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.

  • pcutinelli

    I really thought this article brought up some great points about our center for tech innovation being cornered off to the west, such as Silicon Valley area and the Pacific Northwest. If we push these conferences past this barrier we could be able to enlighten more and more people and in return have vast innovation.

  • Jack Strader

    I’d like to start by saying sweet background picture! As for the article, I’m happy to hear that conversations and impact are starting to improve at the conferences.

  • shelbysterling

    Opening up and expanding while networking these conferences to college campuses could maybe help. Getting more people in listening that aren’t just speakers might create more buzz and improvement of communication at these conferences!

  • scsmith2

    This sounds like a very disorganized event. I am also a little shocked that only the people in those fields are attending the conferences. There are many people who read, watch documentaries and gather information on the many different sciences and I am sure they would love to attend these gatherings. When you close off channels of information you limit the potential for learning and for inspiring new ideas.

  • scsmith2

    I agree. The more information you share and are willing to receive increases the possibility for solutions and progress.

  • Mallory Benham

    Not quite sure the exact purpose of this conference. I agree with the post below that it is very disorganized and needs serious reconstruction in order to benefit those that attend.

  • Gaby Perez

    I’m not exactly sure what to grasp from this article; Is it that people should present their projects/findings in a way that is able to reach a greater number of people from different disciplines?

  • storres001

    I’m not very sure how to respond to this article, or what we’re supposted to get from it. Are they trying to say people need to focus on their audience or are they trying to figure out how to better those conferences? I’m just not sure.

  • Erin Todd

    I am on the same boat…I think it has good information in it but I’m not sure which direction to take it.

  • Katie Larson

    What I gathered from this post is that there needs to be a conference like ICT4D, or ICT4D needs to evolve into a conference that is not just for “showing off” but solving problems.

  • JuanFonseca1995

    This article suggested that we spread the concept of this new project that can help promote a better humanity. Research and development is a vital aspect of a project and if we have more conferences across college campuses nationwide, we can have more innovators. The bottom line is that we must be the generation that changes the world. We have all the tools necessary, the only thing missing is our effort.

  • davinmarceau

    I think you’re spot on about the lack of effort. The innovations that have changed the world and continue to do so are also the ones that have made our society more sedentary. It’ll be a great tragedy if we continue to fail to see what we’re capable of.

  • dannyjoseph14

    Sounds like ICT4D is in need of some solid marketing to reach markets outside of its own arena. This process definitely needs to start by defining your audience and addressing why ICT4D is essential for them. Hell, you can start here; what is ICT4D? What is the history/ future? Why do I need to know about it?

  • ronniepurcell

    I think there has to be ICT4D Conferences that are geared towards developing countries. But then I could see conferences more about showcasing than helping or improving places around the world that really need it.

  • karnold001

    I agree. I think ICT4D needs to start with those basic questions in order to reach audiences outside the official development system

  • jayatbay101

    I think changing the world is so out of reach with all that is going on with the United States alone, our states even have different laws. I think change starts within self then branches to friends and family then hopefully spread to the community. I think ICT4D is doing the right thing by trying to lead conferences t help countries improve. Just hope to see more change herein United States before we branch out. Just my opinion though.

  • brian Stretch

    After reading this article one must really evaluate many of the agendas various conferences tend to offer. It is my belief that many industry specific conferences hone in on their specific agendas rather than looking at their industry as cross-compatible and ask their industry how they could intertwine various agendas for the common goal. I believe this is a much large issue and not just one associated with ICT4D.

  • 204Ted

    I think this brings up a good way to improve the productivity of conferences. To simplify, if you had a “for beginners” section, you could bring in people who have little knowledge about the theme of the conference but who specialize in something else and have them interact with the people the conference is built around. This way they can network with new people and even maybe solve someone else’s idea from having a different perspective.

  • kgallaher

    I think this article touches on a lot of good points about ways to improve conferences. However, I would like to learn more about how exactly this conference works and how it truly differs from others.

  • mpierson19

    I don’t really understand how these conferences are run and what these conferences are about. Would they be about improvements and utilizing entrepreneurs thoughts?

  • DeadMarshall

    I went to the link to see what they were about. TBH it seems like some pretty boring stuff. This years is taking place in Singapore. Who has the time and money to attend these things?

  • jfhicks

    It seems like the author confirmed his theory about the disconnect between academia and practitioners in the development field by attending this conference. In my opinion, the field of ICT seems like a very broad topic to organize into a single conference. To improve the conference, the organizers might consider announcing a more specific topic within the field of ICT (NGO’s or Climate or Mobile Applications) a year in advance of the conference and then solicit speakers who are experts in those specific fields in order for the attendees to find more value. Just a thought…

  • alexisprince13

    From the article it seems that the conference needs to be broken into two parts to be more effective for everybody.

  • Katie

    I’m not sure what these conferences overall objectives are, or the goal they are trying to achieve. I thought it was interesting when he stated that almost all of the audience were speakers as well!

  • aburns002

    Anytime you get a group of people who share a common interest in the same room, something interesting is bound to happen. These conferences sound like a utopia of information for those interested in the topic.

