Role and Impact of Technology in Displacing the Frontier for Social Change


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A paper jointly published online at NetImpact – Member Voices – Social Entrepreneurship, Sep 2006.

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Role and Impact of Technology in Displacing the Frontier for Social Change

  1. 1. International Organizations MBA 2005/06<br />University of Geneva<br />Social Entrepreneurship<br />Professor Maximilian Martin<br />ROLE AND IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGY IN DISPLACING THE POSSIBILITY FRONTIER FOR SOCIAL CHANGE<br />A Thematic Exercise by Nadejda Loumbeva and Inderpreet Chawla<br />INTRODUCTION<br />This paper attempts a perspective into the role and impact of technology in displacing the production possibility frontier of goods and services for social change. In doing so, the paper examines the issue as it has been occurring and could likely occur in mostly developing societies. <br />In order for the thematic exercise that this paper attempts to conduct to be most useful to social entrepreneurs and socially responsible organizations, the paper adopts the following two-part structure:<br />In Part 1, the paper examines the positive role of new technologies, looking at the positive developments that technology has brought about and could potentially bring into mostly developing societies. In doing so, we set out to evaluate whether technology has been of value and what the magnitude of this value has been. By a way of an intellectual inquiry supported by case studies, we have here attempted to inform the social entrepreneurs and socially responsible organizations about the factors that make introduction of new technologies successful in achieving their intended positive impacts, thereby guiding them when they are looking to introduce novel technologies into developing societies in order to improve social conditions.<br />In Part 2, the paper centres on the unintended negative impacts new technologies could have on developing societies. In doing so, we look at any risks there could be in relation to introducing new technologies, risks that should be responsibly and effectively managed in order to preserve these societies. We aim, by discussing a few cases, to arrive at the rudiments of a framework to guide social entrepreneurs and socially responsible organizations whenever they embark on diffusing social innovations. In this way, social entrepreneurs and socially responsible organizations can minimize any risks and maximize any benefits brought about by the new technology.<br />In concluding this thematic exercise, we emphasize the importance of new technologies to developing societies, in the meantime raising awareness of the implications for development that these technologies have. Any new technology can have far-reaching effects on a society, which can be either exuberantly positive, or pervasively negative, or both. Far reaching positive effects of a technology are usually found when appropriate technology is invested within the lower levels of a still developing society. Far reaching negative effects of a technology are usually found when technology that is too advanced and therefore inappropriate is invested usually within the higher levels of a developing society. Introducing new technologies into developing societies is not and should not be approached as a straightforward exercise. Rather, it should be seen as one of informed social responsibility from the part of social entrepreneurs and responsibly competing businesses and organizations.<br />PART 1<br />IS TECHNOLOGY BENEFICIAL TO DEVELOPING SOCIETIES?<br />The fundamental idea we would like to present in this part of the paper is the following:<br />A technology can have a profoundly positive impact on the lives of the peoples and their societies, in the developing or in the developed countries, when it addresses a particular need of these peoples in a way or ways that are compatible with the socio-cultural and economic context of the beneficiaries.<br />Outline to Part 1<br />There are various elements to the above statement that, we believe, the reader should understand in order to fully comprehend it. We intend to bring these elements forth through a series of arguments in an intellectual inquiry that will take the following structure over the course of the next few sections: firstly, we discuss technology and human evolution – how technology has evolved along with the evolution of humans and societies while making a point that different societies are at different stages of this evolution; secondly, we discuss different levels of technologies – the notions of low, intermediate and high technology, and offer some examples to establish context; thirdly, we discuss appropriate technologies – in this section we bring thus far discussed aspects together and explain that a technology can make maximum possible impact on its beneficiaries only if it is appropriate for their socio-economic context; finally, we conclude this first part of the paper by pointing out that introducing technologies in developing countries can lead to potential risks and unintended, albeit avoidable, impacts on those countries and their societies.<br />Technology and Human evolution<br />The history of technology is at least as old as humanity itself. Since times immemorial, human beings have continuously endeavoured to look for ways to improve their life situation and technology has helped them develop knowledge, tools and means to do so. The earliest technologies converted readily available natural resources (such as rock, wood and other vegetation, bone and other animal by-products) into simple tools. Than came the fire, the wheel (and more recently the Internet) – revolutionary technological milestones in human evolution. At a fundamental level, technology has helped humans to control their environment and best put to use the resources at hand to meet their needs. As the needs of the human beings evolved, so did the technologies that brought forth ways and means to meet those needs more efficiently and effectively. As much as the humans shaped the evolution of technology, it shaped the evolution of human societies as well. However, the pace of this evolution – of human societies and of technology - has not been the same through the course of history and across different civilizations