Editorial: Enabling the Local as a Fundamental Development Strategy 

Michael Gurstein

Editor-in-chief < editori@ci-journal.net >



The fundamental transformation that was ushered in by the advent of the personal computer and personal computing gave the end-user the electronic tools by means of which they could accomplish the information intensive tasks which they determined were of value and benefit to them. Where previously computing had been the preserve of the few—and operationally was limited to specialists—the personal computer put the power of computing into the hands of the many.

The rise of Open Source software is additionally shifting the balance away from centralized operational management (of software design and functionalities) to a much more dispersed approach to operational control over systems.

The success of personal computing and now Open Source represents a fundamental shift towards putting the end-user at the centre of managing the operations, identifying the goals, and selecting and implementing the applications for information systems—making systems, according to the latest jargon, “user-centric”.

The lesson in this of course, is that success with systems comes not from attempting to determine for others what they might need or want or how they might achieve this, but rather in giving them the tools and letting them get on with the job at hand.

The fundamental insight of Community Informatics in this context is to recognize that the “end-users” in much of the world and for many of the most significant areas of application are not in fact individuals operating in isolation from their fellows but rather are communities of individuals often, but not always, linked by a shared geography and/or shared values, shared histories, shared cultures, shared goals.

The design and development of systems that enable communities in the pursuit of identified goals, is neither a substitute for nor in competition with individual (personal)-oriented computing. Rather it is the obvious but often overlooked recognition that many if not most activities are undertaken in relation to and in common cause with like-minded others—sometimes in groups, often in families, and very frequently in communities.

Creating and implementing systems and structures of effective use where communities are the users is as necessary (and likely to be as successful) as the creation of systems to support large-scale organizational applications and, more recently, the activities of individuals through personal computing.

The approach to system development of enabling and empowering the end-user has of course been astonishingly successful from all perspectives—in the depth and breadth of penetration of these practices and approaches; in the organizational and even social transformations that have been set in motion; in the wealth that has been created at all levels in conjunction with these systems.

So it must be seen as quite remarkable that in an area as significant to the well-being of many, that is, in the broad areas of economic and social development through the use of Information and Communications Technologies (generally abbreviated as ICT4D), that there has been so little recognition of this end-user orientation as a suitable strategy.

Rather what has dominated this field and the actions of donors, policy makers, and governments has been an attempt to reproduce outmoded “top down” and centrally-driven, expert-led approaches. In the ICT4D area, rather than, for example, using available resources to enable end-users (in this case local communities and those responsible for the various functions and activities within these) to accomplish their objectives with ICTs; the strategy has been to attempt to direct from above and outside what goals should be pursued, how systems should be deployed and used and by whom and in what manner.  

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)[1] which concluded its deliberations some six months ago was in a real way a mark of the failure of the ICT4D strategies which have been pursued over the last ten years. Rather than being able to point to the wide dispersal and active and effective use of ICTs, all that could be identified were individual and isolated and for the most part “pilot” project “successes” (and ignoring the possibly even larger number of those that had not succeeded). And implicit in all these discussions was the question as to why ICT4D has not succeeded in achieving sustainable implementations when cellular telephony with neither central planning nor non-commercial financial support been such a break-away success.

The major failures in the use of ICTs for development have not been failures in technology, nor in software nor even in funding; rather the failures have been in the implementations, the identification of applications, the project management and the dispositions of systems—all of which has been driven from the top and generally in ignorance of what might (or might not) work or be of value or interest at the grassroots.

And these failures continue. The widely-touted Global Alliance for ICT4D (GAID)[2], is now being presented as the continuation of the UN’s ICT Task Force and the overarching body within the UN (and thus the global) system in the area of ICT4D. Yet this new body presents an agenda, has an organizational and decision-making structure, and articulates a vision that completely ignores and by-passes those who will ultimately have to implement ICT4D systems and whose acceptance and effective use will ultimately determine whether these systems and approaches are successes or failure.[3]

In fact, it is inconceivable that the larger objectives for ICT4D which WSIS among others has articulated could succeed given the current approach. The linkage which is suggested for example, between the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)[4] and ICTs implies that ICTs will be used at the local level for a range of applications including health, education and poverty reduction.  And yet, each of these application areas requires resources which, given the current levels of local capacity and national investment or Overseas Development Assistance, are extremely unlikely to be available at the local level. Thus, given the current very expensive and wasteful pattern of top-down ICT investment (including, it should be noted, proposals such as the $100 laptop where the fundamental issues of local capacity for support and application have been almost completely ignored), little is likely to accomplished.

Only when ICT4D is able to access the breadth and depth of skills and ingenuity (in the technical terminology, the human resources and human capital) which are available when the grassroots have been effectively engaged and mobilized will there be any possibility of achieving these objectives. That is, only by mobilizing those at the local level to “own” and “operate” their own ICT applications and implementations will there be sufficient resources for ICTs to have any real impact locally beyond the “pilot” and “demonstration projects” which have characterized most of ICT4D investment to date.

And here of course, is where Community Informatics becomes the necessary strategy, as it is only through integrating ICT and community enablement strategies that communities in the broadest sense will become engaged in these on-going efforts and thus will provide the means for the broader ICT4D goals to be achieved. Unfortunately, the failure of the WSIS and the almost certain failure of the follow-ups to WSIS are a demonstration of the unwillingness of those with responsibilities in these areas to recognize that only by radically transforming their approaches and their theories will they have any likelihood of success.

This issue of JoCI is privileged to complete the publishing of the prize winning papers presented at CIRN 2005[5] in Cape Town. It is notable that two of these papers were prepared by ICT practitioners working directly in community contexts and developing and applying systems and applications in support of community processes.  One of these is a first and important attempt to develop a Code of Cyber-Ethics for Community Informatics as applied in a typical workplace, addressing such questions of everyday use as ‘can i copy that file’ (Averweg); the second is a method of assessing the opportunities for the financial sustainability of CI projects in the Developing World (Lochner); while the third is a somewhat related paper by Foth and Adkins which presents a research methodology for examining the significance of electronically-enabled community processes in the context of planning and local development. 

In other papers, De Moor and Weigand present a method of analysis for understanding (and potentially resolving) conflict within electronically enabled (virtual) communities but one which presumably could be applied to conflicts which might arise in the electronic community elements of physical communities (communities of place in Foth and Adkins terminology) as well. Buré in turn presents a very interesting insight into how technology, in this case mobile telephony, acts as a highly significant means for linking the homeless into their “communities of place”.

The issue should also be seen as a “double issue” in that it includes a special section presenting the results of a Workshop hosted at Penn State University by Prof. John M. Carroll on the topic of “Learning in Communities”. This collection of short papers, even think pieces, takes us full circle in that it represents the challenge and opportunity that technology affords for enabling or re-enabling the process(es) of learning at the local level. It also presents arguments and background analyses for the re-possession of learning locally as a means, in some cases, for responding to the challenges of the “Digital Divide”, in other cases for supporting local development and innovation, in still others for re-invigorating processes of local democracy and finally in others simply for providing a means to enhance creativity and full learned expression through accessing (and enabling) distributed intelligence.

Taken together, the papers in this issue provide some initial pointers to international policymakers about how and why ICT4D can spring from the authentic assets, needs, and learning processes of end-users who make their lives in communities around the world. 

[1] http://www.itu.int/wsis/

[2] http://www.un-gaid.org/

[3] http://www.unicttaskforce.org/perl/documents.pl?id=1583

[4] http://www.un.org/milleniumgoals/

[5] http://www.cirn2005.org