What Do We Call Ourselves Now: ICT4D? Digital Development? Or…?

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Recently, a young Millennial was shocked when I said I was an ICT4D practitioner. She responded with a credulous, “Who calls it ICT4D anymore?” and went on to make the case that international development has moved beyond thinking of digital development as a specific sub-sector or profession.
Her reaction has me wondering if we even needed a specific term anymore, and if so, what that term should be.
We Need an Organizing Term
First and foremost, I do believe we still need a term to define our sub-sector and profession. No matter if you’re an advocate for mainstreaming or sidestreaming technology efforts, labels do help people understand and place our initiatives within the wider international development ecosystem.
Communicating with constituents via SMS or USSD may be commonplace and mobile data collection may be mainstream, but we still are learning new lessons on how to use emerging technologies, and re-learning older implementation lessons that are too-quickly forgotten.
Having common terms allows us to share these ideas quickly and effectively.
The Case for Continuing with ICT4D
For years, I was a firm believer in putting all our efforts under the larger rubric of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D), which itself is an evolution from IT to ICT.
That’s why this site is called ICTworks, with over 440 posts (out of 1500+) using the term, I run ICT4D Jobs to help people start and grow their ICT4D careers, and I started ICT4Drinks, which is now run by TechChange. My naming convention was backed by CRS and their ICT4D Conference.
I find this term expansive enough to cover everything from microcomputers to machine learning to user-centered design. As a bonus, “ICT4D” is a clear Google search term that leads you directly to resources like ICTworks.
However, I do understand the critiques against it. I think Duncan Edwards says it the best with:
I’ve never really liked the term “ICT4D”. My issue is the “4D”. It feels like or at least implies that it is starting from the wrong place – “I have technology or technology expertise and i will apply it for development” rather than starting with a clear understanding of a problem and what technology might or might not offer. It also feels very top down in a very classic aid world view of development.
The Rise of “Digital Development”
As Richard Heeks pointed out in 2016, there is a concerted effort to replace ICT4D with “digital development” to signal a shift in the way we use technology in development processes.
ICT4D can be seen as using digital technologies as a tool for development, while digital development focuses on technology as the platform and medium for development.
Digital development definitely has its supporters at USAID. The Center for Digital Development is an obvious example, and the Agency uses digital development across its communications – the term “digital development” returns 47 search results on their website, vs. just 5 for ICT4D.
Their focus on “digital” is probably why we see the term gaining precedence across our field. Terms like “mHealth” are giving way to digital health and organization are renaming teams with “digital”, like DAI’s new Center for Digital Acceleration.
Digital development is also an increasingly accurate term for Google Search too. Where once it was too generic, with pages of false positive responses, now it’s 1,000,000+ mentions are pretty accurate, with Google showing these associated search terms:

  • center for digital development
  • usaid digital development forum
  • principles for digital development
  • digital development job description
  • digital development definition
  • digital development meaning

I do feel Jon Camfield‘s critique – that digital is just as overused in development as “cyber” is in military circles. I know I’ve sat in meetings where “digital” is uses as an expansive shorthand noun to mean all technology and innovation.
However, I am slowly enjoying the term “digital development” over ICT4D as it feels more holistic in how we use technologies, and the concept that development itself is changing with the introduction of technology.
“Tech4Good” and ICT4 Everything Else
Around the fringes of our sub-sector is the desire to use the term “Tech4x” which parallels the “x4D” effort that brought us M4D and T4D, or “ICT4x” which gives us ICT4Edu.
Of these efforts, Google Search says that Tech4Good leads the pack with 106,000 search results, while Tech4Dev lags at 18,200 results, and far behind is ICT4Edu at 7,000 results. Oh and while we are on search results, ICT4Drinks, with 5,800 results, beats out Tech4Dem’s 2,600 search results, confirming ICT4Drinks’ continued leadership in Washington DC happy hours.
What is Your Term?
Enough of my ramblings, what is your preferred term for professional association, proposal writing, and Google searches? Is there a better term to talk about our profession? If so, what would you propose?
Check out the comments to see what others think too. You may be surprised at their creativity.
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