Intent vs. Impact

Last week UC Berkeley researcher Kentaro Toyama wrote a guest post on James Fallows’ blog in The Atlantic entitled, “Technology is Not the Answer.” It struck a chord with many. (The day it was published multiple people in my network sent me links—always a sign of buzz.)

In this first of a series of five guest posts, Toyama suggested that we have overemphasized the role technology can play in solving some of the world’s most pressing problems, at the expense of emphasizing the intent and capacity of partners on the ground. While Toyama readily admits that technology can provide incredible “amplification” of efforts, international development success hinges on the human beings that compose the partnerships, not the shiny new toys.

Toyama’s belief that people matter more than the products they use is one I share. To start, it informed my approach for my lecture at tomorrow’s Seattle Arts & Lecture – U Series, “’Let’s Do the Numbers’: Metrics and Maturation of Digital Media in Emerging Markets.” One of the central storylines of my talk addresses the “demographic dividend” that many emerging market countries possess: namely, the significantly young populations who can drive economic growth as they enter the workforce.

However, a young population alone does not guarantee success. Certain stars must align in governance, education, and employment opportunities. Countries that are home to large youth populations and have limited infrastructure or jobs opportunities find themselves in challenging situations where they have millions of under employed and unemployed youth. Some of these youth are educated and some not—and if there are no jobs to focus their talents then unrest can occur, and often does. Again, it comes back to Toyama’s questions around the human capacity on the ground.

Furthermore, these questions relate directly to our April Four Peaks Salon with Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami. MCDM Director Hanson Hosein and I will be engaging Rothenberg-Aalami in conversations around her book (co-authored with Sailesh Chutani and Akhtar Badshah), “Technology at the Margins: How IT Meets the Needs of Emerging Markets.” As a managing partner at the Gobee Group and a trained economic geographer, Rothenberg-Aalami will illustrate the distinction between intent and impact through the rich case studies her book is built around. This conversation could not be more relevant, given current political events, the reframing of business interests in emerging markets, and careful consideration of the will and intent of people. As the Gobee Group website states, “Most technology problems are people problems in disguise.”



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