Network that improves networks

Putting people at the center of ICT4D projects

Steering Internet evolution requires a new model of networked learning

As you are reading this article online, you maybe shocked that about 4 billion people – more than half the world’s population – have not been connected to the Internet. For those born pre-Internet era, think about how it has changed your life, and imagine how it will affect the lives of those who will soon join us. About 1.5 more billion people will get online by 2020, a bold goal of the Global Connect Initiative led by the U.S Department of State. With all the joy and lament it has brought to the connected part of humanity, the Internet is only at its beginning. The essential question remains: how can we steer it towards “the better angel of our nature”, to quote Abraham Lincoln?

People-Centered Internet (PCI), co-founded by one of the fathers of the Internet Vint Cerf, is an evolving answer to that question. PCI is organized based on the concept of Networked Improvement Community (NIC), a term first coined by the inventor of the mouse Douglas Engelbart as “any group involved in a collective pursuit to improve a given capability…that puts special attention on how it can be dramatically more effective at solving important problems, boosting its collective IQ by employing better and better tools and practices in innovative ways.” While many professional communities share common interests and purposes, a NIC also shares “common accomplishments” such as clearly defined and measurable outcomes. For Information & Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) projects, the question a NIC seeks to answer is not only if some programs work but more importantly how to make a program work reliably across contexts. PCI works to improve communities which are all striving to improve the lives of the people through technology and particularly the Internet. In other words, PCI is a real life action lab that gets better at getting better. Some partners include IEEE, US State Department and the Internet Society.

The why and how of NIC

Combining with the Silicon Valley penchant for technology, PCI started out with a belief that communities must be at the heart of any development projects, particularly ICT4D. Otherwise the financial risk will be too high, a lesson learned the hard way from the World Bank as extensively documented in its World Development Report 2016. While connectivity is essential, it has to go with the “analog complements” such as sound regulations for businesses to leverage Internet to innovate, improved skills for individuals to take advantage of opportunities and accountable institutions for governments to respond to citizens’ needs. Together they are the Yin and Yang for development.

Khuyen Bui