Global Development Institute Blog

The Development Implications of Digital Economies (DIODE) Strategic Network is a newly funded project which will be led by Professor Richard Heeks. The network received £129,000 as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). The below blog, which originally appeared on the DIODE website, provides an outline of the project and what it aims to achieve.

As digital technologies – the internet, web, mobile phones, social networks, 3D printers, etc – spread around the world, both work and business are changing via creation of digital economies.

There has already been impact in developing countries: thousands of digital startups, millions working in the ICT sector, millions more undertaking online work for platforms like Upwork. And the potential is even greater: hundreds of millions could access online work platforms, digital businesses like Uber and Airbnb are spreading rapidly, demand for digital enterprises is high, 3D-printing could level the manufacturing playing field, etc. But problems are also arising: most digital startups and digital careers fail; most citizens are unable to participate in digital economies; the benefits of digital work and trade seem to flow more to big corporations in the global North than to workers, enterprises or governments in the global South.

The speed of change means much of this is happening in a knowledge vacuum. Researchers are playing catch-up to try to understand these new trends in the global North, but very little research on digital economies looks at developing countries or is done by researchers in those countries. As a result, there are four knowledge gaps about digital economies in the global South. We don’t know:

  • What’s going on and where;
  • The development impact e.g. whether digital economies are increasing or reducing inequalities;
  • What governments, NGOs and businesses should be doing to create an effective “digital ecosystem” that works for the benefit of all.

And as researchers we are not sure what concepts and methods to apply.

The “Development Implications of Digital Economies” (DIODE) Strategic Network aims to help fill these knowledge gaps. It has three main objectives:

  • To assess the current state-of-play and identify a future research agenda around the four knowledge gaps above.
  • To create a research network with the capacities to implement this research agenda on digital economies and development.
  • To develop specific research proposals that address identified research priorities.

The network consists of senior and junior researchers from the UK, developing countries and other locations around the world who – along with those working in digital economy policy and practice – will work together to fulfil these objectives. Following initial synthesis studies to understand the current state-of-play, we will meet in four workshops – two in developing countries, two in the UK – each of which will address particular knowledge gaps through presentations and working group sessions.

Alongside the network itself, by the end we will have produced a final report that provides a future research agenda; a strategy brief to guide those involved in digital economy policy/practice; and a set of research proposals that can put the agenda into practice.

Initially, the main beneficiaries will be network members: we will have a far better understanding of what to research next and how to research it, with stronger capacity to undertake this work, and dense contacts to ensure our research is relevant to policy and practice. We will have created research capacity within and between developing countries, so that work on this important and growing phenomenon can be driven from and undertaken in those countries.

GCRF and other researchers – especially in developing countries – will benefit from having a clear sense of research priorities and tools, but also from understanding how important digital economies are becoming in the global South. Digital economy policy-makers, entrepreneurs, worker organisations and other practitioners will understand what good-practice actions to take.

Through that policy/practice connection, and through the outputs from later implementing our research agenda, we will make a difference to development: helping ensure digital economies work to deliver development goals.

By Richard Heeks, Professor of Development Informatics