Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Planning infrastructure to meet specific goals and needs, and not in terms of specific technology solutions 7

Posted in UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on December 19, 2014

This is my seventh installment to a series on infrastructure development in an international context, and on building the right infrastructure systems for the contexts they would be developed for (see United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID), postings 25 and following for Parts 1-6.)

I began a discussion of some of the contextual societal issues that have to be addressed in planning a large-scale and even nationally impacting infrastructure development project in Part 6 to this series, and began a discussion of prototyping in that context, as an approach for more effectively designing and carrying through on an infrastructure initiative. My goal for this installment is to continue both of those threads of discussion here, and to at least begin to add in staged development approaches as well.

And to take this out of the abstract, I plan on doing this in the context of a very real world example that I have already been discussing in some detail in an earlier series: the infrastructure development challenge of bringing computer and internet access to the widely scattered school system of Tanzania (see my series: Developing Critical Infrastructure from a Human and a Societal Perspective at the UN-GAID directory, postings 16 and following for its Parts 1-6.)

As I noted in Part 6 of this series, Tanzania is a socio-politically stable nation, and it in fact can be seen as a real African success story in that regard. As noted in my earlier Developing Critical Infrastructure series, this means the varied peoples and cultures of some 120 distinct tribes coming together as citizens of a single unified nation. I strongly suggest at least briefly reviewing the above cited series for its details and both on Tanzania and its educational system, and on their still as of this writing early stage initiative for bringing their country more fully into the 21st century, by bringing computers and internet access into their school system.

The government of Tanzania, and a real and significant majority of their overall population very clearly embrace that goal, and consistent with that, cell phone ownership and use are seen as a status symbol and a sign of wealth and position. And the cell phone is increasingly coming to be seen as a necessity as well, and in both urban and rural areas. And as already noted and discussed in my earlier series, cell phone availability and use have come to penetrate even remote villages and tribal communities too.

And this brings me to a first potential source of friction here:

• Tanzania is a unified nation with two national languages: English as a holdover from this region’s colonial past and Kiswahili, a traditionally used trade language for communicating across tribal and local language boundaries. And harmony between tribes has traditionally been maintained at least in part through a shared sense of reliance on other-tribal neighbors with each tribe specializing in what it produces and offers. So for example one tribe might raise cattle and offer dairy products, and another only grow produce and a select range of them at that. Still a third might make kiln fired bricks, or it might work in wood. And they all bring their specialties to the overall marketplace and provide each other with the items that they all need through sale and barter agreements. So there is a basis for unity there too.
• But at the same time every distinct tribe in this overall system has its own culture, its own beliefs and traditions and its own local language, even if many have embraced more globally widespread religions, and forms of Christianity and Islam in particular. But each and every one of them sees limits as to how their own beliefs and traditions: their own cultural and tribal identities can be challenged without a need for pushback and resistance. And open internet availability, opening eyes and minds to the diversity of the world at large would at the very least hold potential do precisely that – offer that level of challenge. That is why the open internet per se is so dramatically and even compellingly disruptive a technology and such a source of disruptive change.
• And in all of this, some of Tanzania’s tribes are more open to change and to acceptance of diversity and some are more traditionalist and resistant to outside difference as it might bring change to their own villages and people. The Maasai as one of Tanzania’s numerically larger and politically more powerful tribes as a whole, demonstrates how that range of diversity can arise and play out just within a single tribal heritage with a full spectrum of acceptance of and resistance to change active and visible, from the highly traditional villages and communities that resist all outside influence, to the most open and accepting of them that actively seek to send their young men and women to Tanzania’s colleges and universities.

While there are religiously backed and led schools in Tanzania, by far the majority of their overall school system is government run, and built around a commonly held grade by grade school curriculum and with standardized textbooks – and with all classes offered first in Kiswahili and then in English as students advance in their studies (see the above-cited series Developing Critical Infrastructure from a Human and a Societal Perspective for a detailed discussion of this school system and how it is organized and run.)

