1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: Information Technologies and Social Development

About the Project

  • Project from: 2000 to 2005

At a time when the world confronts immense social problems, many hopes for progress are grounded in the development potential of new information technologies. But technical breakthroughs in themselves are not a sufficient condition for improving the lives of most people in Third World countries.

What will it take — in terms of social, economic, political and institutional innovation — to create a setting in which these technologies can be effectively used to improve the conditions of less advantaged groups in the developing world? What are the basic elements for promoting an inclusive information society, rather than a world of increasingly unequal information "haves" and "have nots"?

The UNRISD project on Information Technologies and Social Development provides a forum for exploring these questions, through a combination of approaches ranging from grassroots social research in Third World villages and urban neighbourhoods to national and international policy debates.

Over the course of the project, research and dialogue are being oriented toward building positions that reflect holistic thinking. This means that the structure of the project provides opportunities to bridge a number of gaps, between

§ technical experts, social scientists and grassroots activists. Those who have the skills to design and adapt information technologies must have greater opportunities to think in social and political terms. They must learn to ask why they are developing certain products and techniques, and for whom. And colleagues in the social field must understand the basic characteristics of new technologies.

§ young professionals or students and local communities. Young people with a special interest in information technologies should be given an opportunity to learn about real local needs and to address social and institutional issues.

§ citizens and policymakers. The national institutional and policy framework in a number of fields, from regulatory structures to education and training, is central in determining who can benefit from new information technologies. Yet in most Third World countries, there is little informed debate on such issues. Efforts must be made to provide the kind of information that can improve public input into the policymaking process.

§ local, national and international issues and constituencies. International developments, within the global information industry and the global economy, have a direct bearing on the uses that can be made of information technology for social development. Inter-governmental negotiations on regulatory issues, trade and investment, also shape the "enabling environment" for a progressive use of IT. Nevertheless much of the analysis of international trends is not written in a way that is understandable to local and national citizens groups or activists. An intermediate process of analysis and dissemination is required to fill this gap.

§ socio-economic theory, development practice and international business. There is a place in the discussion for considering future scenarios. What kind of world do we want to live in? And where do current trends seem to lead us? This is the terrain both of high-level business thinking and of social and economic theory. It is also very much an element of concern for international non-governmental organizations working in the development field. What do these separate subcultures have to say to each other? What do they have to say about using information technologies to ensure that more people have the opportunity to lead a more satisfying life?

Project structure

To facilitate this wide-ranging approach to information technologies and social development, the UNRISD project is structuring its activities around a number of components:

§ Local- and national-level research in developing countries.

§ Commissioned papers on the international context for information technology development.

§ An ongoing dialogue on the "information society/economy", involving social thinkers and representatives of the business community.

§ A series of national and international workshops and conferences, to present findings and stimulate debate.

§ An active dissemination programme, including preparation of short briefing papers for international events.

§ Use of electronic networking to encourage the broadest possible discussion of issues under discussion within the programme.