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Volume 16, No. 2, July 2006

Table of Contents


Letter to the Editor: Some Reflections on ICT and Development


Roy H W Johnston

Techne Associates, Dublin, Ireland



Roy Johnston has been a reader and a critic of our newsletter. He has been interested in the techno-economic and socio-technical aspects of the colonial to post-colonial transition in different countries. His past book 'Century of Endeavour'[1], published by Tyndall/Lilliput in Ireland carries some of his ideas on the topic.

I have been a reader of the IFIP WG9.4 newsletter for some time, over a decade, but have been conscious of a culture gap between the IT experts and the problems on the ground. This gap does however appear perhaps to be narrowing. I got some feel early on for the size of the problem, when I attended a conference in Algiers organised in 1973 by a combination of leading IFORS and IFAC people. IFIP was not involved in this epoch. I had come in from the IFORS angle, having been involved in the 1972 IFORS conference in Dublin. These International Federations reflect the barriers between differing modes of innovative thought and actions. The 'Operational Research' approach involves an attempt to predict the performance of an innovative system in a (usually stochastic) environment by modelling it, changing the parameters to answer 'what if..' type questions, usually at a strategic level. The 'Automatic Control' approach has the potential to liberate humans from doing boring jobs, and is relevant at the tactical level in most productive system. The 'Information Processing' community services both the foregoing, and all three communities have blossomed subsequent to the invention of the computer.

The IFIP community has however been dominated by ' Moore 's Law' and the extreme speed with which the technology has advanced. This to my mind has created barriers between ICT innovators and the aspirant end-user community. Innovative systems emerge at a speed such that users are always at the beginning of the learning curve, and good systems are often forced into premature obsolescence. A version of Parkinson's Law suggests itself, which negates Moore 's Law: 'Junk accumulates to fill the mass-storage provided'!

Let me get a bit more specific. In the 1970s I was involved with supervising postgraduate projects which involved the use of the (mainframe) computer in techno-economic analysis of projected investments in development projects, in 'what if...?' mode. The postgraduates were organised as groups, with specialisations, typically with one member organising and classifying the input data, another developing the processing structure, and a third specifying and developing the output structure to relate to the perceptions of the end-user (i.e. the sponsor). This latter process would now involve customising the GUI design.

Some of these projects were related to agricultural and related processes and were sponsored by co-operatives. They involved, among other things, the deployment of specialist harvesting machinery, transport and storage logistics, interaction with variable weather environments (for air-drying etc). The types of techno-economic system we modelled included harvesting of flax, biomass for energy, collection of milk in tankers (role of refrigeration), ergot as a pharaceutical crop, deployment of an inshore fishing-fleet etc.

This type of analysis could now easily be done by a numerate co-op manager on a PC with a spreadsheet; in the 1970s we wrote one-off programmes in Fortran, and ran them in conversational mode without GUI. (In fact we developed in about 1979 a prototype spreadsheet, with rudimentary GUI, on a PDP11, for a firm which was then making an analogue feed-mix computer, and wanted to go digital. Unfortunately, this did not become the 'killer application' it now is until the PC arrived in the mid eighties.)

Ireland is a useful example of an emergent post-colonial nation on the fringe of a post-imperial system, exhibiting many of the features which the post-colonial world is now encountering.

I went to a UN conference in Nairobi in 1982 which attempted to bring together renewable energy technologies. There seemed to me the be many techno-economic and socio-technical analysis problems presenting themselves in this context, and I made an attempt to interest international agencies in supporting postgraduate project work in some systematic way, with a view to transferring technologies which would lead to sustainable development, avoiding dependence on oil. But the price of oil dropped, after the 1970s crises, and all this work became neglected. It is now however totally relevant again, and is likely to become more so, as petroleum supply declines, and demand from China and India pushes up the price.

The role of ICT in all this is to make feasible the type of knowledge-based analysis which sustainable development requires. My initial reading of previous issues of the IFIP newsletter suggests that it would be of interest, for example, to have access to the proceedings of the Kenya donor round table via published website proceedings.

Procedures are becoming the norm where mutually-recognising lists of experts, engaged in policy development discussions by e-mail using a list serve procedure, can access a niche website where current position papers are exhibited, and can be referenced by discussants. See for example


where I am supporting a healthcare analysis network with a niche web-site on the fringe of my own web-site.

It should be quite possible for the type of network arising from events like the recent ' Kenya round table' to run in this mode. One does not need a 'website design specialist' for this; a DIY job is quite adequate.

If I may comment on some recent IFIP Newsletter items: the 'simputer' concept deserves analysis; it would be of interest to get some systematic analysis of who the end-users are, as indeed who the end-users are of the cyber-cafe access-points. I encountered a draft paper on a similar topic based on African experience (I was asked for peer-review comments) and picked up the impression that they were literate youth seeking to pick up degree qualifications from US universities, with a view to emigrating problem of 'brain drain'. This is the last thing we need for ICT in developing countries; nor do we need the commercial video game arcade scene, though there is a role for interactive games in a guided learning process.

It seems to me that the key end-user is the local leading activist, the aspirant co-op manager, who needs access to relevant knowledge for local economic development. This type, rather than self-motivated individuals seeking self-improvement.

I have seen a paper which analyses in depth the uptake of ICT in a developing country, and which attempts to identify how this can be used to eliminate poverty.

This contains many good ideas, but is densely written, with long paragraphs, many notes and references, and a huge bibliography. It ends with a long list of things to be done, but without clear indication as to who specifically is to do them.

There is a clear need for analysis and interpretation of academic work, distillation of the essential results, and development of practical system for trying out the ideas on the ground, by people with local standing and local knowledge. There is much experience of this process in a fringe-European context, analogous to the work I have described above which was done in Ireland . This needs to be cultivated, and used as a resource.

A possible model is the 'quad-link': take a university or college of technology in Ireland , Finland or other fringe European countries, which have developed a relationship with an innovative enterprise locally. Find a comparable pair in a developing country, Nigeria or whatever, and set up the linkage. Initially people can perhaps meet at a conference, and then continue to interact in virtual mode, learning from each other, the common experience being accessible via a web-site knowledge-base, containing structured sequences of position papers and progress reports.

I have not seen this process yet, but I have seen it trying to happen. For example, I have a client which is a firm specializing in healthcare IT; it has many university research contacts all over Europe. Leading people from the firm went to Africa seeking to develop the healthcare IT market, hoping to find an association with a local firm. It failed to find a suitable firm to co-operate with, all the IT firms being international majors, and the process of innovative start-ups fuelled by local initiative had not yet developed. My parallel contacts with the related academic system were equally fruitless.

So, it may be that to catalyze the way forward the African academic system needs to develop a policy for postgraduate work at the masters-degree level, with group projects, looking into the feasibility of productive added-value processes based on local resources, resulting on theses which would not just lie on a library shelf, but would in effect become business plans for a new wave of technically competent small firms. The 'quad-link' hand-holding process would then become feasible, and the 'entrepreneurship' process would be seen as constructive rather than predatory, as it often is. Perhaps this is happening already, and if so, it should be encouraged.

Let us then try to develop a 'virtual' discussion among a few people, perhaps around the issue of how best to identify the key end-user capable of coupling ICT potential to the requirements of economic development at the village level. Can the drift to mega-urbanization be avoided by intelligent use of ICT, and the effective localization of food production, with high local added value, made the norm? This is going increasingly to be necessary, as the oil wells dry up and energy costs increase. This aspect of the problem also needs to be developed, but this is another story!

[1] An overview of the book ‘Century of Endeavour’ is available at http://www.iol.ie/~rjtechne/blurb.htm