around the world. Particularly in the past few centuries, technology has evolved at a frantic pace, more so in the West than in the East. While societies in a number of developing countries largely spent their energies and efforts in feeding themselves, the Western countries developed advanced technologies, for e.g. forging of steel, which made the industrial revolution possible and transformed them from agrarian to industrial societies. Technology also enabled the West to colonize other countries in the East, widening the already existing inequities and creating new ones. <br />While the 20th century witnessed decolonization of these countries, most of them ushered into freedom only to be marred by cross cutting problems like corrupt political and policy making structures, weak formal institutions, poor services infrastructure, fragile economies, and unfortunately many more. As a result, large populations in these countries still live in extremely difficult circumstances and struggle to meet their basic needs in ways that have not changed much over the centuries. <br />The question than becomes – Is it possible to introduce new technologies in the developing countries and create a positive impact on the life situations of people in these countries? Acknowledging that the societies in the developing countries are at a completely different stage of development and evolution as compared to those in developed countries, the task of answering this question becomes complex. We now explore some more concepts related to technology in order to arrive at a useful answer to our question.<br />Low, Intermediate and High Technology<br />The past two centuries have seen tremendous rise in innovation of technology that has fuelled unprecedented economic growth resulting in robust economies in the Western countries. Such rise in technological innovation also resulted in quick adaptation of old technologies while people embraced new ones, there by giving birth to notions of different classifications of levels of technology – low, intermediate and high technology. We believe it will be worthwhile for our inquiry to understand the meaning behind these terms. A low technology is generally characterized by low cost, low level of complexity and low level of skill needed in order to use it. A hand constructed and operated milling equipment intended to grind grain is an example of low technology. Full Belly Project is a non-profit organization that introduced one such low technology tool called the Malian Peanut Sheller in Uganda. The Sheller, whose founder Jock Brandis got the idea while travelling in Africa, enables the local populations to create sustainable livelihoods by shelling peanuts, an extremely important crop for a developing country like Uganda.<br />Intermediate technology is a technology meant for infrastructure capital and is at least an order of magnitude more expensive than that prevalent in a developing country but still cheaper than in a developed country. It enables the poor people to work their way out of poverty by providing tools that can help them work with fewer resources and increased productivity. KickStart, previously known as ApproTec, is a social entrepreneurship venture that provides such kinds of technologies to the poor in Kenya and other developing countries. KickStart provides the locals with Micro-irrigation, Cooking oil and Building technologies that enable them to pursue small scale farming and businesses, thereby empowering them to get out of poverty.<br />Lastly, high technology is a term that is more prevalent in the modern societies and is characterized by the kind of technology that results out of extensive research, is costly (compared to low, and intermediate technologies) and requires high level of skills as it enables the user to accomplish highly complex tasks with relative ease and high level of productivity. A great deal of knowledge and information are keys to the utility of such technologies. High technology is ubiquitous in developed countries and it now very much defines the nature and lifestyle of Western societies. Biotechnology and Alternative Energy are examples of high technology. A solar panel powered electric supply is an example of a high technology. This is what Fabio Rosa, a Brazilian Social Entrepreneur, employed when he developed low cost rural electrification models to provide electricity to rural parts of Brazil that were outside the network of an electric grid.<br />So far, we have posited that evolution of societies and technologies go hand in hand. While the advanced technologies enabled the Western countries to surge ahead on the path of economic development, it also resulted in a tremendous sociological evolution of the societies in the West. The question than becomes – What makes a technology appropriate for the developing countries? Is it that low technologies are more appropriate than high technologies? We move on to the next section to dig deeper.<br />Appropriate technology<br />A technology being used either in a developing or a developed country can maximize its intended impacts in the most efficient and effective manner only when it is completely compatible with the context in which it is introduced. By context, we point to the environment, culture, and socio economic situation of the receiving population. As we illustrated in the previous sections that developing countries are characterized by a set of core problems that are common across them. Yet, each country and society is different in its own right with regards to the culture, the values and beliefs, the socio economic situation and the resources available to it. