From ‘What If?’ to ‘What’s Next?’: Emergent Research on ICT, Climate Change and Development

The rapid diffusion of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) has been accompanied by an increasing body of research exploring both the potential and challenges associated with the use of these tools, particularly in developing countries. Research in the ICT for Development (ICT4D) field has advanced by often aiming at moving targets, as new technologies are continuously developed, different priorities emerge, traditional technologies merge with newer ones in development practice, and players and agendas at the local, national and international levels constantly transform.

ICT4D research takes place within contexts that are in continuous metamorphosis: social, economic, political, and increasingly, climatic.

Research at the intersection of ICTs, climate change and development constitutes a field of possibilities and challenges that were unimaginable only a few years ago. The role of ICTs towards dematerialisation, transport substitution or climate change governance, which in the past may have seemed far removed from the priorities of the global South, are becoming issues of increasing attention, along with the exploration of new approaches to climate change monitoring and adaptation that are viable and sustainable within contexts affected by poverty and marginalization.

What a few years ago constituted “What if” questions in regards to the role of ICT within the climate change field, are given way to the question “What’s next?” particularly in regards to the needs of developing countries, where the effects of climatic disturbances often exacerbate existing development challenges and vulnerabilities (IPCC, 2007; Moser et. al, 2008).

A recent report titled “Unveiling the Links between ICTs & Climate Change in Developing Countries: A Scoping Study addresses this question by suggesting six emerging research areas at the intersection of these fields [1]:

(a) Mitigation

  • ICTs and community-level mitigation
  • ICTs, climate change and global value and supply chains
  • ICTs, climate change and emerging consumer trends
  • ICTs, climate change and emerging business practices

(b) Monitoring

  • ICTs, climate change monitoring and local empowerment

(c) Adaptation

  • ICTs, climate change and localization
  • ICT and local livelihoods
  • ICTs, local voices and awareness raising
  • ICTs and emerging social aspects of climate change

(d) Strategy

  • ICTs, climate change and inclusion
  • ICTs, climate change and governance challenges
  • ICTs and climate change decision-making processes

(e) Disaster Management and Response

  • ICTs, disaster management and response

(f) Technologies: Impacts and Issues

  • Low-cost and emerging technologies

Although these issues are not meant to constitute an exhaustive list of emerging topics, they do invite reflection by ICT, climate change and development practitioners, researchers and visionaries alike, in order to determine a new agenda of research and action towards the future.

Innovative ‘what if’ approaches have paved the way to new solutions that are increasingly being tested and implemented in the field, as the diffusion of ICTs, particularly mobile phones, continues to permeate the fabrics of developing country societies.

But as the impacts of stronger storms, drier seasons, heavier precipitation or rising sea levels become more visible, so does the importance of identifying What’s next? in terms of research in the ICT, climate change and development field.

Therefore, this entry ends with an open question, an invitation to think about

‘What else is next?’

Which other topics could we identify in terms of the potential of ICTs to help developing countries to effectively adapt, monitor, and ultimately contribute to mitigate the impacts of climate change?

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[1] The areas and issues identified in the report are based on an overview of the trends that literature on ICTs, climate change and development has followed in since the 90’s, the main components of the Overview Model on ICTs, Climate Change and Development, as well as on the analysis of experiences emerging from developing countries as key areas for future research.

References:

IPCC. 2007. Fouth Assessment Report (AR4). Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), http://www.ipcc.ch

Moser, C. & Satterthwaite, D. (2008) Towards Pro-Poor Adaptation to Climate Change in the Urban Centres of Low and Middle-Income Countries. International Institute for Environment -and Development (IIED), London http://www.iied.org/pubs/pdfs/10564IIED.pdf

Ospina, A. V. & Heeks, R. (2010) Unveiling the Links between ICTs & Climate Change in Developing Countries: A Scoping Study. Centre for Development Informatics, Institute for development Policy and Planning (IDPM), University of Manchester, http://www.niccd.org/ScopingStudy.pdf

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ICTs, Creativity and Resourcefulness: Can ICTs enable Adaptive e-Ingenuity?

