Nurturing Open, Creative Development in the Digital Age

Digital age.(Photo: Peter Kemmer / Flickr)In “The United Nations Development Strategy Beyond 2015,” the organization begins to plot some general contours of the future development strategy indicating that “the MDGs [Millenium Development Goals] have effectively forged a global consensus and mobilized public support for eradicating global poverty.” The report provides a brief history of the major shifts that have occurred in development thinking:

The evolution of development thought and policy over the last half century has been marked by some historical shifts, such as the idea of basic needs in the 1970s, a market-based approach involving the implementation of privatization and liberalization reforms in the 1980s, and the idea of human development in the 1990s. Yet surprisingly, the consensus on poverty as a priority has not generated new thinking about policy alternatives for faster poverty reduction (p. 6).

The report indicates that development strategies have remained the same as the 1990s, with an emphasis on “macroeconomic stabilization and adoption of Washington Consensus–style macroeconomic policies to promote aggregate economic growth based on private investments and market liberalization” even though there was a clearer specification of the overall objective of poverty reduction.

As well as the critique of the MDG framework, the report suggests alternative strategies for transformative development at national and international levels with greater emphasis on macro and distributive policies, an accent on the significance of social policies with the goal of promoting participation for development and references to innovation, intellectual property and technology.

In this history, the report neglects to mention “knowledge for development” that came to fruition when Joseph Stiglitz was chief economist of the World Bank and emerged from the discourse of knowledge economy driven largely by Romer’s endogenous growth theory and Becker’s human capital theory (Peters & Besley, 2006). The knowledge economy discourse issued in the World Bank’s four pillars:

Framework for a Knowledge-based Economy

The following framework consisting of four pillars that help countries articulate strategies for their transition to a knowledge economy:

  • An economic and institutional regime that provides incentives for the efficient use of existing and new knowledge and the flourishing of entrepreneurship.
  • An educated and skilled population that can create, share and use knowledge well.
  • An efficient innovation system of firms, research centers, universities, think tanks, consultants and other organizations that can tap into the growing stock of global knowledge, assimilate and adapt it to local needs, and create new technology.
  • Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) that can facilitate the effective communication, dissemination, and processing of information (bold in the original).

There was little mediation of development policy and theory between knowledge economy on the one hand and MDGs on the other. The critique of the MDGs has focused on the narrowness of the scope of the objective, the mechanistic application of the ethos and the oversimplication of the conception of development that led to the neglect of many important priorities – including the emergence of international inequalities, the development of productive capacity and the relationship between democratic governance, human rights and the applications of freedoms within the new global digital infrastructures:

In sum, the MDGs have created a new narrative of international development that has convincingly appealed to and resonated with the publics and parliaments of developed countries and philanthropists. However, they fail to mention equity, empowerment of people, sustainability, security, and building sustainable productive capacity for economic growth. The simplification of development into eight goals amenable to quantitative measurement has reduced the development agenda to a plan for meeting basic material needs, leaving it stripped of the distinct vision for development found in the Millennium Declaration, one that emphasizes social justice and human rights for all (p. 13).

With hindsight we know that the notion of ‘development’ is a troubled concept with a very troubled history. In so-called Development Studies, the term has been associated with modernization theory, with Westernization and with forms of neoimperialism. The concept came into view in the aftermath of World War II and in the cauldron of the Cold War as the basis for securing young states and transition economies as part of the Western alliance of free market capitalism against the emerging and burgeoning Soviet Communist system. At this early stage, these new states, many of which had only recently achieved independence from past colonial masters, were referred to as “underdeveloped” countries and the problems they faced were termed problems of underdevelopment. Two views that echoed the divisions of the Cold War prevailed. In the West, the concept of development was seen as primarily an economic problem that could be conceptualized in stages following the model of Western development. This linear concept of development in large measure was still strongly caught up in the metaphysics of the world history of “progress” most clearly illustrated by Rostow’s “Stages of Development.” In the east, the questions of development were seen as inextricably tied to the problem of exploitation and understood in terms of Lenin’s theory of imperialism. Both sides in reality were caught up in partisan political ideologies and historical assumptions about world history.

The “Washington Consensus” was no exception, and the charges from the left indicated that neoliberalism was the only game in town. Development theory and policy slavishly followed the fashion of the Chicago school as the latest manifestation of economic theory that had strong European links going back into the end of the 19th century (Peters, 2011). The knowledge economy was not intrinsically a neoliberal discourse, although it theorized development purely in terms of capital – even (and famously) utilizing a capital view of labor.

The discourse shifted again or exhibited a blended aspect with the rise and development of innovation theory, especially notions of national innovation theory, followed by a burgeoning of literature of “disruptive innovation,” “design innovation,” “transnational innovation networks,” “Innovation and Development in Information Systems in Developing Countries,” “social innovation” and “open innovation.” As Benoît Godin (2008) writes:

Innovation is everywhere. In the world of goods (technology) certainly, but also in the realm of words. Innovation is discussed in scientific and technical literature, in social sciences such as sociology, management and economics, and in the humanities and arts. Innovation is also a central idea in the popular imaginary, in the media and in public policy. How has innovation acquired such a central place in our society?

This is a shift from knowledge per se to applied knowledge in the “smart economy” with a focus on the translation of knowledge and on seeding innovation ecosystems in ways that recalled the older discourse on knowledge and technology transfer. Yet critics have increasingly questioned the myths of innovation policy, that innovation is overwhelmingly “good”; more innovation is better; and acceleration of innovation is essential for survival (of firm, country, region) (Sveiby et al, 2012). Innovation has become routinized and subject to indirect and unintended effects. Furthermore, managerial texts have emphasized an abstract rational and scientific process embedded in systems or processes that diminish human agency.

