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Blog: Five tips for academics disrupted by digitisation

Photo: Global Imagination/Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Mar 2017

When robots meet researchers: 5 tips for academics disrupted by digitisation

‘The stakes could hardly be higher,’ insisted Maggie Boden from University of Sussex.

‘We need a wake-up call,’ urged Oxfam’s Duncan Green.

‘This is one of the biggest and most prominent development challenges of our time,’ claimed IDS Director Melissa Leach

These were the rally cries from the Digital Development Summit 2017: The Future of Work, where a critical conversation about how to ensure decent work for all in a rapidly digitising world was being held. 120 experts in digital technology, international development and business gathered at London’s Southbank Centre to share insights on the future of work (take a look at #DigiDevSummit on Twitter to get a feel for the day’s discussions, read blogs from the event, or watch the keynotes).

Current (and future?) trends

We heard some fascinating presentations, including keynotes from two ESRC-DFID grant holders – Gina Porter (on the impact of mobile phone use on young people’s livelihoods in Sub Saharan Africa) and Mark Graham whose cumulative work on ICTS focused on the global gig economy and its implications for digital workers.

Participants discussed the rise of robot bosses, the changing geographies of online work, a potential tax on digital transactions and how companies such as Facebook are working to increase access and connectivity around the world. Current projections are that 65–85% of jobs in developing countries will be lost to automation

Disrupting research

The challenge for us all was clearly laid out: if the trends that are disrupting millions of people’s working lives, are set to continue the global community can no longer continue with business as usual. Whether governments, tech companies, civil society or researchers, the summit speakers challenged us all to think creatively, innovatively and differently. Given the scale of the challenge ahead and the unique impact that research can have on policy and practice, what does this mean for researchers? 

5 tips for international development researchers in an age of rapid digitisation

1. Stay ahead of the curve

Many of the world’s best inventions and life-changing discoveries have come from brave academics, people who weren’t afraid to pursue a new agenda or vision of the future. Yet so often research, faced with funding and time constraints, naturally stays with the tried and tested ways of doing things.

If the pace of digitisation in the coming years is as fast as is predicted, researchers have a unique opportunity to push boundaries, pioneer concepts and make bold recommendations, even if they appear unlikely. Academics can help the rest of us to dream dreams of a world in 2030 and beyond that far exceed our imaginations. 

2. Keep us grounded in reality

At the same time as reimagining the future, researchers have the opportunity to uncover the reality of how things are right now. Whether nimbly identifying and exploring trends or finding the hidden stories that no one else is telling, researchers can keep us grounded in present realities of what’s working and what isn’t.

Gina Porter’s research is a great example of this. On the one hand, her presentation at the Summit on mobile phone use by young people in sub-Saharan Africa stood at odds with conversations about virtual reality and robot cooperatives. But actually, unpacking what impact the humble mobile phone is having on people’s livelihoods reveals the reality of life for many millions of people.

3. Bring marginalised people’s stories to the fore

Mark Graham and Gina Porter gave us two examples of where a technological advance, which many would predict would solve people’s problems, isn’t living up to expectations. 

Online work platforms (the so-called ‘gig economy’) should have created work opportunities, demolished national divides and brought suppliers and clients much closer together. The reality is often very different, for example work being subcontracted out by a tiny proportion of ‘five star’ workers at a fraction of the rate, skimming off profits.

Similarly, some would hail mobile phones as the saviour of young people in sub-Saharan Africa, providing connectivity, empowerment and freedom. But actually for many the phone hasn’t brought the employment prospects we might have predicted. As Gina Porter said, ‘unless the overall basket of [work] opportunities grows, mobile phones are not going to be the answer.’ 

The task of academics is to bring out of the shadows the stories of digitisation’s impact on real people’s lives.

4. Form unlikely partnerships

The summit participants were a diverse bunch. Sat alongside the usual suspects (representatives of governments, NGOs and think tanks) were a number of people who know next to nothing about global development, but whose expertise lies firmly in the technology sector.

Participants were clear that the challenges ahead can only be addressed through collaboration. Facebook’s Kojo Boakye welcomed what can sometimes be difficult discussions and urged us to engage a broader group of stakeholders.

As credible and independent voices, researchers can play a crucial role in bringing different people together. This summit was fully-booked within a day of its announcement. Researchers should respond to this appetite and convene more dialogues on this issue. 

5. Innovate for greater impact

If researchers are going to see their projects have a bigger impact on this diverse range of stakeholders, they’ll need to use more creative tools to communicate.

Summit participants developed dozens of recommendations for tech multinationals, huge digital platforms and governments. To engage with many of these organisations, the traditional policy brief and research report just aren’t going to cut it.

Researchers need to be much more innovative in the way they communicate. This might involve taking advice from experts or partners, investing in learning and training, allocating more budget or setting aside more time.

But by presenting findings in more varied, creative and audience-appropriate ways, researchers have an opportunity to influence one of the most important debates of this decade.

Read related blogs:

Visit our resource page to watch videos from the event, refer to the key papers, or view the highlights as a Storify: Lessons from the Digital Development Summit 2017.  

The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and FCDO: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or FCDO.


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