Information and communications technologies for sustainable development

IIED conducted research on the rising importance of technologies for communications, knowledge and capacity building in sustainable development.

2008 - 2009
Ben Garside

Principal researcher, Shaping Sustainable Markets

The opportunities for information and communication technologies (ICTs) to unlock the power of rural economies are beginning to be realised. ICTs, once beyond the reach of the majority of the rural poor, are now trickling through to rural economies and producing profound changes to the information vectors facing rural people. Access to affordable ICT services could affect the livelihoods of millions of people.

The idea of ICTs being ‘mainstreamed’ in sustainable development has been adopted by the UNDP. It has been incorporated into newer development indicators and is even enshrined in the MDGs.

ICTs acting as information conduits are important aspects of building knowledge strategies. They are useful for transfer of information, formation of new services, and for better communicating information to the end user. However, technology is not a panacea. It can reinforce divides, introduce ways of working that are not suited to the local context and culture, and can cause ‘information overload’.

What IIED did

This project:

  • Identified the technologies that are being used for sustainable development and how these are being adapted for specific contexts and sectors
  • Identified the risks and opportunities of ICTs in facilitating 'knowledge strategy' development
  • Integrated these findings into approaches to harness the power ICTs for the benefit of sustainable development, and
  • Disseminated knowledge and building capacity to actively use and 'own' knowledge strategies by target groups.

Key lessons for policymakers from the research looked at how ICTs are on the rise in poor countries, but work best when tailored
to community needs and ways of working and how ICT projects for development often fail because they are designed as technology-led service provision rather than development-led, people-centred initiatives.

ICTs are key strategic tools for improving livelihoods and should be integrated into mainstream development thinking, while existing frameworks for understanding ICTs for development, such as the ICT for Rural Livelihoods knowledge map, must be developed and shared more widely. New approaches such as social network analysis can also clarify how ICTs affect sociocultural interactions.