And this brings me to the issues of prototyping and staged development, tying together the threads of discussion that I have been offering in this posting up to here. Tanzanians as a whole and with few exceptions want their country to compete in global markets and they want their country to have a significant voice, and in East Africa, in Africa as a whole and globally. They, by and large and certainly in the larger tribes and urban areas, see connection into the global internet as a key requirement for any of that to happen, and to cite a commercial case in point as one reason of shared concern there, they want widespread effective internet access and connectedness so they can bring finished products made in Tanzania to market and not simply be a provider of raw materials, with the wealth generated from their efforts and their resources going to other, manufactured goods producing nations and peoples.

Bringing Tanzania into this online connected 21st century world has to include bringing their children and their young adults, and their schools online so there is widespread perceived need for this type of infrastructure development. Where do you start building, and particularly when funding limitations would make this a long-term development initiative?

I briefly defined and discussed prototyping in this context in this series’ Part 6 and rephrasing that for this posting’s context note that:

• Prototyping is a process of test-case development with localized and even single site building, testing and evaluation of results and of challenges faced. And a primary goal here is to develop knowledge from this that could be used in a larger scale infrastructure development and roll-out effort.
• And this can be particularly important when a development project would be novel and without precedent, and either in general, or in its specific intended context.

The specific infrastructure development initiative under discussion here faces a great many unknowns and a great many sources of disruptive novelty and both for the political and other governmental leadership who would lead and manage the funding of this, and for the people who would hands-on carry out this development work, and for the diversity of peoples who would make use of what was built. So prototyping or something like it would be very valuable if this project were to end up with large-scale effective results, arrived at as economically as possible and with as little course correction repair and rebuilding as possible and for all of these constituents involved. But funding is always going to be limited and certainly for anything as wide ranging as this type of development project. Who would be chosen for the first-round step of this and for prototype build-out? Which tribes and which villages of them would get the benefits of all of this first? And what resistance and resentment would their neighbors, slated for receiving this later and even much later feel and what would come of that?

Prototyping holds great potential value but its sources of value hold potential for generating have and have-not conflicts too, as well as for improving the overall development process and long-term results achieved.

Staged development can mean a number of things, depending on how an effort is divided into stages:

• In a situation such as faced here in Tanzania, it could mean developing and building regionally, starting for example with geographic areas where topography and geology would make line of sight wireless tower-to-tower construction and connectively easier to achieve. Most any such region of any significant scale would include villages drawn from a diversity of the country’s tribes.
• Alternatively and as just one other possibility among many, staging here could mean beginning with tribal groups and with village communities within them that would more eagerly accept and want internet access and connection to the larger world around them. If you posit this in terms of innovation diffusion models, this would mean identifying and starting with the self-identifying pioneer and early adaptors and then moving on to the middle and late adaptors as they saw good coming from this for their neighbors and wanted in on it too. And eventually the lagging, most change-resistant would be brought in too.

I have only offered a selective and spotty discussion of the issues that come into play here. If, for example, you look at the issues of content that would be offered through this new school computer and online system, that would definitely include content materials (e.g. online school library resources) that would connect into and support their national educational curriculum and their testing system for determining which students get to advance to next academic school grades and which move on to trade school education (see my earlier series as noted above.)

• Some constituents as noted above would want online information access at the schools limited to that, and with material prepared for both students and for teachers and administrators but little if anything else.
• Some would want wider Tanzanian or still wider African content and some would want to see their schools offered access to wider global information resources in general – but even there, that would not in most cases mean access to what were seen as extremist or otherwise harmful online sites, however they might be defined and determined.

Staging might be developed at least in part in terms of what content and what content sources would be allowed in, and even after a basic system were more geographically widely put in place. So staging per se might not just mean building in different locations or regions at different times. How do you anticipate and preemptively address the possibility of creating have and have-not concerns, and perception of discrimination against those who are included in this later and of preference going to those who get early and first? This has to be planned for from the beginning and this is where public education and public involvement in the decision making process have to be included – with those education and involvement elements flowing both ways with members of the public listened to as well as being informed.

And this is easy; Tanzania is easy in comparison to the challenges that should be expected for some countries that will need essentially this same type of infrastructure development initiative if they are to enter that same 21st century global community as equal participants. I said in Part 6 that I would consider a more troubled alternative case study example too, and will look into that in my next series installment. And after that I will expand this out to consider multi-national infrastructure development projects, noting that I have already at least briefly discussed one real world example of that in this series’ Part 2 case study.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at the UN-GAID directory.

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