Technology Salon


Sponsored by

a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

What Technology is the Silver Bullet for International Development?



The third Technology Salon event hosted in Helsinki, Finland, brought together a room full of representatives from private sector, public sector, governments, startups, NGOs and universities from countries like Lebanon, Tanzania, Mozambique, Denmark, Finland, India, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Iran, United States, Belgium, France, South Africa, Egypt and Zambia – to name a few! This year’s Tech Salon Helsinki was organized in connection to the startup and technology conference SLUSH by Plan International Finland, Slush and Accenture, and held in the Accenture DigiLabs space in Helsinki.

The over two hour lively and candid discussion centered around one broad and provoking question: Which new technologies are best for international development, with lead discussants:

  • Lionel Bodin, European Lead of Accenture Development Partnerships;
  • Tuuli Ahava, Head of Innovation – Cloud, IoT, OTT from Nokia; and
  • Rahim Hussein, Co-Founder of Colify,
  • with Mika Välitalo from Plan International Finland acting as moderator,

Their comments and insights into the topic paved the way for a night of lively, intimate and interactive discussion on an issue that is definitely far from simple or straightforward.

Obviously, there is no one right answer to this question – but the discussion did bring up many important and complex issues that need to be considered when organizations, companies or government actors consider implementing international development programmes that include a digital tool or technology.

No Big Bang Disruption – processes in International Development are slower

Many discussants seemed to agree that it is unlikely that we would see an Uber- or AirBnB-type “big bang disruption” with technology in international development, but that does not mean that fundamental changes are not happening. A lot is bubbling under the surface, but as everything in the field of international development, this process is also slow.

Especially big INGOs and government actors take a long time to change their course, and therefore we have to project ourselves for longer timelines. That being said, NGOs also need to be willing to transform themselves and the way they work – progressive erosion of traditional NGO work can create a new space for debate in this sector, and hopefully make space for a new way for NGOs to engage with the communities they are working in and take on new types or roles perhaps as startups and social enterprises themselves.

Missing alignment between developers of technology and the communities we serve

A point was raised about missing alignment between the designers and developers of technology, NGOs and communities. For those who are designing the technology, that is what their focus is fixated on – but technology cannot come first. Otherwise we will be designing and implementing technologies that have no real applicability and impact on the lives and wellbeing of people, and those people won’t see what value the technology adds to their lives.

Needs-based solutions and design thinking should be on the top of our list as a key component of using technologies in international development. We have to also keep the user experience at the center: technologies need to be easy to use, appealing to use and fun to use. Otherwise they will never go to scale. We need to understand the human behavior, needs and culture of the people in the place we work before bringing in new technologies. As was pointed out by a participant: “It doesn’t matter what technology can perform, but what it can solve and how it can reach those who need it.”

Someone also noted that we lack functional and efficient processes to make space for discussions about the missing linkages between developers of technology, NGOs and local communities. Not only do we need to make more space for such debates, but we also need to ensure that this information is actually used to inform design processes to create interruptive technologies that can help solve problems in developing countries.

Managing risks

A question was raised during the discussion about whether we are trying to accelerate technological development or trying to manage it. In this instance, the view was that perhaps at this stage we should try to manage it – and most importantly, give the people we work with the skills to also manage it and properly use it to improve the quality of their own lives.

All new technology comes with risks: while we celebrate the possibilities of self-driving cars, we often dismiss the fact that this technology will also disrupt particularly rural areas through removing the need for gas stations, truck drivers, and rest stops. We celebrate IoT, but glance over the privacy concerns and risks that come with it. There is value in getting excited, but we also need to sit down and take a step back to really consider what are the changes we want to achieve as the development community and as impact driven businesses.

New technologies have a role to play

We had someone representing all the major new technologies at this Tech Salon, including IoT, sensors and data collection, artificial intelligence (AI), drones, block chain – and all of them can play a role in the field of international development. AI can help speed diagnostic process if health workers in remote areas can consult AI for cases; Global Humanitarian Lab is looking into using 3D printing in disasters; research is being done into the role of blockchain in international development to really increase transparency and accountability.

