Technology Salon


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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

How Emerging Technologies Can Improve Development Outcomes

innovation international development

Every day we hear of new advances in technology solutions that hold promise to mitigate humanitarian crisis and improve lives in developing countries. The opportunities for change span the gamut of challenges that people face around the world, including:

  • Climate change adaptation education delivered via mobile phones
  • Informal settlement fire early warning via Internet of Things
  • Vocational training for youth via virtual reality simulations
  • Blood and medicine delivery via unmanned aerial vehicles

At the recent Technology Salon London with DIAL, DAI, and ADP, we discussed “Can We Use Emerging Technologies to Improve Development Outcomes?” with these key speakers:

We discussed some innovative new technologies and use cases that are being used for development, which quickly evolved into conversations on designing with the user, designing for scale, and constantly keeping ethics at the core of what we do.

In light of all these new technologies, what questions should we be asking ourselves to ensure we are protecting beneficiaries and not leaving anyone behind?

Is this innovation for the sake of innovation?

We spoke about how there is such a hype about emerging technologies such as blockchain, AI and VR, that there is often a temptation to implement them where other technologies could do just as fine.

We discussed the need to ensure that the technology we are implementing is a) adding value and b) (in many cases) supplemented by analogue or simpler technologies. It is about spotting the opportunities where technology is an enabler rather than designing a solution with a particular technology in mind. For instance, ADP’s BecaXR project with Save the Children

This is innovative, but can it scale?

As is the case in many discussions around innovation, “pilotitis” was raised: the seeming obsession with piloting new and exciting technologies, often without scale.

The group raised the need to test emerging technologies through pilots in order to prove the value and feasibility before scaling, but that these need to be “genuine pilots” – we often find that many of these pilots never end up getting scaled because they were never designed to.

We discussed the importance of always design for scale for the beginning and to have the ambition to do so, whilst keeping the pilot simple. This means designing for the context in which you are working, designing with the users, whilst considering which aspects could be scaled efficiently and which will need to be adapted to new contexts or users. The pilot should end with a business case which determines whether it is the right decision to scale.

Are we protecting our users?

In our discussions, there was agreement that we all have a huge role to play in ensuring that users are protected, especially given that there are often unintended consequences with emerging technologies.

However, we spoke about how often we ourselves are using these technologies without a full understanding of the data privacy consideration, so:

  • How could we truly expect true informed consent from users?
  • How do we balance the need for informed consent with the desire – and often need – to provide services to users?

Building trust is vital, for instance through asking for mutual consent from users and discussing what consent looks like to them. Ultimately, we were not able to come up with a solution, but decided that it is key to get the right partners involved in a project –  e.g. safeguarding specialists, industry experts, human-centered design experts, technologists –  in order to get a full ethical view and minimise harm to those involved.

Do we actually need the newest tech?

Throughout our conversation, we kept coming back to the issue that there is general conflation of “innovation” with “newest tech”.

In development especially, we shouldn’t always be thinking of innovation only through the lens of the latest technology. Innovation can be a process, it can be the use of mobile in a new way for a specific use case, or the use of simple sensors to simplify flood response processes.

The term “frontier technologies” suggests technology that is universally frontier, but the term is relative: perhaps we should say “frontier in context”.

That is a great note to end on: there is a huge potential for emerging technologies to improve development outcomes, but let’s not forget that innovation does not equal emerging technology. What is important is that we are working with users, deigning tools and services that are appropriate for them, safe and secure, and have ethics at the forefront.

By Chloe Messenger of DAI.

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