More than 10 years ago, before the debate over climate change was at the forefront of the international agenda, Thomas Homer-Dixon referred to Ingenuity as ideas applied to solve practical social and technical problems; a concept that goes beyond the development of new technologies or drought-resistant crops, and includes more efficient markets and better social arrangements (1).

Today, amidst growing evidence of a changing climate and its impact on vulnerable populations, ingenuity could be a key factor in the adaptive capacity of developing country communities affected by climatic variability and changing trends.

For the poor, whose livelihoods are largely dependent upon natural resources, responding and adapting to the unpredictability of dry or rainy seasons and their effect on water supply and food scarcity, among others, depends not only on their (limited) access to resources, but often on their inventiveness, resourcefulness and creative skills to cope with the challenges of daily life, within contexts characterised by marginalization and development constrains.

The increasing diffusion and adoption of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) can help enable ingenuity and contribute towards climate change adaptation, as emerging evidence from the field is starting to suggest.

A project led by the Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN), a NGO based in Kenya, uses iPods as tools for marginalized communities to access content relevant to their livelihoods, particularly farming and husbandry techniques. Through podcasts that tailor the most pressing needs of rural farmers affected by climatic variations, ICTs are playing a key role in the distribution of information and best practices, including markets and market prices, appropriate seeds and crops, alternatives to costly fertilizers and pesticides, among others. The information disseminated is rooted in field experience from local practitioners and traditional knowledge that emerges from the community. Some of these podcasts can be viewed online.

At the same time, Maarifa Centres (Maarifa is the Swahili word for knowledge) are used at the community level to engage local stakeholders with the use of ICTs, while linking the information accessed to the priorities of local adaptation efforts to the effects of the changing climate, particularly food scarcity and water supply due to changing patterns in rain.

The adaptive efforts of the Kyuso community in Kenya, and the role of Maarifa Centres, can be seen in a video available online (7:02 minutes).

Young members of the community are trained to act as infomediaries, supporting communities to access relevant information and document best practices that are disseminated using the Internet, video clips, blogs and Web 2.0 tools. According to a recent article published on the project’s Web site, farmers will also be using a Web-based portal and SMS to share market information including prices of commodities and bidding online.

As initiatives such as this one continue to emerge in developing countries, it seems relevant to ask:

Could the use of ICTs within local adaptive strategies lead to increased ingenuity –i.e. to the emergence of new ideas to solve practical problems caused by the effects of climate change?

Early evidence suggests that ICTs could play an important role inspiring, sharing and helping to realize adaptive ideas, fostering community-based practical solutions to the challenges that arise from climate change impacts, and potentially benefiting from emerging opportunities (2).

But although evidence from the ICT4D field suggests the potential of these tools facilitating access to information, fostering knowledge sharing and strengthening social networks and productive processes (among others), further research and analysis is required in order to assess the full extent of their role, and of the challenges associated to it, within adaptive processes in the global South.

ICT-enabled ingenuity towards adaptive actions, or what could be referred to as ‘e-ingenuity’, is a concept that may deserve further attention, as evidence on the role of ICTs within the climate change field continues to emerge.

From new ICT uses and applications, to strengthened social networks and organizations that support local adaptive efforts, ingenuity could act as an enabler of effective responses to climate change-related hazards and variability, while building on the existing social capital, knowledge and experiences of local actors.

As the work conducted by ALIN reflects, the ICT for development field is in no shortage of inspiring projects and initiatives that defy the constraints posed by deeply rooted development challenges.

The task is now for the academic and practitioner communities to articulate efforts towards the systematization and analysis of emerging experiences from the field, including the ways in which developing country communities are adapting and solving the challenges posed by climate change in their daily lives: through creativity, resourcefulness, and increasingly, through the use of ICT tools.

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(1) Homer-Dixon, T. (2000) The Ingenuity Gap, Vintage, London.

(2) Ospina, A. V. & Heeks, R. (2010) Unveiling the Links between ICTs & Climate Change in Developing Countries: A Scoping Study. Centre for Development Informatics, Institute for development Policy and Planning (IDPM), University of Manchester, http://www.niccd.org/ScopingStudy.pdf