  • Lqurent

    I enjoyed reading this article because I could not recall the amount of times I have gone to a meeting or conference only to leave and wonder what the purpose of it was. I feel that sometimes we lose sight of why we gather and end up doing things out of habit simple because, “that’s what we did before.”

  • Halea McAteer

    I definitely agree. Simple questions such as those might help a lot with future work and moving forward.

  • Arnthor Kristinsson

    I found it really hard to understand this article and couldn’t really connect to it in any way. I hope it will work out well for you guys and that these conferences will be helpful.

  • sadeakindele

    Yea same. From what I understand though, the disconnect the author alludes to stems from the closed nature of these conferences where people are attending more as a demonstrative act as opposed to one with the intention of welcoming conversation. By staying in such separate groups of expertise, as well as encapsulating themselves within their western culture, they wont be able to bring but the change they are hoping to.

  • Lqurent

    It does sort of seem open-ended. Like there wasn’t really a conclusion.

  • Lqurent

    It sounds like they are improving, but may have a long way to go!

  • nedroche

    I found it interesting that its mostly the same people for each event. You would think that larger conferences would attempt to cross connect industries. Assuming there is new material brought to the table for each conference?

  • Pauline Lefeuvre

    Definitely agree with this article. I think that it is important to get off the beaten tracks and try to gather people that are not supposed to. Brainstorm with people who do not share the same job, opinions, or field of study and this is how you can find brilliant innovations and ideas : in communicating and sharing ideas with people you are not used to work with.

  • Matthew Montoya

    I agree with these points. It appears that there is strong group-think going on in this specific industry. But then again, this rhetoric may be also happening in other industries, which places a strong emphasis of having an intentional agenda for conferences, but also allowing to be open to differentiating ones perspective when attending the conferences. I would have liked more context in regard to ICT4D, but overall interesting read!

  • Lindsey Kessler

    I thought it was interesting too that the same people go to the event. Would that be a flaw in the way the event works?

  • ChaiseSheldon

    I like t he part about the audience being the other speakers. It seems that people only become interested in something if they have something they want to say. This is good but if as a member of the audience you are just focusing on what you are going to say then you miss everyone else.

  • mni624

    Although I was lost when reading this article, I agree with your post. The events shouldn’t be limited to those that are involved in the field. A lot of times an outside opinion is what’s needed to see the big picture. Mostly, I like how you said that it limits the potential for learning and new ideas.

  • TykwinskB25

    I think gathering the most diverse population is important. If you are speaking to the people in the same field then it just creates one big circle of information rather than a line of information to thousands of people.

  • zoeantonow

    I agree, though that’s why it would be cool to broadcast the speakers to other people not attending–I would be willing to bet that most people would watch an event on video even if initially not meaning to attend the physical gathering. This reminds me of TED, where most of the audience is either another speaker or someone else professionally involved/interested in the material; however, TED reaches millions because of their free website full of videos from gatherings. This streaming could take these ICT4D meetings to the next level of reach.

  • kbell003

    I feel like this is true for every conference. There is no need to go to a conference unless you are going to try and find some way that this will serve you own needs. I understand that this sounds very self centered but why would you pay the money to go to something that you have no interest in. How will this benefit you?

  • Tony Bothwell

    Yeah I agree entirely, for these to work you really need the most diverse group possible otherwise you end up with groupthink on a massive scale. I think unfortunately a lot of these conferences and events become routine. Almost like a standing agenda item or something, a placeholder for when something new is actually coming people will be familiar with the venue. IDK thinking out loud.

    But I also agree with the OP, I’ve seen that a bunch too, far too often in fact. The whole, guest speakers really just there promote their own agendas. Sure everyone has one at some level, but over time if not monitored carefully, a once rich environment for knowledge sharing slowly turns into a series of lectures where you feel like someone is just selling something to you. Almost like at the end of sitting through it, you feel like asking… “where do I go to pick out which cabin package I would like?” ***

    *** This is a joke that hopefully made sense. In the US, maybe elsewhere, but it is not uncommon for resorts to give away a 3 day stay, or airfare to Florida, or a cruise or something if you will go and sit through a 90 minute pitch on why you should become a member.

  • kschwein

    I don’t really know what is going on here. Kind of hard to relate to this article. I did find it interesting how all the same people attend all the same conferences. You would think they would mix it up a little more.

  • Alysullivan

    I love your idea of the diverse population. But also as diverse societies. We’re all conditioned to think the same, so i’m interested how different societies thoughts will be.

  • keyser03

    You thought outside the box for this! It’s amazing what you learn when you go outside the usual norms. I’d like to keep up with this and see where it goes.

  • Jacob Palmer

    This sounds like a conference for Ph.D.s. The incentives need to be changed if people are going to come and collaborate rather than self-promote.

  • TykwinskB25

    Yes we are conditioned to follow the pack but it only takes one person to step out of their way to make a change. I think it would be very intriguing to have many many different cultures of the same occupation come together. This will allow people to see different perspectives on the same situation.