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that the societies in the developing countries are at a different stage of sociological evolution and economic development as compared to those in the developed countries. Therefore, a technology that is appropriate for a developing country is the one that has been designed and introduced after a thorough analysis of the specific context of the recipient societies and thereby successfully accommodates the above mentioned factors. <br />The concept of “Appropriate Technology” has been derived from the works of the economist E.F. Schumacher, a big proponent of the fact that the technologies which involve local peoples and communities with a consideration of their situation can create sustainable economic growth in developing countries. With this background it is important to reiterate the point that the underlying purpose of technology is to help, enable, and empower a society to meet its needs in an effective, efficient, and sustainable manner. In the light of this statement, a social entrepreneur planning to introduce a technology in a developing country can achieve his or her goal only when he or she has well understood the needs of the peoples and societies in the developing countries that he or she is reaching out to. This is what David Green did when he decided to produce Inter-Ocular Lenses in India and provide them to an eye care hospital in the Southern part of India, where the problem of cataract plagues a huge section of the population. David Green introduced a relatively high end technology of producing such lenses at an acceptable level of quality. He has been extremely successful in his objective of helping the poor afflicted with the cataract problem by serving their need for affordable eye care. In the context of technology, another aspect that made his project so successful was the socio-economic diversity in a country like India. What makes David Green’s lens production technology appropriate is the fact that he was able to utilize the local capacities of the peoples to serve the health care needs of a population belonging to a lower socio-economic stratum in the same society.<br />Even though there are a lot of successful examples of social entrepreneurs like David Green who introduce technologies in developing countries that create tremendous positive social impact by providing goods and services, unfortunately such projects can also have unintended negative impacts on these societies. The complexity associated with the idea of introducing technologies to developing societies and countries poses a number of risks and threats that social entrepreneurs should be aware of and hence warrants the need for a discussion of the role of technology from another standpoint. In the next part of the paper, we explore such risks with the intent to better inform the social entrepreneurs.<br />PART 2<br />COULD TECHNOLOGY BE HARMFUL TO DEVELOPING SOCIETIES?<br />The fundamental idea we would like to present in this part of the paper is the following:<br />There could be a set of guiding principles (a theoretical framework) by which technology introduction in developing countries could be planned, executed and evaluated. Abiding by these principles can ensure that risks to the society where the technology is introduced are at least minimized.<br />Such principles could be useful to social entrepreneurs and socially responsible organizations, who should be aware of the risks associated with introducing new technologies in developing countries. By having such awareness, they can minimize the unintended effects that may arise out of attempts to improve lives in developing countries by introducing new technologies. Apart from being useful to these actors, such guiding principles could also be of use to responsibly competing business corporations (i.e., Unilever, Shell, BP), in order to ensure that their socially responsible initiatives produce an impact free from negative effects.<br />The principles could be used as a foundation for establishing an understanding of the harmful effects technology could bring to developing societies, in particular by damaging these societies at the ‘higher’ level of their existence, in terms of their culture. Here, it is important to understand that culture is crucial, as no society is one without it. Damage such as this usually happens out of an interaction between a new technology and a developing society which is not yet ready to fully embrace all the new possibilities that the technology may create for its social and cultural development. To put it in another way, technology can be harmful to developing societies because these are simply not in the position to appropriate it by finding it useful and relevant to their lives. The effects of any technology are usually pervasive and in that way, they become negatively pervasive. A new technology can be inappropriate to a developing society and therefore potentially damaging to this society because it does not address the society’s actual needs for development and progress.<br />Outline to Part 2 <br />In achieving the above purpose, Part 2 of this paper adopts the following outline: firstly, we consider why there are good reasons to believe that new technologies could bring substantial harm to developing societies; secondly, we attempt to put the previous into a broader context, by examining the challenges posed by different cultures, whereby we view cultures as pervasive webs of meaning that we humans essentially use to put structures into our lives and inappropriate technology can have a damaging effect on such structures; thirdly, we define what we see as the dynamic equilibrium to be succeeded within a society by introducing new technology; finally, we conclude Part 2 by listing a set of guiding principles for social entrepreneurs and socially responsible organizations, with the aim for this to create an awareness on their part regarding that well-intended technological innovations could indeed have pervasively negative effects on developing country societies. <br />Reasons Why Technology Could Damage a Society<br />The main reason why a new technology could bring, sometimes irreversibly, harmful effects to a developing society is because technologies, for a start, are usually designed for use by a society in developed and not developing countries. To put this more clearly, any tool of human creation has been put together to address certain needs by the people of a society for domination over the environment. By ‘domination’, we mean that people strive to control their environment to help society do better by having more predictability and reliability with respect to its endeavours. Once a technological innovation has surpassed the irreversible phase, ‘obtaining the dominant design’, it becomes embedded into the social system. Such needs for domination could be very different between developed and developing countries, therefore a technology designed for developed countries could be attacking and potentially destroying the core of societies in developing countries.