Tim Unwin is UNESCO Chair in ICT4D and Emeritus Professor of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is also an honorary professor at Lanzhou University in China. He was Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization (CTO) from 2011 to 2015, and was Chairman of the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission from 2009 to 2014, havng been a Commissioner between 2004 and 2009. Currently, he serves as Chair of the Advisory Board of the United Nations University Institute in Macau and a Co-Investigator on the UKRI GCRF funded South-South Migration Inequality and Development Hub. He has previously served on many boards relating to the interface between digital tech and international development, including the ITU’s m-Powering Development initiative, the Digital Advisory Panel of the UK Department for International Development, and the Steering Committee of the Internet for All initiative of the World Economic Forum. He is Co-Founder of TEQtogether, and Founder and Catalyst of the Digital-Environment System Coalition (DESC).
He has written or edited 16 books and more than 250 academic articles and chapters, many of which focus on the use of technology in development practice. His edited book, Information and Communication Technologies for Development, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009, and his latest book titled Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development was published by Oxford University Press in 2017. He was made a Companion of the Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and St George, being in the Queen’s 90th Birthday Honors list in 2016 for services to the Commonwealth.
INTERVIEW with Mr. Tim Unwin
ICTs at the service of development
ICTs integrate a set of systems and technologies that help us manage information. They currently account for more than half of the productivity growth of modern economies and provide viable solutions to address key economic and social challenges. With the introduction of ICT we are subject to a phenomenon that does not seem to have limits in terms of constant technological advances, transversally affecting all scientific disciplines, communications and the media.
ICTs are an important instrument for the development of our society due to the advantages that these technologies represent. However, as the book “Towards Knowledge Societies” (2005) by UNESCO says, “The notion of the information society is based on technological progress. Instead, the concept of knowledge societies includes social, ethical and political dimensions. much vaster.” In this process of incorporating ICTs, not all the inhabitants of the planet have the same possibilities of access to these systems. Approximately 40% of the population has been left out of this access to the internet network.
Tim Unwin works on the side of the most disadvantaged through ICT for development through the UNESCO Chair. The ICT4D Chair is a group of researchers and professionals committed to excellence in the use of ICT for development. It was created in 2007 through an agreement between UNESCO and Royal Holloway, University of London, and builds on the earlier work of the ICT4D Collective created in 2004. You are the Founder – Chairholder of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for development).
1. Could you tell us the strategy and main actions of this Chair under your charge?
– The Chair emerged out of the ICT4D Collective that we created back in 2004 as a group of people committed to undertaking the highest quality of research in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised. By 2007 this wider collective shifted to being a group on Facebook (it now has more than 5,500 members), and in the same year the core team at Royal Holloway University of London were delighted to gain the status of a UNESCO Chair, resulting in part from our close working relationships with colleagues in UNESCO’s Communication and Information (CI) Sector. Our core interests still remain on working with and for some of the world’s most marginalised people, including those with disabilities, refugees and migrants, out of school youth, and women and girls (especially within patriarchal societies). We remain very “bottom-up”, serving as a focus for colleagues at our university from very different backgrounds including Information Systems, Management, Computer Science, Cryptography and Geography, but we also have diverse affiliated members from all over the world. Currently much of research and practice focuses on three areas: developing a holistic framework for understanding the interface between digital tech and the physica environment; facilitating collaborative digital interventions designed to reduce the inequalities associated with migration; and changing men’s (and boys’) attitudes and behaviours to women in, and through, digital tech.
You have written a large number of publications, many of which focus on the use of technology in development practices, people and their inclusion in society. You point out that “UN agencies, donors and civil society organizations have invested a considerable amount of time, money and effort to find novel ways through which migrants, and especially refugees, can benefit from the use of digital technologies.
Among your most recent publications, you have explored ways through which migrants are using digital tech, and how they might be able to use such technologies to improve their livelihoods and experiences.
