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What good-practice principles can be drawn from the literature on digital-transformation-for-development (DX4D)?

“Digital transformation” has become something of a buzz term within international development, with recent release of DX4D policies, strategies, reports, briefings, programmes and projects. Alongside this comes a growing body of more academic literature.

From a review of that literature – learning from both shortcomings and insights – a multi-disciplinary, multi-national team from The University of Manchester’s Centre for Digital Development, drew out a list of 13 DX4D principles. We do not claim these to be the last word on the subject. Instead, they can be used as a starting point for DX4D evaluation.

Intended particularly for use in DX4D research and consulting – targeting especially how we understand DX4D – the principles could also be modified for analysis of DX4D policies and strategies; a task on which we are currently working.

PRINCIPLE 1: DX4D should incorporate a (single) definition of digital transformation.
It is surprising how many documents talk about digital transformation without ever defining what it means. (Our simple definition of DX4D: “radical change in development processes and structures enabled by digital systems”)

PRINCIPLE 2: the extent of change envisaged and incorporated in DX4D must be transformative; involving significant systemic disruption.
Too often it’s seen as the bottom half of this diagram when it should be the top half

PRINCIPLE 3: although it necessarily involves technological changes to digital data and systems, digital transformation for development involves and requires broader, parallel transformative changes in structural relations, development processes, formal/informal institutions, and resource distributions.
To be truly transformative, there need to be significant changes in socio-economic structures: power relationships, value chains, organisational hierarchies, law and policies, norms and values.

PRINCIPLE 4: digital transformation impacts both organisations and societies, and macro-scale, societal transformation must be incorporated into the understanding of DX4D.
DX4D isn’t just about digitalisation within organisations but about broader, higher-level change across societies and their economies.

PRINCIPLE 5: digital-transformation-for-development derives from the micro-level, proactive actions of individuals but both creates and responds to macro-level societal changes deriving from digitalisation: digital-transformation-of-development.
This is very similar to the differentiation in development studies between two things: a) imminent development, seeing DX4D as the intentional actions of individuals and organisations; and b) immanent development, seeing DXoD as broader changes that emerge over time

PRINCIPLE 6: transformation of digital ecosystems is not the goal of digital-transformation-for-development; development – understood as the transformation of societies – is. Digital-transformation-for-development should be explicit about the developmental transformation that it is seeking to bring about, or wishes to emerge.
For example, this could be through express reference to the development paradigm that encompasses the desired societal transformation. See our prior blogpost summarising the different transformation goals of different paradigms.

PRINCIPLE 7: digital-transformation-for-development overall is not associated with any specific digital technology, but it could be associated with new “Development 4.0” models.
As yet, though, there has been no categorisation of “Development 4.0” models: ways in which the potentially-transformative affordances of digital technologies can be used to reinvent traditional approaches to delivery of the SDGs.

PRINCIPLE 8: even allowing for islands of significant digitalisation – which may or may not be transformative – digital-transformation-for-development is a future more than present phenomenon.
Overall, digital development to date has been incremental in its impact, so digital transformation in the global South is as yet just at a formative stage.

PRINCIPLE 9: the impact of digital-transformation-for-development emerges not deterministically from technology alone but from a mix of social and technological factors.
Technology (the trajectory of which is itself heavily shaped by social context) may alter the landscape of development, but it is social factors that tend to shape the specific impact path taken through that landscape.

PRINCIPLE 10: there must be recognition of both positive and negative impacts associated with DX4D because, without this, there can be no understanding of, or attempt to mitigate DX4D’s downsides.
DX4D may be especially associated with two mechanisms that increase inequality: the digital divide (rising gaps between those included in and excluded from DX4D systems) and adverse digital incorporation (rising gaps between different included groups such as owners vs users of DX4D systems).

PRINCIPLE 11: alongside traditional ICT4D barriers, DX4D faces barriers of a specific size and nature due to the scope of transformation that it entails.
The specific barriers would include things like absence of transformative leadership, and presence of barriers to structural change.

PRINCIPLE 12: implications or recommendations for DX4D practice should be provided wherever feasible, taking into account the specificities of digital-transformation-for-development.
Recommendations to date have tended to cover traditional digitalisation strategy or ICT policy, not recognising the ways in which DX4D is different.

PRINCIPLE 13: DX4D recommendations will need to cover not just the content of organisational (private, public, NGO and international agency) strategy and government policy but also their underlying processes and structures.
This is a fairly standard prescription: that recommendations should cover not just the what but also the who and how of strategy-/policy-making and implementation.

As noted, these are seen as a starting point, and we welcome suggestions for amendments and additions to guide DX4D research and consulting. For further details, please see the full paper, “The Principles of Digital Transformation for Development (DX4D): Systematic Literature Review and Future Research Agenda”.



Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.