New technologies and openness principles allow for new possibilities for who can access, use, make and distribute information, knowledge and culture – all of which are core inputs into human welfare and development activities (Benkler, 2006). For example, consider the Human Development Index (HDI). Each of the indicators in the index is “a function of access to information, knowledge, and information-embedded goods and services” (Benkler, 2006) (see Figure 2). An open process regarding the access and use of these resources is especially relevant in the development context where individuals, organizations and states are constrained in their ability to access information, knowledge and information-embedded goods and services, if they are delivered at cost.
Figure - The relationship between commons-based activities and the HDI (Benkler, 2006).
These connections become more clear when considering more specific Open ICT4D activities that link information and information-embedded goods to development. There are many potential applications: educators and students have the potential to improve the educational experience through access to a open education materials through internet enabled computers in schools; ICTs in the public sector can increase information flows, enhancing transparency and helping to reduce government corruption, or more efficient delivery of information services, resulting in a more effective governance; and the list goes on (we consider some of these in more detail in section 4). Mobile phones can act as a communications device to receive time sensitive information such as disaster warnings or market prices, as a communication means where landline infrastructure is poor, or just simply as a substitute for face-to-face interactions that require travel and time costs. Consequently, it is not surprising that macro-level empirical evidence shows that the diffusion of mobile phones are associated with increased economic productivity in developing countries (Jensen, 2007; Waverman, Meschi, & Fuss, 2005).
Openness can also spur development specific innovation. Access to information and other content as well as to the technologies necessary for innovative tinkering, collaboration, and peer production are crucial inputs that drive local innovations. Heeks (2008) writes of three types of innovation: “pro-poor” (on behalf of the poor), “para-poor” (along-side of the poor), and “per-poor” (by the poor). Increased openness predicated on open technology platforms will arguably allow for highly contextualised per-poor innovations that were not previously possible. Such an approach to innovation (and development, broadly speaking) takes advantage of local knowledge that exists at the community level. In this way per-poor innovations have a massive informational advantage. External “pro-poor” projects suffer from the difficulties of extracting local-needs information, as well as the intricacies of the social context. Para-poor projects try to overcome this through participatory approaches, but is still subject to the stickiness of information (i.e., difficult to extract).
The relevance of local information to appropriate innovations has a parallel in development thought concerned with the epistemic problem that development projects entail. The economist William Easterly (2006) divides development workers into two groups: searchers and planners. Planners attempt to impose from above via top-down plans and structures. In contrast, searchers are the ones close to the ground who search for solutions to local problems. It is only through searchers, Easterly argues, that locally appropriate innovations can emerge. Here we posit that the enhanced spread of information and opportunities for innovation should – theoretically – enable (provided the other contextual supporting aspects are available, for example, bank credit) more opportunities for this type of local searching and innovation.
This is not to argue that different approaches will not be relevant at different times. Indeed, Sen (2006) points out that Easterly’s contrast of planners and searchers is an oversimplification and that the actual impacts of international aid are far more complex. For our purposes, it is crucial to identify the situations, if possible, where each type of innovation is most effective.