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Global Development Institute

Examining “Digital Development”: The Shape of Things to Come?

Richard Heeks


For at least a generation, the current ICT4D paradigm will dominate the relationship between digital technologies and international development.  But there are signs of change.  Diffusion and use of ICTs is such that we can start to talk about a “digital nervous system” for development.  And ICTs are becoming more deeply integrated into all aspects of development.  So we can foresee a “digital development” paradigm in which ICTs are no longer just tools to enable particular aspects of development, but the platform that mediates development.

This paper proposes a model for understanding what digital development consists of, and then investigates the patterns of economic, political and social transformation that may be associated with digital development.  To frame this investigation, it sees economic and political life dominated by a competitive logic that contests with a subordinate cooperative logic.  The signs from digital development to date are that five broad patterns can be seen.  “Copy”, “Spread”, “Curve” and “Boost” are patterns involving the dominant competitive logic.  “Shift” involves strengthening of the subordinate cooperative logic. 

These patterns have implications – often negative implications – for the wider digital ecosystem, for digital inclusion, digital sustainability, and digital harm; all of which are explained and explored.  These implications in turn require action to be taken on digital policy, and the paper ends by discussing not just the worldview and content of future digital policy, but also the “Digital Development Policy Collaboratories” through which the process and structure of digital development policy-making needs to be implemented.


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Educators’ Guide

Synopsis Questions

  1. Which paradigms are argued to be the past, present and future of the relation between ICTs and international development?  [Section A]
  2. In what key ways is the relation between ICTs and development changing?  [Section B]
  3. What does the digital development paradigm consist of?  [Section C1]
  4. What overall patterns of change are argued to be seen under digital development?  [Sections C2 & C3]
  5. Other than digital transformation, what issues are likely to arise under digital development?  [Section C4]
  6. What policies will be needed under digital development, and how should they be developed and implemented?

Development Questions

  1. Is the idea of a “paradigm” for ICTs and development either credible or useful?
  2. Is there anything in the main ideas of the paper that is specific to the global South, or are these universal ideas?
  3. Are the changes outlined in the paper actually “transformations”, or do ICTs only ever actually make an incremental difference?
  4. Is competitive vs. cooperative the correct fundamental for understanding development, or is there a more appropriate set of logics?  Or are logics, in fact, not the right foundation?
  5. The ideas in the paper claim to describe patterns of change under digital development.  But what explains why those patterns occur?
  6. Are ecosystem, inclusion, sustainability and harm the right ways to think about the other aspects of digital development, or is there a better formulation?
  7. Are the digital policies described different from or the same as, traditional ICT policy formulations?