be considered legitimate is continually being brought up.  Terminologies are evolving now as we speak more now in terms of big data and the internet of things, but those old questions still apply.


Goodchild, Michael.  2016.  New questions and a changing focus in advanced VGI research. Transactions in GIS.  Early view online.

Goodchild, Michael.  2007.  Citizens as sensors: the world of volunteered geography.  GeoJournal.  69: 211-221.

Idris, Nurul Hawani; Osman, Mohamad Jahidi; Kanniah, Kasturi Devi; Idris, Nurul Hazrina; and Ishak, Mohamad Hafis Izran. (in press). Engaging Indigenous people as geo-crowdsourcing sensors for ecotourism mapping via mobile data collection: a case study of the Royal Belum State Park. Cartography and Geographic Information Science. Early view online

Rundstrom Robert. 1995 . GIS, Indigenous Peoples and Epistemological Diversity. Cartography and Geographic Information Systems. 22(1): 45-57

Sieber, Renee and Haklay, Muki.  2015. The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique.  GEO: Geography and Environment.  2(2): 122-136.

ICTs empowering people with disabilities

People with disabilities are amongst the most marginalised people in the world, especially in some of the poorer countries of Africa and Asia.  Yet, those with greater disabilities can be empowered far more through the appropriate use of ICTs than can those who claim to have no disabilities.  The global community needs to do very much more to develop appropriate policies and practices to ensure that people with disabilities are not further marginalised because they are unable to access and use ICTs effectively.  To this end, I am developing a small website that provides information and useful links for all those working on ICTs and disabilities – do visit – and more importantly please share information about this hugely important agenda.


ICTs and the SDGS: an economic perspective


group-smallThe ITU is preparing a new book, provisionally to be entitled “ICT4SDGs: Economic Growth, Innovation and
Job Creation” in advance of the WTDC meeting in Buenos Aires in October 2017… . This was explored in some detail over two days in September at a fascinating discussion convened in Geneva.

sdg-groupI have been invited to lead on a 6,000 word chapter, provisionally entitled “Sustainability in Development: Critical Elements” that has an initial summary as follows: “the chapter identifies how ICTs engage with the sustainability agenda and the various elements of the ecosystem (such as: education, finance/capital, infrastructure, policy, market, culture/environment, opportunities) and the stakeholders that are indispensable for ensuring resilient and sustainable development activities in developing countries in spite of some chronic shortages coupled with fast changing and fluid situations that can negatively hamper the efforts”.

I want this chapter very much to be a collective, bottom-up effort, and am exploring various collective ways of generating content – although this is hugely difficult given the tight word limit! At this stage, it would be great to receive suggestions as to (a) what content the chapter should focus on, and (b) examples of case studies of successes and failures with respect to the use of ICTs for sustainable development. Please share any thoughts with me – before the end of September!

For those who may be unfamiliar with my own critical comments on the linkages between ICTs and the SDG agenda do see…/icts-and-the-failure-of-the-…/, and on the abuse of the term ecosystem . Rest assured, though, that the chapter for the ITU will reflect very different perspectives, and I hope that it will indeed represent the interests and concerns of the wider ICT4D community.


UNESCO Chair in ICT4D partners ITU Kaleidoscope conference

The UNESCO Chair in ICT4D has recently become a partner of ITU’s Kaleidoscope academic conference which will be held in Bangkok on 14-16 November 2016 on the theme of ICTs for Sustainable Development. We look forward to participating actively in this event, and contributing to the ITU’s academic research endeavours.itu_kaleidoscope_web_395158