Development Paradigms


Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Donkeys, goats, beehives: we’re all familiar with the popular image of international development, widely promoted by aid agencies in their Christmas catalogues. Important work, but this is a world away from the language used in the UN Conference on Trade and Development report published this February on the ‘pervasive impact’ of information and communication technologies (ICT) on economic development in the developing world. ICT is bringing a new paradigm for development – and there is a growing conviction that strengthening economies through the application of science and technology is the only effective route to sustainable development.

The UNCTAD report, Science and technology for development; the new paradigm of ICT, sets out clearly the extraordinary advances of the last few years and the opportunities that lie ahead through the growth of electronic communications and capabilities. The challenges continue to grow too: lack of water, sanitation, crop failure, disease, poor governance, but in the area of infrastructure at least, there is light on the horizon.

Developing countries have the opportunity to leapfrog generations of technology that we had to work through, stage by stage. Mobile telephones and electronic communications have swept through many of the world’s poorest countries in the past few years, bringing access to information and knowledge that has the potential to transform local and regional economies. In Africa in 2007, UNCTAD estimate that the total number of mobile phone subscriptions reached 200 million, up from just 10 million four years ago. Over 75% of phones in Africa are mobiles.

Introducing mobile phones, telecentres, information ‘kiosks’ for communities and the internet brings pressure (and incentive) to improve the physical infrastructure: energy supply, transportation and water. This is all happening now. IBM’s latest Global Innovation Outlook Report, which we are pleased to include with this issue of Ingenia, is focused on Africa and the powerful, positive economic changes that are taking place there. A quick scan through and it is clear that these changes would not be possible without the effective deployment of science and technology.

The information revolution in the developing world has the potential to move the poorest countries up the value chain – to retain more of the value from their raw materials, to move their economies up the supply chain. With information comes a huge new potential for innovation in technology, business and education.

Professor Calestous Juma HonFREng FRS, in his Hinton Lecture for the Academy in October 2006, stressed the importance of placing technological innovation in the context of long term sustainable development strategies for infrastructure. That year mobile phone use increased by 50million users in Africa. Bringing communications brings access to money, banking and finance as well as the best market prices for farmers. Our new paradigm for infrastructure development will be led by ICT, not followed by ICT as we experienced in Europe.

Of course infrastructure can only ever be a partial contributor to development. The challenges from inadequate policy and poor governance, corruption and disease all must be overcome through other mechanisms. There are also external pressures, such as the Chinese economy, whose trade with Africa is forecast to double over a matter of a few years to around $100 billion by 2010. With demand for raw materials brings temptation for old style development: large, capital intensive projects, processing plants and heavy industry, bringing high value to local areas but less value for sustainable regional development. Such projects need to be balanced with infrastructure schemes promoting regional integration and empowerment through ICT.

This time, though, the lessons of the past two decades appear to have been heard. Business is one of the main drivers for poverty reduction. Building businesses depends on infrastructure, and recognising the power of ICT as part of that future infrastructure mix is the key to unlocking a sustainable future. The Academy too is playing its part through a new capacity building partnership involving the UK and African engineering communities. It is access to technology, not donkeys that the engineering profession has to offer.

Dr Scott Steedman FREng


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