<br />When embarking on technology-led social innovations, it is important to remember that developing societies are inherently unfamiliar with the technology and the circumstances that have led to its creation within developed countries, and therefore could be at risk from technologies being poorly adjusted to their needs, wants and expectations. In most cases, if not all, developing societies have not been able to ‘grow’ with the technology as developed societies have and could therefore find themselves painfully vulnerable to its unanticipated effects.<br />For example, in Bangladesh, recent introduction of mobile phone use and services has been the reason of some concern. The principle behind the mobile phone technology was invented by and subsequently configured for developed societies. Having been introduced in Bangladesh, it has led to more than rapid social and economic change. Importantly, this ‘Western’ technology and the way in which it was introduced into the society (i.e., free calls after midnight) has led to the shattering of the moral foundations of this society. Specifically, the culture of arranged marriages in Bangladesh is being challenged, one reason for which being the rising use of mobile services by the young, increasingly free to connect with each other and break away from family ties. The introduction of the new technology has thus brought with it some characteristics of the ‘Western’ society, sternly opposed by the Bangladeshi authorities. Although, to a Westerner, a development where young people become more free to choose how to live could seem like a natural and inherently beneficial effect of the new technology, it is important (for Westerners) to understand that such an effect could in fact be deeply damaging to a society unprepared for it. <br />To illustrate this further, consider the introduction of snowmobile technology among the Skolt Lapps, a reindeer-herding people of northern Finland. The introduction of this novel technology led to a sudden, unanticipated and very severe disruption of the reindeer-centred culture of the Skolt Lapp people. In particular, the rate of adoption of the technology was very rapid, entailing with it a significant drop in the number of reindeers herded per household and in the number of reindeer calves naturally grown in this part of Finland (noise pollution was given as a main reason), as well as a progressive slaughtering of herded reindeers by the Skolt Lapps in order to sell their meat and have the means to purchase snowmobiles, gasoline, spare parts and repairs. Most families ended up unemployed or dependent on the Finish government for payments. In other words, and as Rogers points out in his book, the Skolt Lapps were not prepared for the effects of the novel technology, Having not been ‘socialised’ into it, they could not anticipate any potentially negative effects and then control for these by trying to adjust to the technology in a prudent and incremental way. <br />In essence, developed societies have to be responsible with respect to the technology generalizations they make to developing countries. As much as a technology-driven change could be beneficially transformative to a developing society, positively displacing the existing possibility frontiers and bringing people new arrays of hope, such a change could irreversibly bring about effects largely unanticipated and thoroughly negative, because of a pronounced ‘asynchrony’ between the technology and the society. <br />The Challenge of Different Cultures<br />The above discussed examples of negative effects that new technology could have on a developing society unprepared for its impact should be put in an additional context of explanation. This context has to do with the importance of different cultures and the challenges there could arise when one culture ‘clashes’ with another. As we already discussed above, technology can be seen as an artifact, i.e., a creation, of a particular culture (society). If this technology is introduced into a different culture (society), unfamiliar with the processes that would have led to its creation, then this technology could potentially harm the latter culture (society), or at least lead to a process where the technology is not being adopted and is thus being wasted by being rejected. <br />As Solo points out, ‘one reason why advanced technologies are not used in low-productivity economies may be because they are not usable there. They have evolved in and consequently are adapted to a social and physical environment which differs significantly from that in developing societies. On account of these differences, their use in the developing society will sometimes be uneconomic and technically retrogressive.’<br />In other words, investing new technologies into a developing society carries with it important implications of the differences in culture that may exist between these societies, such differences pertaining to how people approach their living in these societies, in order to be at a satisfactory level of productivity and the needs they seek to address in order to happily optimize their lives in a sustainable way. <br />From a ‘culture’ point of view, people in different societies create social fabrics that tie them together, enabling them to communicate and achieve individual and common purposes. Another way of putting this is in terms of ‘inherent webs of meaning’ that people within a society create for and among themselves, to structure their existence and enable a common understanding, making the use of all technologies purposeful and beneficial. All technologies that have been created within a society carry with it its inherent webs of meaning. In this sense, introducing new technologies within developing societies without taking into account the inherent webs of meaning of the developing society and how these could clash with those of the developed society having created the technology can lead to repercussions within the developing society, such that this society could be put forth on a path of development that is not sustainable in the long run.