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Technology Alone Is Not Enough

Confronting human development challenges takes more than 21st century technology.

Patrick C. Fine | FHI 360

Patrick Fine

Patrick Fine

In 1879 Thomas Edison unveiled his incandescent light bulb.

Within six years, electric power had spread across the nation and ignited an explosion of invention that created new industries and thousands of jobs and transformed every aspect of American society.

A century later, in 1978, Steve Jobs introduced the Apple personal computer and unleashed another wave of innovation that reaffirmed our faith in the power and potential of technology to drive human progress.

Our expectations for the transformative power of technology have been shaped by a century and a half of spectacular progress and if anything, the rate of technical innovation is only increasing. A few recent breakthrough innovations include:

  • Using drones to map otherwise inaccessible disaster-affected areas, help response teams focus relief efforts and deliver critical supplies;
  • Applying big data to analyze, predict and address complex development challenges;

Twenty-first century innovations are bringing a host of new actors and investors into the fight to end extreme poverty.

We now see giant multinationals alongside feisty start-ups; impact investors and local nongovernmental organizations; and inspired individuals, such as Dr. Hayat Sindi, the co-founder of an organization that makes point-of-care diagnostic tools available to world’s most remote, resource-poor populations.

[Also on Longitudes: Three Things People Want From Emerging Technologies]

Pairing Technology 

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Twenty-first century innovations are bringing a host of new actors and investors into the fight to end extreme poverty.

The development landscape is more diverse and dynamic than ever.

This new crowd-sourcing of development solutions is exciting.

But, there is also a danger that the allure of technology — and our fascination with it — will seduce us into concentrating our efforts on technical fixes when, in fact, there simply is no miracle pill or ingenious device for many of the most intractable problems facing us.

Confronting human development challenges takes more than 21st century technology.

Our embrace of new technical solutions must be matched with attention to the far less celebrated, day-by-day work of diffusing innovations so that they are adopted and put into practice.

This means investing in institutional governance and systems strengthening and taking account of the role that culture, faith and history play in shaping how and whether technology is used.

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The development landscape is more diverse and dynamic than ever.

It means intentional, human-centered program designs and persistent efforts that integrate technology with disciplines such as sociology, gender and psychology to build knowledge and change attitudes and practices.

And it means financing the skilled maintenance, training and regular equipment upgrades necessary to keep pace with rapidly changing conditions.

[Also on Longitudes: Cognitive Computing in the New Era of Discovery]

FHI 360 is committed to helping put approaches that integrate innovation plus institutional infrastructure into practice around the world.

While disruptive technologies have led to breathtaking advances, they also lead to … well, disruption.

The final decades of both the 19th and 20th centuries were times of dizzying social transformation.

In both eras, commentators worried about whether human nature could cope with such rapid change.

Unless we put greater emphasis and resources on pairing technology with human-centered approaches to its use, those worries could be well founded. goldbrown2

A version of this article first appeared on the InterAction blog.

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Patrick C. Fine is CEO of FHI 360, co-chair of the Alliance for International Youth Development and a member of the Board of Directors of the Washington, DC, chapter of the Society for International Development.

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