Levels of Engagement for Technology Justice

February 25th, 2015

Technology justice really is a big idea. We approach it from many different angles at Practical Action, and each person may have their own personal way of interpreting it. When I talk about technology justice, I like to think of different potential areas it plays out in practice.

When you think of technology and how it is used, who do you think of? Most people start by thinking of their own interactions with technology. In the world of development, we may think about how it gets used in a community for improving people’s lives. Technology certainly impacts people, but it also relates to a much more complex environment. In this way, when we talk about technology justice, we aren’t just talking about how we use technology to support the extreme poor or disadvantaged; we also have to consider how technology justice is affected and defined by much more global forces. In reality, this is a complex environment. But from an engagement perspective, there are several levels where technology justice plays out.

Technology justice starts small (small is beautiful, after all!). It starts with the needs of the individual. The most effective products and services are designed with the user at the center of the design process. Different people have different needs and developing solutions for those people works best when we design in conjunction with them. That’s partially why technologies designed for the developed world do not often meet the needs of the poor in the developing world. Many of the biggest failures in development can be traced back to a design process that did not include the end user participants in this design.

The next level out on the technology justice spectrum is organizational. Individuals engage in both formal and informal social networks and technology at the nodes of those social networks where individuals interact. Formal networks often manifest as organizations. Even if technology is used by an individual, its use impacts others in those social networks. There is also technology that is created for use by these groups. To simply focus on a cell phone or a treadle pump as technology would ignore the larger telecom network or agriculture value chain that represents the organizational technology which often reveals different levels of technology justice and injustice.

Design can also play a part here. Whether a private sector company, a governmental body, a NGO, or a donor-run project, when an organization keeps their end users in mind, it will ultimately deliver products and services that are more effective at meeting the needs of their end users. For governments, these are their constituents. For companies, these are customers. For NGOs and donors, these are beneficiaries, or participants. Technology design starts with products and services, but it also includes the experience of how easily and effectively end users can engage with these organizations. That experience maximizes the use of those products and services.

When we think of the extreme poor, this is an often overlooked part of technology deployment. We focus on the deployment of a technology, but not on designing the approach to deploy in a participatory way. As a result, the technology shows up in a community, sometimes without warning, and often shuts down once the organizations deploying it leave. Experience design is required for sustainability.

I am using a broad definition of technology in this case. It could be a minigrid company setting up energy systems, but it could also be large donor project tasked with starting new businesses in a country. But in most of these cases, we design our approach based on what the organization needs, and not on the needs of the end user. We will have more success when we focus on those needs. Just as we design the handle on a thresher around user needs and constraints, we should also design the way our employees, government officials, or even program directors engage with these end users to assure maximum impact and long term sustainability. This usage can be a major determinant as to whether the program is actually successful or not. Technology justice means we take a page from how companies deploy their technologies in the developed world, and design our “customer” or participant service with an end goal in mind.

Just as organizations are made up of individuals, organizations operate in multiple interlocking systems. Technology justice depends on systems, and is often determined by systems. People use technology inside of social organizations that are part of larger community systems, which all exist inside of global socio-economic systems, which are built on resources supplied by the global environmental system. These systems aren’t always easy to define, in fact, they can be chaotic or extremely complex. But if we are to work for technology justice we must consider the systems where those technologies are applied. This still conveys the spirit of design with the individual user in mind, it just takes into consideration the systems those users exist in. It also considers the inherent injustice that can often be found in those systems—which is often at the heart of technology justice. For example, there are many technologies that benefit the lives of those of us in the developed world at the expense of those in the developing world, and those injustices are often delivered through systemic connections.

The easy way to deal with this often is to try to cut the cord that exists in a system. Perhaps I hear about an agribusiness firm that is using practices that are ad for the environment and their workers, so I stop buying their products. This doesn’t affect the system. Injustices still happen. Just as large organizations can wreck havoc on the people and environment in a system, they can also be turned to be used as tools for improvement. In some ways, they are too big to be ignored, and systemic change in technology justice requires shifts from actors large and small to be able to create true, long term justice.

A way to think about where technology justice can play out

A way to think about where technology justice can play out

For me, technology justice will be delivered by designing technology in collaboration with individual users, deployed through well designed interactions through different organizations and social networks, and creating impact that can be seen on a systemic level.

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