Digital Transformation needs a narrative

Three takeaways to help define it

Dr. Emrys Schoemaker
Mar 12 · 5 min read

“It will be the air we breathe. It already is, really. The question now is how to shape it.”

Diagnostic is a series of essays and hosted conversations exploring the challenges of building more inclusive digital economies. For hosted (virtual) conversations, like the one described below, Caribou Digital convenes a diverse set of experts and thought leaders with unique insights on an issue, and gives them the opportunity to explore a topic together.

Photo by Praveen kumar Mathivanan on Unsplash

The relationship between digital technologies and development is a broad topic, but one that’s critical to unpack. To that end, Caribou Digital invited a group of senior level international development decision makers to have a high level discussion on the topic using Caribou Digital’s five key points on digital transformation as a starting point. As a group, we explored three ways to think about digital transformation: concepts, approaches and challenges. The conversation was rich and productive, with participants sharing insights and experiences. This is a summary of what I saw as the key insights and takeaways, and of course the conversation isn’t finished.

Caribou Digital dedicates this to Professor Benno Ndulu, an inspirational leader of Africa’s digital transformation, who passed away the day before this meeting, because as he would say, ‘the work must go on.’

Three takeaways to define digital transformation for development

The international development community has to think big.

Approaches to digital transformation for development outcomes have to recognise that digital transformation is already happening everywhere, to everyone. As the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation report emphasises, digital transformation is enabling the age of interdependence. This means that it’s important to look beyond the usual approach of siloed sectors. As many of the participants who joined our conversation flagged, it’s less about what’s happening in agriculture or health, instead it’s important to look at it from a holistic perspective — there needs to be a joined up, cross-sectoral approach that recognises the interdependent nature of changes in government, economy and society. Approaching it from the perspective of open, inclusive and secure digital ecosystems (at Caribou Digital we like USAID’s outline of digital ecosystems here) is important to elevate transformation from a narrow focus on the economy or government to a holistic, comprehensive vision for our digital future.

There has to be a move from doing to influencing.

Thinking about digital transformation in terms of delivery or projects is not helpful — no one organisation is in a position to ‘do digital transformation’. Instead, influencing the existing forces and already happening processes of digital transformation in countries is a better way to ensure that the transformation can be oriented towards development outcomes. Otherwise, as one participant put it, ‘If we don’t shape what’s already happening, it will spiral out of control.’ This has hugely significant implications — demanding that the sector recognises their role in shaping the overall digital landscape — beyond only the economy or the state but to also including social media and civic participation, data protection, privacy and surveillance.

The group also discussed the importance of ensuring access and connectivity — two key areas of intervention — noting that ‘If we don’t have inclusion, transformation is irrelevant.’ Another space that’s primed for influencing is digital infrastructure, with a number of participants pointing to ‘digital public goods’ efforts such as the GIZ supported UN Digital Impact Alliance’s ‘Building blocks’ initiative and the NORAD supported Digital Public Goods Alliance. Both of these efforts are good examples of components of digital transformation, but without an emphasis on outcomes advancing connectivity and public infrastructure may not lead to benefit for individuals and society.

The international development community has to influence digital transformation for ‘Good’.

There was tension and unease about the future trajectory of digital transformation. There is no guarantee about how this transformation is happening and even increased connectivity and state of the art digital infrastructure can lead to negative outcomes, as we can see in the growing use of digital connectivity to discriminate, exclude and persecute. Take privacy for example. There is debate about whether attention to privacy should be a first or second order concern given the desire to leverage digital transformation for economic growth. And while there is increased attention to regulatory approaches others emphasised the importance of broader governance and politics. These have broad implications for the glue that holds digital transformation together — trust in systems, institutions and governance. Given its centrality to use of digital systems, and the diverse cultural and societal factors that shape perception and trust online, how can efforts to shape digital transformation maintain trust and confidence that these processes will deliver developmental outcomes? These were some of the questions we asked ourselves which highlight the need to influence already happening processes of digital transformation for the good of government, the economy and society.

As one participant noted, digital transformation is not a neutral term. We need to ask ‘of what? For what? By whom and with what impact? We need to understand the political economy of digital transformation — especially now with the rapid pace of change. This is particularly important as it becomes clear that digital transformation has different trajectories, values and politics. If our group of participants included government representatives from China, Japan and Korea, it would have been a very different conversation, bringing different views and important voices to the table. Others emphasised the geopolitical interests behind donor interventions — ‘we see China, Europe, America, with different geopolitical interests. We think digital transformation needs to have a human centric focus with African partners.’ It is critical to define what is meant by ‘good’, by asking ‘What do we value? Efficiency and economic growth or a stable and equal society? Where is our balancing point?’

Key Takeaway: the international community needs to agree on a direction and set of outcomes

Digital transformation is happening, regardless of any views on it. Given this reality, the challenge for those who want to see technologies help people thrive is to define goals and influence these processes. But without a shared narrative, creating a common agenda amongst diverse stakeholders becomes challenging. This was brought up by participants in the discussion, as one said ‘I don’t think we have a convincing narrative yet on what Good Digital Transformation looks like.’ For digital transformation to strengthen human development, it will require intentional, purposeful interventions guided by an overarching narrative for our digital future. Without that guiding narrative, and without structured, strategic interventions, the process of digital transformation will amplify existing relations of power and patterns of inequity.

Participants

The following participants joined the conversation — and some who chose not to share their participation. The conversation was held under Chatham House rules, and the summary above reflects our key takeaways, not the consensus of the group. As ever, we’re deeply grateful for everyone's participation, willingness to share and contribute to this vital conversation.

  • Elizabeth Stuart — Digital Pathways, Blavatnik School of Government
  • Golala Ruhani — SIDA
  • Bjorn Richter — GIZ
  • Ben Wreschner — Vodafone
  • Jonathan Wong — UNESCAP
  • Krista Baptista — DAI
  • Chris Burns — USAID
  • Emily Middleton — Public Digital
  • CV Madhukar — Omidyar Network
  • Alessandra Lustrati — FCDO
  • Ben Ramalingam — UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub
  • Greta Bull — CGAP
  • Kari Jacobsen - NORAD
  • Chris Locke — Caribou Digital
  • Emrys Schoemaker — Caribou Digital

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