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Advocating Design within ICT4D

We regard the field of ICT4D as being inherently multi-disciplinary and we approach it from an action research based point of view; one that leads to design-implement-reflect cycle. It is a research method that is based on a pragmatist epistemology and needs to be seen in the context of experimental computer science (ECS).

ECS traces its heritage from engineering where progress is achieved via the design of a novel computing artefact (this is a contested statement — see (Tedre 2011) for a survey of the debate). The theoretical branch of Computer Science is mathematics and does not require experimentation for verification. ECS experiments are typically small investigations to verify effectiveness of the artefact in its application area.

Design-based disciplines have generally not been welcomed in academia (Buchanan 2001) . Buchanan points out that "Fragments of the human power or ability to create have, indeed, moved into universities in the past century or more ...  most recently in the form of computer science". Our conception of design has moved from considering the form and function of an artefact to thinking more of "the experience of the human beings that make and use them in situated social and cultural environments".

This is in direct contrast to those ICT disciplines derived from the behavioural sciences which place the hegemony of theoretical foundations above all else. In the Information Systems, like Computer Science, the role of design is also contested, on one side there is the mainly German speaking and Scandinavian "Wirtschaftsinformatik" approach that favours design science (Österle et al. 2011) and on the other the mainly "Anglo-Saxon" approach (Baskerville et al. 2011) that argues for the primacy of theory. Österle et al. characterize the second approach as follows (Österle et al. 2011, 7):

Rooted in the business school culture, it is based on a behaviorist approach. Rather than aiming at the design of innovative IS, it focuses more on observing IS characteristics and user behavior.

This is clearly seen a polemic by Richard Heeks a leading scholar in ICT4D, who in "Theorizing ICT4D Research", quotes Marx's epitaph "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it" only to reject this position comprehensively (Heeks 2006) . He goes on:

"There has been a bias to action, not a bias to knowledge. We are changing the world without interpreting or understanding it. Most of the ICT4D research being produced is therefore descriptive not analytical. It might make some interesting points but it lacks sufficient rigor to make its findings credible … It has a close-to-zero shelf life. The pictorial analogy of such work is that of stones being thrown into a pond, each one making a ripple but then sinking without trace.
… a contribution is generally possible only where the research draws on some preexisting conceptual framework."

We quote it at length to show how polemical such standpoints become. In listing disciplines that might contribute to the underlying theories of ICT4D research it is notable that there no mention of design*. In his polemic Heeks does not argue for a particular theoretical position to be derived from the underlying foundations, rather he seems to advocate a patterning approach: in this situation the following theory is a good one to apply. Theory essentially plays the role of a metaphysical certainty and ultimately this is the Platonic position: if we look at individual objects in experience we can only aspire to "opinions", while knowledge is about "eternal, unchanging things" (Plato 380AD, 479e–480).

In a slightly later opinion piece Heeks' position seems to have moderated (Heeks 2009) . Design is foregrounded and the emphasis for ICT4D is firmly on benefitting deprived communities. The underlying contributory disciplines now include Computer Science (along with Development Studies, while still giving primacy to Information Systems). It is argued however that the Information Systems perspective can lose engagement with the computational artefact, becoming a social science that it fails to engage with the technology. Our own experience has been that the issue is not so much failure to engage with technology but rather to regard it as a given: unchanging and fixed rather than malleable and the outcome of creative design and innovation (Blake and Tucker 2006).


Baskerville, Richard, Kalle Lyytinen, Vallabh Sambamurthy, and Detmar Straub. 2011. "A Response to the Design-Oriented Information Systems Research Memorandum." European Journal of Information Systems 20 (1): 11–15.

Blake, Edwin, and William Tucker. 2006. "Socially Aware Software Engineering for the Developing World." In IST-Africa 2006 Conference Proceedings, edited by Paul Cunningham and Miriam Cunningham. Pretoria, South Africa: IIMC International Information Management Corporation.

Buchanan, Richard. 2001. "Design Research and the New Learning." Design Issues 17 (4): 3–23.

Heeks, Richard. 2006. "Theorizing ICT4D Research." Information Technologies and International Development 3 (3): 1–4.

———. 2009. "The ICT4D 2.0 Manifesto: Where next for ICTs and International Development?" 42. Working Paper Series. Manchester: University of Manchester. Institute for development policy and management (IDPM). Development informatics group.

Österle, Hubert, Jörg Becker, Ulrich Frank, Thomas Hess, Dimitris Karagiannis, Helmut Krcmar, Peter Loos, Peter Mertens, Andreas Oberweis, and Elmar J. Sinz. 2011. "Memorandum on Design-Oriented Information Systems Research." European Journal of Information Systems 20 (1): 7–10.

Plato. 380AD. The Republic. Athens.

Tedre, Matti. 2011. "Computing as a Science: A Survey of Competing Viewpoints." Minds and Machines 21 (3): 361–87. doi:10.1007/s11023-011-9240-4.


* To be clear: we agree that the field of ICT4D is littered with failures, and we are not advocating an anything-goes approach.

KarlMarx Tomb