Every new technology is interesting to think about in terms of international development – but how do we bring these technologies to scale? New technologies often require very good connectivity and reliable power – and using these technologies also means we need to be crystal clear on the value we add as organizations and where we really need to invest to get the most bang out of our buck, because it isn’t always in technology.

A point that was also raised was the fact that in the West, many societies are quite heavily regulated and adopting new technologies especially in the public sector can be a tedious and long process, whereas in many developing countries things can be done much faster with less bureaucracy.

Solving the Big Problems

Several participants brought up the Big Problems our global community is facing: climate change, population growth, the many humanitarian crises of today – and all the effects of these phenomena, such as increased migration and food shortages.

A lot of expectations are placed on technology as a tool to mitigate and perhaps even solve some of these challenges, but it is unclear how this will happen in practice. Given the universality of the impact of these challenges, should INGOs then focus their efforts on finding ways to use technology to solve and mitigate them?

A point was also raised about the need for technologies that facilitate the passing of reliable information about these issues across countries, more accurate and trustworthy data that would help us better understand them – and simply finding better ways to use technologies to help people survive.

Make space for local solutions and share the knowledge!

“There are already enough technologies in this space”, noted one participant. We need local people and communities to start developing more content that is relevant to them, and adapting the existing technologies for their own needs and use.

International development community needs to make space and help build momentum in the local entrepreneurial and tech spaces, so that we avoid a situation where the technological elite is gaining more ground and speed while leaving everyone else behind. Someone also asked whether we actually need to aim to “close the gap” in technology – because that implies we are trying to set a standard by what the western world has done.

Are we then just using our own view of how things should be and superimposing it on developing countries, without asking people there what they actually need and want?

A need for better information sharing was also raised by many. How are we learning from each other? A participant noted that one of the things that puts Africa behind is that we do a bad job of learning from each other and from other’s mistakes. We need better communications platforms and tools to share knowledge and lessons learned, especially when it comes to using technology to solve big problems.

We also need to open up our data, and not just produce it for ourselves. Currently, the data loop for project to NGO to donor is very closed, and everyone is producing the same data for themselves. We need better structures for sharing data, information, lessons learned – what would actually help us move forward faster and eliminate overlapping work, duplication of efforts and unreliable data.

A participant also raised the importance of talking about human rights and equality. Lots of this can be seen as a second wave of colonialism. Throughout the times people in developing countries have been solving their own problems in their own way. What we can contribute from global elite is doing research, building evidence, contributing to certain enabling factors to make things easier. Change will come with local people working from inside, solving real problems in a context they truly understand.

So – Which Technologies are the best?

Obviously, there is no silver bullet. But, pulling out of the very complex and nuanced discussion at the third Helsinki Tech Salon, these qualities seemed to rise to the surface as some of the most important points to consider when applying technology to international development:

  • Affordability: no one will use it if they cannot afford it
  • Context specific: Something designed for Finland will probably not work in Tanzania
  • Commonplace ones: technologies that are locally available
  • Need-based: Technologies that serve to meet a clear need of the community
  • Local ones: We should focus on enabling the local actors – entrepreneurs, startups, NGOs, communities, individuals – to adapt or design technologies for their own context and needs
  • User-centric: Easy, appealing and fun to use

Words of Wisdom – in a Tweet!

Many important points were raised by participants that warrant repeating – here they are, in a ready-made Tweet for you to share!

  • “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it. Technology enables us to solve the WHY, once we first define it.” @techsalon #Slush16
  • A virus needs a carrier&right environment. #Technology can be the carrier, but we need the right environment for it to take off. @techsalon
  • “One thing that keeps Africa lagging behind with #technology is that we don’t share enough information & learn from each other.” @techsalon
  • We need to open up the #data – share it better. Everyone is too focused on producing information just for themselves. @techsalon #bigdata
  • “For me, the best #technology is the one I can’t see. When technology moves out of the way and makes room for people.” @techsalon #ICT4D
  • Change will come with local people working from inside, solving real problems in a context they truly understand. @techsalon #ICT4D
  • User experience is key: technologies need to be easy, appealing&fun to use to use -otherwise they will never go to scale @techsalon #ict4D

By Emma Winiecki, Global Coordinator for Digital Development, Plan International

Comments are closed.