David Souter on the Development-Technology Disconnect

OpenCanada talked to the Managing Director of ICT Development Associates about how the spread of new communication technologies are challenging understandings of sustainability.
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February 25, 2013

Sustainability is front and centre in debates over what should replace the Millennium Development goals when they expire in 2015. But how do we define sustainability? Traditional understandings of sustainable development are being challenged by the spread of new communication technologies. If “Sustainable Development Goals” are chosen as the vehicle for global development efforts post-2015, a comprehensive understanding of sustainability, including the impacts of the Internet and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on development, will be a prerequisite to setting meaningful targets. OpenCanada talked to David Souter, Managing Director of ICT Development Associates and Senior Associate at the International Institute for Sustainable Development,about the need to re-think the relationship between technology and sustainable development, and why the complexity of this relationship cautions against simply replacing the MDGs with SDGs.

Why study the relationship between the sustainability, the Internet, and ICTs?

Profound changes have taken place in information and communications as a result of new media and new technology, particularly the Internet. These changes impact on the ways in which economy and society, culture and politics work.

Computerization, the rise of mass markets for telecommunications, the Internet, and innovations like cloud computing are fundamentally altering the ways in which goods and services are produced and consumed, the availability of information to people in different contexts, and aspects of relationships among individuals, groups, and governments.

The most significant of these changes have occurred over the 25-year period since sustainability was defined by the Brundtland commission.

My previous work on this issue was driven by a sense of frustration with the way in which sustainability was looked at by the two worlds – the ICT world and the sustainable development world. In the former, the attitude was, and in many cases remains, rather techno-determinist toward development, with insufficient appreciation of the real interactions between technology and society, and the complexity and recursiveness of those interactions. There has been too little appreciation of how society influences technology as much as technology influences society.

And in the latter, in the sustainable development world, there has been a real lack of perception that these big technological changes are taking place, and that they are impacting how sustainability should be interpreted and taken forward.

That was the motivation: to try and shape a new discourse between the ICT and development paradigms.

And do you think the discourse has changed? Are the ICT and sustainable developments worlds on the same page?

Not particularly. There’s been a lot of discourse about ICTs and development, but from the ICT sector point of view, technology is seen as something that provides solutions, whereas development is a complex human process. The information society which is emerging from changes in information and communication is a human development phenomenon, rather than a technological one.

Do I think they’re getting closer? Rio+20 was an obvious space in which that might have happened and it didn’t. In “The Future We Want” report, there are only six or seven minor references to information technology of any kind. There’s absolutely no perception of it having had systemic impact on the ways in which society and economy are moving. No perception of it as a general purpose technology, which has altered production, distribution, and consumption patterns, work and leisure – even human settlement patterns.

Why? I think because the report was rooted in the sustainable development summit from 20 years back – it didn’t look at what was new. Yet, if someone looked around the conference venue – what was everyone doing? They were sitting on their computers, writing their contributions, doing their e-mails, making dinner dates, working with one another … whatever they were doing, they were using ICT devices. Here was an irony: here was a conference whose participants were running on digitalization, but which ignored how digitalization was factoring into societal change.

Beyond Rio, there is some overlap between communities based on interest in information technology and climate change mitigation and adaptation. And some parts of the industry are interested in smart technologies and in setting standards that are environmentally sustainable. But the perception of the relationship between technology and development is still not a holistic one.

I’m not one of those people who think ICTs are the most significant factors in human behaviour nowadays. But I think that they’ve altered some of the economic, social and environmental fundamentals that underpin our thinking about sustainability and therefore we need to re-think what sustainability means in practice, as a result of those changes.

Does the attention being given to sustainable development in relation to the post-2015 MDGs indicate this rethinking is taking place?

Well, firstly, in my view, the MDGs were not so much development goals as poverty reduction goals – they took a dimension of development thinking, which was poverty reduction, and established targets for that.

On the whole, I think that was a desirable thing to do at the time, because poverty reduction had been underemphasized during the 80s, so by the mid-90’s it needed to be prioritised. But the MDGs’ perception of social equity is within certain parameters – it’s not holistic, it’s within certain areas of life.

The big drawback is that they don’t address issues of economic growth. So, while I think the MDGs were a positive approach, they’re not all-encompassing and it has been problematic that development thinking has been channeled so predominantly into them. I’m not particularly convinced that the idea of Sustainable Development Goals emerging out of them is a good one if they are to follow that same model.

And a second question arises from that: if we go with Sustainable Development Goals post-2015, what are they going to be? Quantifiable targets will be needed, and I see huge potential (and probably unproductive) arguments around what those targets should be.

I think sustainability is an amorphous concept – it is not reducible to quantifiable targets in the way the MDG’s were. Goal number eight in the MDGs, a sort of grab bag of trade, debt, and information technology, has been insubstantial because it has no hard targets associated with it.

Targets related to information technology were touched upon at the World Summit on the Information Society, but they were rather vague. Since then, the ITU has given them a more precise meaning, and now they’re useful in measuring changes in communication markets globally. What they’re not good at, and what’s much more important, is measuring impact.

So, setting global targets that encompass the complex relationship between ICTs and sustainability could be very difficult. And I’m wary about the idea of Sustainable Development Goals overall. Shoehorning sustainability into a set of targets in the way that development was shoehorned into a set of poverty reduction targets could be misguided.

David Souter will be continuing his work on sustainability and ICTs as president of The Global Connectivity Group for Sustainable Development, an independent consultancy with an ongoing partnership with IISD.

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