Digital Reverse Development

The idea of Digital Reverse Development is an observation and a call to action. It describes the way digitally-enabled social innovations from Brazil, Africa and elsewhere will start to tackle problems in the West. The part that's most visible is the digital: @Ushahidi is moving mainstream, and there's mobile tools from @FrontlineSMS and Android apps from @AppsForGoodCDI. But behind the tech are, as  @giantpandinha says, the social operating systems, the cultural behaviours that drive these innovations from the ground.

Digital Reverse Development is the mutant offspring of reverse innovation and liberation learning. Reverse innovation is a business concept which “...uses developing markets as seedbeds for product innovations to challenge incumbents in world markets” and is a hot topic places like the Harvard Business Review. Liberation learning (a.k.a. critical pedagogy) is exemplified by Paulo Freire, a radical Brazilian educator from the 1960’s who said "There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."

Digital Reverse Development is what you get if you combine new technology with methodologies of participatory development, as in CDI's Apps for Good. What leaks back to the West is innovation from cultures that haven’t lost the idea of community and collective action as much as we have. Innovation from elsewhere allows us to see ourselves differently.

The developing world also has more experience of crisis. Argentina's financial meltdown in 2001 prefigures some of the social consequences hitting Europe following the failures of the banks, and Brazilian favelas are in a permanent state of social crisis. What we know from the developing world is that, in a crisis, people fall back on their informal networks. What do you do in a society which has lost it’s informal networks - can we use digital reverse development to rebuild them? Can we, for example, combine the praxis of Argentina’s neighbourhood assemblies with the UK's emerging hyperlocal sites?

This, then, becomes digitally-enabled community development.  Community development seeks to empower people by providing them with the skills to make changes in their own communities. It involves changing the relationships between ordinary people and people in positions of power. The role of the tech in this is both practical and imaginary. It enables us to organize stuff in the real world, but also to re-imagine how we organize ourselves. The critical edge of Digital Reverse Development moves it beyond the voluntarism of the Big Society to an explicit call for social justice.

Here's a 5-point starter plan to increase Digital Reverse Development  -

  1. seed digital social innovation in so-called developing countries via initiatives like Social Innovation Camp and Map Kibera
  2. set up structures to encourage reverse digital development, similar to The Ghana Think Tank ("Since 2006, The Ghana Think Tank has been "Developing the First World." Problems collected in the UK and US are sent to a growing network of think tanks in Ghana, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico, Serbia and Iran. These "Third" World think tanks propose solutions, which are enacted back in the problem-communities, whether the solutions strike us as brilliant or improbable.")
  3. build reverse digital development on top of successful South-to-North social innovations such as BRAC
  4. encourage the digital imaginary elsewhere through ideas like Afrocyberpunk, and carry out a cultural infection of the Western digerati with proto-movements like #londontropicalismo
  5. focus on women, who drive the informal social networks in developing countries and should be central to reverse digital development

Your comments  welcome.

Photo credit: CDI Europe (some rights reserved)