Back in 2009 I carried out something of an experiment. Erik Hersman and I attended ICT4D in Doha. For both of us it was our first time at a ‘professional’ tech-for-development gathering. After hearing and writing so much about the disconnect between academia and practitioners in ICT4D, I wanted to see if it existed—and in what form—for myself.

I wasn’t disappointed. After just one day it became blatantly clear that the majority of people were attending to share their research, and latest paper, and to tick boxes. The audience were the other speakers. It was a very self-serving event, to say the least.

Who is the audience? What is the purpose? Objective? Impact? Is it the same people who attend—and speak at—most of these events? Tweet This Quote

In the corridor outside the main hall sat—among others—Erik, Brenda, Patrick and I. We weren’t reading papers (or our blog posts) to each other, but trying to find ways of getting FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi and Freedom Fone to play nicely together. Clearly, the needs of the practitioners there were very different to everyone else, namely the academics, observers, ICT4D professionals and other recognized “experts.”

In six years, little seems to have changed. When I look today at the frequent and regular ICT4D conferences, gatherings and meetups—most of them entrenched in Western corridors—I continue to wonder. Who is the audience? What is the purpose? Objective? Impact? Is it the same people who attend—and speak at—most of these events?

I meet few social entrepreneurs or social innovators obsessing relentlessly about big data or drones. Tweet This Quote

My hunch is that, like in Doha, practitioners out there are having very different conversations than the ‘professional’ tech-for-development players. The needs of the two camps continue to be very different. I meet few social entrepreneurs or social innovators obsessing relentlessly about big data or drones. That seems to be a luxury for others.

Thankfully, increasing amounts of the more interesting stuff in ICT4D is beginning to happen outside the official development system. Give it a few years and most of it will be. Maybe there ought to be a few more conferences about that.


This first appeared on Ken’s blog.

About the author

Ken Banks

Ken Banks

Ken is the founder of kiwanja.net, Means of Exchange, and FrontlineSMS. He is a Pop!Tech and Ashoka Fellow, Tech Awards Laureate, and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and has been internationally recognized for his work applying mobile tech for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. Ken is also the Entrepreneur in Residence at CARE International.