A Political Economy Perspective on The Data Revolution in Development

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a workshop organized by the World Economic Forum on human-centred design in humanitarian development on the side of the Mobile Congress in Barcelona. The event gave a lot of developmental organizations the opportunity to share their design processes, and particularly, how big data might play a bigger role in their organisation’s developmental interventions in future. The very next day, there was a workshop in the Hague organized by my colleagues from the Centre of Frugal Innovation in Africa on a similar topic. This week, I took the opportunity to reflect on these two events and add my two shillings to the discussion.

Broadly speaking, human-centred design means putting the ‘user’ at centre stage and designing tools and solutions in a collaborative and context sensitive way. Frugal Innovation, although hard to define, seems to share many characteristics. At the Barcelona event, Emi Kolawole from Stanford D School spoke about the need for designers to ‘use empathy’ to know their users. Abi Weaver from the American Red Cross, affirmed that empathy and participatory design had played a pivotal role in their design of fire alarms for Nairobi slums. Similarly, Amanda Noonan from Internews stressed the importance of ‘busting assumptions’ and not assuming you know a user’s needs before spending time in the local context and speaking to the community about those needs. Many of the participants in the Hague also gave examples of the participatory methods European and South African-based researchers used to design developmental tools and solutions.

There were a lot of buzz words circulating such as “development,” “resilience,” “problems,” “solutions” and “community” but there was no clear discussion of what these words might mean to the different people in the two rooms. Amanda Noonan quoted Henry Ford as saying, “If I’d have asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses”. I think the quote was meant to show that designers should be far-sighted in thinking through the problems of the age. But to me and other scholars of political economy, Henry Ford’s biggest contribution to America might not have been cars, but jobs.

Africa too, will never really “develop” and African citizens will never become “resilient”, unless African people, leaders and businesses find ways to reduce their countries’ reliance on aid and primary commodities and transform their economies. In other words, if we really want to get serious about human-centred design, frugal innovation or big data benefitting poor people, we need to stop seeing “poor people” as mere consumers or “users” of developmental products and services and start seeing them as potential producers. A number of models were shown during the two workshops. They depicted human-centred design by putting the ‘user’ at the centre of the diagram. Value chains or business models were often placed far off to one side. This conceptualization also came out in a number of presentations: that designers first designed the products in collaboration with local ‘users’ and then tried to find a business model to scale and make the production process ‘sustainable’ (i.e. cost effective). My biggest suggestion is that we should start putting the value chain in the centre of human-centred designs and start seeing stronger connections between the “user” and the economy within which that user is located.

I was very happy that Abi Weaver told us that the Red Cross’ fire alarms were being manufactured in South Africa. Many other ‘frugal innovations’ designed for Africa and in Africa are produced elsewhere. What good do specially designed thermometers, fire alarms or cheaper cars do for a poor country in the long run, if its citizens were not involved in the production processes and if its engineers did not learn from the design process? The domestic demand for goods and services driving the excitement around the ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ and the ‘frugal innovation’ world should be seen as a chance to stimulate African-based and African-employed production processes. This may involve new business models for companies, but it may also involve industrial policy-making and strategic thinking on the part of national governments in Africa. Companies may need to be pressured or incentivized to see job creation and knowledge transfer as being in their interests.

If we take this thinking further, we might also apply the same reasoning to the data produced by such products (for example, the data about slums produced by the American Red Cross’s fire alarms). While there has been much discussion about the risks for the poor people involved in big data for development challenges and the need for ‘governance’ to protect their privacy, there has been much less discussion about how poor people might actually profit from their data (and indeed the need for corresponding discussions about economic governance models). Likewise, the “business model” presented in much of the D4D literature tends to involve risks or ‘public goods’ for poor people but business opportunities for companies (often very large companies). Indeed, Robert Kirkpatrick from Global Pulse conceptualized companies as the ‘users’ in his workshop activity. But what about African businesses and workers? Can’t we think of business models that allow them to capture value from big data? For example, if the fire alarms produce data of commercial value, how can the local community capture some of that value? Are there local insurance schemes and other enterprises that might profit from it? What about user-shareholding models that would give each user a share of the profits? Let’s innovate here too!

So as someone coming from a Political Economy perspective looking in on this world of human-centred design and frugal innovation, I would urge the workshop participants and other interested parties to think more about big data’s and ICT4D’s potential contribution to economic transformation. How can demand for humanitarian products like fire alarms, social media tools and community health kits create jobs and knowledge transfer opportunities for people in poor countries? This kind of thinking does indeed require us to see beyond faster horses, even beyond cars, and start looking at the jobs and training that African citizens really want.


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