2. Could you tell us: What are the main conclusions of this study?
– We are part of the UKRI GCRF funded MIDEQ project that undertake research with partners in 12 countries across the world, and our work package focuses essentially on finding ways to facilitate migrants and local tech developers to craft interventions that will improve migrants’ lives. First, though we need to understand better how migrants actually use digital tech, and find out more about how they think that such technologies could indeed benefit them. Our recent findings from Brazil, Ghana, Haiti, Malaysia, Nepal, and South Africa are fascinating, and suggest four main conclusions: first, migrants are very diverse and there is no one-size fits all digital solution that will automatically transform their lives; second, very few migrants ever use apps that have been specifically designed for them, and so our interventions are most likely to be based on those apps and technologies that they already use; third, many migrants and their families have rather limited knowledge about how to make the most of the digital tech that they already have, and to do so wisely and safely, so part of our ongoing focus is to work with them to help them develop good training resources in video format for other migrants; and fourth, many migrants make greater use of digital tech as they go through the migration process, from thinking about migration to actually living and working in a host country, and so we intend to help them receive appropriate advice and training at the very beginning of this process.
Similarly, Tim has made numerous speeches at the invitation of different international organizations throughout his life. One of these speeches that has caught my attention has been the one made at the opening of the IFIP 9.4 Conference on “Freedom and Social Inclusion in a Connected World”. Its objective, it says, was “to explore how thinking about the unfree can help us understand better intersection between freedom and digital technology”.
3. Can you tell us what are some of the keys of your opening speech of this conference?
– In essence, this keynote was a sort of thought experiment, exploring what we might learn from the idea that the use of digital tech is a contemporary form of enslavement and that we need to escape from the shackles of the digital barons. Just a few people have made enormous wealth out of digital tech over the last 20 years, while the majority of the world’s population remain poor and exploited by them through such technologies.. Oxfam reported earlier this year that the ten richest people in the world have six times more wealth than the poorest 3.1 billion. Eight of these people – and they are all men – have made their fortunes from digital tech, and drawing on my background in medieval research I suggested that these are the digital barons. They seek to enslave us through digital addiction, by exploiting data about us, by forcing us to use their tech because of the influence they have on government and employers’ systems, by forcing workers to work longer hours through digital tech, by forcing us into use of their systems through education systems, and in very real ways through the tech that they have created being used for harmful activities such as modern slavery. The talk was, though, very positive, because once we recognise such enslavement we can resist. We can “switch off”, and gain our freedom by simply not engaging with digital tech. This is one of the reasons why I sorted using the hashtag #1in7offline some time ago. Try taking one day away from digital tech every week!
During his professional career he has also delved into language, gender and digital technologies.
4. Can you tell us what are the main trends you see?
– Again, this was another sort of thought experiment focusing on the languages we use to describe digital tech. I suggest that in the broad field of digital technologies, most practitioners have been blind to the gendering of language and thus perpetuate a male-dominated conceptualization of ICT4D. For example, in many languages that have gendered nouns (male and female), digital tech is usually considered to be male; electronic parts are also often referred to as having male and female parts; and many people still refer to the spread of digital tech to different parts of the world as “internet penetration”. I also have real concerns about the languages used to express “digital progress” such as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and “Frontier Technologies”. These are deeply problematic, and I use the example of a painting by John Gast from 1872 called American Progress to illustrate this. It might have been progress for the largely white and male “Americans” moving west across the plains of that continent, but it certainly was not progress for the native American peoples who were fleeing this advance, and whose lifestyle was being destroyed. There are close parallels between this and the spread of digital tech across the world today.
In his recent keynote address in April 2022 for the West and Central Africa Research and Education Network WACREN on “Open Science in Africa and for Africans: Addressing the challenges”. You analyze the main implications that Open Science has in the empowerment of the poor and marginalized in a society dominated by individualism and privileged positions by some organizations of different types. The WACREN network aims to provide world-class infrastructure and services for the West and Central African Research and Education community for development.