<br />To illustrate this, the introduction of television in Bhutan serves to support such an argument. After five years of broadcasting, Bhutan's government is now considering legislation to regulate what the country's people can watch, having observed a rise in violence among the youth. This rise in violence, they claim, is due to young people’s admiration for and attempts to imitate wrestlers regularly seen on the staged US wrestling series WWF. In this particular case, we witness new technology being introduced into a society where it diffuses cultural content inappropriate for that country’s already existing culture. In this way, the technology, by its mere inappropriate introduction, ends up damaging some parts of the moral core of the developing society and represents a threat to its well-being and advancement. Furthermore, it, in a way, attempts to shape the society from without, instead of sustainably promoting its development from within, by building onto the already existing culture and ensuring that this is better harnessed to give the people of Bhutan better socio-economic means to pursue their own progress. <br />Desired Equilibrium<br />To follow onto the above, how do we ensure that a technology is sufficiently well adapted to a developing society? In his book ‘Diffusion of Innovations’, Rogers points the importance of achieving a dynamic equilibrium when diffusing technological innovations (p. 453).<br />“…which occurs when the rate of change in a social system occurs at a rate that is commensurate with the system’s ability to cope with it. Change occurs in a system in dynamic equilibrium, but it occurs at a rate that allows the system to adapt to it.”<br />The key message from Rogers’ point that should be relevant to social entrepreneurs is that the way to ensure there is no clash among cultures is to incrementally build technological progress within a developing society by bringing in new technologies.<br />Guiding Principles<br />Basing on the above outline and discussion, here the following set of principles is proposed to social entrepreneurs and socially responsible organizations, to gain them a certain level of awareness of the implications of introducing new technologies into developing countries and also to guide their attempts at improving lives in developing countries by introducing new technologies:<br />Consider/study the culture, in terms of level of development, morals and webs of meaning and understanding.<br />Do a survey into the society’s actual needs and wants and expectations.<br />Establish the parameters of the technology and see whether these align with the society, in terms of addressing its actual needs, wants and expectations. Should a technology not address an actual need, then its introduction within a society is strongly discouraged.<br />Ensure that any new technology fits sufficiently well within the wider context of cultural development and understanding already existing within the developing society. Ensure that new technologies (as in the example with television) are embedded within the social context and are thus meeting the society’s actual needs, wants and expectations for development. Ensure that technologies are well configured within the broader cultural ‘picture’ of the society, by offering content and services that promote societal development ‘from within’ and not aggressively shaping the society ‘from without’.<br />Aim for appropriated technologies (i.e., customized) that could be easily taken up by the developing country society. Aim for the technology to be appropriate by targeting this at the ‘right spot’ within a society.<br />Design and introduce technologies for the developing society by asking these societies and their people what they need and look to improve in their lives. Target the people’s needs first, and then look for the appropriate technology.<br />CONCLUSIONS<br />Throughout the process of writing this paper, the authors came to the following, fairly obvious, conclusion: there are two sides to the same coin. <br />With respect to introducing technology into developing societies, one side is that technology could potentially bring very beneficial changes, the intended positive impacts, into these societies when it has been made sure that the technology introduced is appropriate for the context in which its beneficiaries exist. Technology indeed has a tremendous potential and developed countries are testimonies to this statement. However, the social entrepreneurs and socially conscious organizations looking to make a positive impact on developing countries by introducing technologies should bear in mind the fact that developing countries are at a different stage on the path of sociological and economic development. Only a careful analysis of the context – the society, the culture, and the socio-economic status of a developing country could lead to the successful introduction of a new technology. Once such careful analysis has preceded a socially entrepreneurial technology project, it will matter less whether the technology introduced is a low, intermediate, or a high technology. A technology that takes into account the above factors thus becomes appropriate and holds the potential to drastically displace the possibility frontiers in these countries, by bringing new and exciting arrays of opportunity and hope. <br />There is, however, another side to this, often very glistening, coin. This other side pertains to that technology could easily, in the process and after being introduced, bring a number of harmful effects into a developing country society, damaging its social, economic and spiritual core. <br />How do we ensure that there is always and continuously just one side of the coin on top?<br />Social entrepreneurs and socially responsible organizations are in a very good position to work according with responsible action-oriented strategies and operations for technology-led social investment, based on sets of guiding principles. These strategies and operations should be aiming to ensure that the technology they bring into developing countries is not alien, harsh and damaging to these societies. In other words, technology should not be imposed in an uninformed attempt to make these societies a mere replica of the developed world. <br />Technology-led investments should, above all, start with a consideration for the moral, social and economic constituents of the developing society they are aiming to benefit. Economically powerful social entrepreneurs and organizations certainly can, by introducing new technology, aggressively shape less powerful societies ‘from without’. Nevertheless, developing societies should be given the chance and opportunity to develop ‘from within’ and find their own best way of appropriating the technology.<br />