As well as the centrality of the emerging innovation discourses, two other discourses have emerged and begun to provide new conceptualizations and formulations both of knowledge economy and knowledge capitalism: openness and creativity. The first sometimes referred to “open knowledge economy” appraises itself of the question of digital futures and casts itself as “commons-based peer production” (Benkler, 2006) or the “open science economy” (Peters, 2011, 2012) or, indeed, open innovation, or even “open development”. The second – creativity as in the “creative economy” – has now become a major development in its own right, especially after the United Nations adopted it and used it as the basis of two major reports (UN 2008, 2010). Creativity also has had advocates such as Bill Gates (2008), who first presented his ideas of “creative capitalism” to the World Economic Forum at Davos, emphasizing a “system innovation”: an approach where governments, businesses and nonprofits work together to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world’s inequities.” This is what he calls a market-based social change that harnesses the engine of self-interest in a wider social ecology.

The UN Creative Economy reports (2008, 2010) were disappointing in a couple of respects: first, they inherited a concept established in the literature but did no theory work developing it; second, they left out any reference to education – to the creation of new knowledge through research and its peer production. Yet there is a different creative economy than one that attempts to harness the “creative industries” for tourism and trade as many scholars and theorists have pointed out, especially around notions of “free culture,” “open science,” “open innovation” and “open education.” These leads are missed development theory opportunities.

Finally, a recent theme that requires brief comment in this postscript is the concept of “open development,” which is gaining strength in various quarters. The Open Aid Partnership describes “open development” in the following terms:

The Open Development Vision

Over the last 10 years, the legitimacy and effectiveness of one-size-fits-all models of development and top-down models of governance have been challenged, most recently by citizens’ demands for more open, transparent and accountable governance. “Open development” sets out a new vision of what development means, how it comes about and what role external partners can play. In this vision, there is a key role for open data – information that is freely available and reusable. This information can enable citizens to hold governments accountable and to ensure that resources – aid and domestically generated resources – are invested wisely in poverty reduction and progress toward prosperity, rather than being squandered or siphoned off for politicians’ personal gain.

The rapid global expansion of mobile phone and Internet coverage means citizens increasingly expect to be able to access information on projects underway in their communities, information on how their taxes are being used, and more. Rather than being passive consumers of services, they want to have a voice in the way government operates. The vision of open development recognizes these new realities and offers a more collaborative model for pursuing economic growth and socioeconomic development.

What is becoming increasing clear in the rapidly developing and coalescing set of discourses about “openness” that burst onto scene in the 2000s is that the term is now systematically employed in the name of “development” and that education, especially open education (but also open science), is one of the nested discourses and practices that sits within a wider and more global set of evolving structures.

The World Bank has embraced the principles of “open data” and “open contracting.” The Open Knowledge Festival conference (2012) puts it this way:

Open knowledge – from open data, to open educational resources, to open software – can play a powerful role in supporting sustainable global development. The Open Development stream is about exploring how the OKFest community can engage with key development challenges, from addressing chronic poverty, to providing access to education and healthcare and addressing climate change and natural resource management. It is also about bringing voices from development actors into the heart of the Open Knowledge debate, supporting two-way learning about making open data and open knowledge work for development. We’ll be mixing up presentations from the cutting edge of open development, with critical conversations to develop shared visions of open development, and practical workshops and hack sessions to put ideas of open development into practice.

Some scholars see “open development” as a means of realizing the potential and reorienting the theoretical perspective of Information and Communication Technologies for Development [ICT4D]. For example, Matthew L. Smith, Laurent Elder, and Heloise Emdon, the editors of a special issue of Information Technologies and International Development, write:

Open development refers to an emerging set of possibilities to catalyze positive change through “open” information-networked activities in international development. While there is evidence to support the observation that these changes could be coming, we are only now beginning to glimpse their potential for developing societies. Consequently, embedded in this theory are a high-level research question and hypothesis. The research question asks how these information-networked activities work, in what circumstances, and to whose benefit? The hypothesis states that these new models of networked activities can lead to development outcomes that are both inclusive and transformative (p. iii).

They argue that the roots of open development are evident in the “earliest designs of the Internet, with its open standards and sharing culture (Castells, 2001a), alongside the emergence of open source ‘thinking’ and longstanding development concepts like democracy, participation, and inclusion” (p. iii). This open source success has “encouraged similar social innovations, such as those in government (open government data), research (open access), education (open educational resources) and business (open business models), to name a few” (p. iv). They also understand that the deepening of networks carries risks and dangers but provides a participatory and social inclusive model of development that can capitalize on values of transparency, sustainability and open governance. The real value of openness in open source, open access and open development is that is enables people to work together to solve common problems; that is, inaugurates an era of social development in the same way that “technologies of openness” are promoting and enhancing social media, social labor and social production. The marriage of openness and creativity together in their myriad socially-enable forms really begins to offer the possibility of transcending the deep ethnocentrism and economism of the Western development paradigm because it emphasizes a radical social and cultural contingency within the logic of global information systems, which offer the genuine prospect of global reach, global interaction and the establishment of global civil space.

If we thought that the economies of scale to be gained from industrial systems during the industrial age were enormous, but not without limits, then we must understand that the logic of information systems in the digital age are genuinely of global reach and without limits. This permits and enables an enormous interconnected scale and scope of human activities, the truly global for the first time in human history as Facebook’s 1 billion users demonstrates, but there are also inherent dangers as the National Security Agency PRISM eavesdropping surveillance scandal demonstrates. Openness and creativity are the twin pillars and prospects for social development rather than one that is state- or corporation-controlled.


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