5. Can you tell us what are the main implications of Open Science in the empowerment of the poor and marginalized?
– I am a great believer in the potential value of Open Science, alongside the value of Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) and Open Educational Resources. These have not, though, spread as widely and deeply as many of us had expected twenty years ago. This keynote was therefore to highlight six of the questions that need to be answered for it to be used more appropriately in Africa: whose interests does Open Science really serve?; is it too late for communal science, at a time when individualism seems to be rising?; which models of publication best serve Africa and its peoples?; how valuable are Open Data, and for whom?; what are the very significant dangers of Scientism (the belief of scientists in the power of science)?; and who pays for Open Science? Only if these questions and challenges are satisfactorily answered and overcome will Open Science be able truly to serve the interests of the poor and marxginalised.
INTERNET GOVERNANCE: Net Neutrality
A fundamental aspect of the Internet network is its supposed neutrality: The treatment of data and Internet traffic must not be subject to any type of discrimination based on factors such as devices, content, author, origin and/or destination of the material, service or application.
When I asked you about conducting this interview, the first thing you told me is that the subject of “Internet Governance” can be defined in different ways. Even when there is no consensus about this concept within the institutional political framework.
6. Can you tell us about some of these ways that Internet Governance can take on?
– This is a huge question, but let me just make three observations (for a wider perspective, see the good summary by the Internet Governance Project at Georgia Tech). First, the term Internet governance is often used to refer to what I see instead as being merely the use of the internet by governments to provide digital services. This is deeply problematic. The practice of government is fundamentally different from the practice of good governance. Governance, for me, is a term used to describe the creation of laws, norms, and power relationships between citizens and the states in which they live; it is, in effect, the decision making apparatus that enables dialogue and agreement between social norms and institutions, especially the institutions of government and the citizenry. With respect to the Internet, this is something very different from the ways in which governments roll out services through digital tech and the Internet. Second, I remain very frustrated by the duplication, replication, and overlap between global institutions relating to the Internet such as the work of the ITU, the IGF, ICANN, ISOC and now also the plethora of new initiatives being set up by the UN SG’s HQ staff. Much of what is included in the Internet Governance Forum’s (IGF’s) events, for example, has to my mind very little actually to do with governance. Third, discussions over Internet governance are often focused around the tensions between different global positions relating to whether the Internet should be “free” (as in the US model) or “closed” (as in what is often seen as the Chinese model). These largely reflecs wider global power geopolitical struggles, particularly relating to issues of cybersecurity. For me, governance is more about the relationships between citizens and states, and this is a much more dangerous topic. Internet Governance is as much about how people can overthrow governments through the use of the Internet, as it is about the systems through which governments (and global corporations) use to try to control people!
UNESCO has stated that “Internet governance is a set of principles, norms, rules, decision-making processes and activities that, implemented and applied in a coordinated manner by governments, the private sector, civil society and the technical community, define the evolution and the use of the Internet. For UNESCO, Internet governance is a priority issue.
7. What role is UNESCO currently playing in this matter?
– I must stress that as a Chairholder of a UNESCO Chair, I am in no sense a spokesperson for UNESCO, nor do necessarily have a deep knowledge of all of UNESCO’s current policies and practices. I would, though, point to four particularly interesting areas in which UNESCO is involved related to internet Governance (see UNESCO’s website for more details). First, UNESCO has long been a champion of Openness in its widest sense, including Open Educational Resources and Open Source software. Hence, it advocates an open and inclusive approach to Internet Governance. Second, it has strong interests in the ethics of digital technologies, and especially of Artificial Intelligence (AI). It should, though, be noted here that there seems to be considerable overlap with the ITU’s interests in the ethics of AI, and especially as represented in its series of conferences on AI for Good (or should this really be “for Bad”?). Third UNESCO strongly advocates diversity of all sorts, and especially linguistic and cultural diversity, when it comes to matters of Internet Governance. Finally, it has played a role at and in the series of Annual Forum’s following the World Summit on the information Society (WSIS) in 2003 and 2005, which played an important part in the creation of the IGF.