Harvard Forum II

Over the past 1.5 days I had the privilege of attending Harvard Forum II: ICTs, Human Development, Growth and Poverty Reduction. Convened six years after the first event, HF2 was convened to allow the (mostly) same 20 participants to reflect on what has changed since 2003 and what they believe are the most important trends and issues confronting the field of information technology and human development. The opportunity to sit with Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Michael Spence, and other ridiculously smart people was an incredible treat to say the least. The event was sponsored by IDRC, the Berkman Center hosted the event, and Global Voices provided blogging, tweeting, session summaries, and webcasting (Ethan and team are amazing so follow the links to learn everything that transpired).

Which allows me to offer a couple of highlights from my perspective:

Hearing non-ICTD folks talk about ICTD
The views of Sen, Yochai Benkler, Michael Smith and other HF2 participants are centrally relevant to the role of ICT in development, and yet they are not the ones who attend ICTD conferences or publish in ICTD journals. To be fair, there are ICTD scholars who build on the work of Sen, but otherwise this workshop offered yet more evidence that the field has to do better at reaching out to those who don’t self-identify with “ICTD.”  I’m not sure of the solution. On the one hand we need to do more work to legitimize and raise the profile of ICTD, but on the other hand the term has a tendency to make us seem like an exclusionary club.  In any event, I came away very stimulated by the perspectives these people brought to our discourse. All participants submitted thought pieces in advance of the workshop.

Contesting the meanings of development
Between Sen’s focus on capabilities and interventions from Anita Gurumurthy, Ineke Buskens and others, a very interesting theme of the workshop addressed the benefits and limitations of the market’s role in ICTD. This was in contrast to much of today’s ICTD discourse which in my mind over privileges the market (as evidence in the current infatuation over mobile phones and making financial sustainability the litmus test for assessing the value of an ICTD endeavor).

Critically examining mobile phones
While the ICTD majority continues to leap onto the mobile bandwagon, HF2 offered up a host of questions that I completely agree require our critical examination, else we believe we can pack up and go home because mobiles and the market will take care of everyone’s ICT needs. Ethan Zuckerman made the strongest argument, which Yochai and several others echoed in various ways.  Yochai summed it up best – Mobiles offer a more decentralized and open platform than broadcast media, but they aren’t the Internet at all, and that gap between mobiles and the Internet is critical.

Again, read Ethan’s summaries. This workshop was a feast of ideas that I will be referring to again and again.