Defining the ICT Ecosystem
ICTbyDEVELOPMENT as ecosystem-centered strengthening starts with defining the scope of what we understand as the ICT ecosystem; as ICT sector. We can identify the boundaries of the sector as set by all agents and actors involved in production, delivery and use of ICT. Together with boundary definition, the organic and ever-changing (evolutionary) nature of ecosystems is also majorly driven through the actions of its various agents.
These agents represent the sector stakeholders. A stakeholder with respect to the ICT sector can be thought of as “any organization, group or individual defined as an actor, who can affect or is affected by the outcome” of the delivery of ICT. A useful taxonomy can be derived from systems thinking which is founded on the premise of processes converting inputs into outputs. Borrowing from systems thinking, we can re-organize our sector stakeholders into three clear categories representing inputs, process and outputs within the ICT sector. These translate into a taxonomy of backward, horizontal and forward linkages of the ICT sector.
Backward Linkages are recognized as those organizations, groups or individuals that provide inputs into the ICT sector. Horizontal Linkages are recognized as those organizations, groups or individuals involved in the process of providing, or ensuring the provision of ICT products and services within the ICT sector. Forward Linkages are recognized as those industries, organizations, groups or individuals who shall be a resulting output from a well established ICT sector. [BPO/Digital Economy/Resulting sub-sectors]
It is also possible for an organization to fall into one or more of these conceptual taxonomic groups. Also note that organizations, groups or individuals are a generic grouping of entities ranging from entire sectors or industries to single individuals. This taxonomy therefore establishes a meta-model of stakeholders represented in figure shown below.
Synonymous to the inputs in systems thinking, backward linkages refer to those actors that provide inputs into the establishment of an ICT sector. The inputs are primarily resource inputs which we can divide into goods, services, knowledge and finance. Actors who we can identify as backward links into the sector include Contributors of finance or knowledge; and Suppliers of ICT supporting commodities such as ICT equipment which assist in the delivery of ICT.
- Contributors: Universities, International Organizations [Donors], Banks & other Financial Institutions
- Suppliers: Multi-National ICT Companies
The actual ICT sector is bound by the horizontal linkages that interact in the process of providing quality and sustainable ICT products, services and innovations. Horizontal linkage actors include Commissioners & Regulators who are government appointed for purposes of sector leadership and regulation; Commentators are non-state appointed actors who comment, lobby and influence the provision of ICT service and products. These include media organizations, associations, bloggers (ICTbyDEV) or simply individuals; Channels [of distributors & re-sellers] as the centers, entities or entrepreneurs through whom the market can obtaining ICT service, products and innovations. Channels have been variously identified as ICT industry in academic literature (ref. innovation systems – triple helix). Trained ICT manpower are skilled labour involved in the provision of ICT service or products. In a sector that is pre-dominantly service driven [i.e, dominated by external large tech companies], the manpower demanded [sales people, project managers] shall differ from a sector that is more product driven [demanding software engineers and developers who create products]. Collaborators from the various sub-sectors are those that provide supporting activities, without which ICT products wouldn’t work. These include collaborating sub-sectors such as energy, transport, etc. Consumers of ICT are the local market covered by government, communities, households and individuals.
- Commissioners & Regulators: State and government agencies
- Channels (ICT Businesses): Large, medium and small scale businesses
- Collaborating/Supporting Sub-sectors: Transporters, power utility companies
- ICT Manpower: Trained software engineers, developers, project managers
- ICT Consumers: Government, communities, households, and individuals of the general public
- Commentators: Associations, bloggers
These are products and sub-sectors which result from a well established ICT sector. Some forward linkages result in a more competitive environment within the ICT sector or in other sectors. The formation of a digital economy for instance will only be realized through the existence of a robust ICT sector. Products such as the eGovernment for instance, will reap maximum rewards only in the existence of a well established ICT sector (horizontal links). The formation of other sub-sectors such as the BPO service industry can also only happen with a well established horizontally linked sector. A most critical forward linkage is ROBUST TECH-INNOVATION. Sustained innovation and innovative products need the support of well established actors within the horizontal linkage space, establishing the supporting sector.
- ICT Driven Competitive Productions: Centers of innovation and new product development, Hubs, Digital Economy (ICT as an enabler in other sectors), creation of other sub-sectors (BPO, hardware assembly industry)
This holistic analysis and definition of the sector can be used to map the sector pillars which as a nation we need to focus on to ensure that we harness the maximum productive benefits of ICT. A mapping of these linkages identifies the following pillars necessary to establish a robust ICT sector.
ICT Sector Pillars
The taxonomy of sector actors identified by their roles above establishes the following ICT pillars:
- ICT Governance [Commissioners, Regulators & Commentators] – At a policy, strategic and lobby level
- ICT Finance [Contributors] – State and non-state actors financing ICT projects of different scale
- ICT Research & Development/tech-innovation [ICT Driven Competitive Productions] – Primarily driven by socio-economic activity; inclusive innovation
- ICT Information [ICT Consumers] – This covers the ICT consumer (who needs to be tech-savvy so as to properly consume ICT) and the ICT knowledge base (I believe the INTERNET should be a wildcard in this section of the sector and hence stated independently as part of the end-user pillar)
- ICT Products and Technologies [Suppliers] – Knowledge, Software, Hardware and Netware
- ICT Infrastructure [Collaborating/Supporting Sub-Sectors] – Broadband and other infrastructure enablers for the conveyance of ICT products and technologies
- ICT Human Resource [ICT Manpower] – Training/Skills which is both academic and professional
- ICT industry [Channels] – Presence of mechanisms to productize, organize and deliver ICT products and technologies commercially
The definiteness presented by ICTbyDEV identifies pillars within the ICT ecosystem whilst capturing and appreciating ecosystem dynamism as the different levels of pillar development of these sector pillars. The output of ICT deployment will invariably depend on the maturity of these pillars in every country’s ecosystem.
For a long time, the focus and emphasis of ICT4D has been product-centric. Whenever ICT4D has been mentioned, one always assumes a tech product aimed at improving a some socio-economic aspect or other of individuals within developing countries. This has resulted in a sector paying particular attention to the products and tech implementation of solutions, without the appreciation of the complex ecosystem that exists within their settings. Invariably, whenever such innovative products/projects have been deployed, they have faced a myriad of challenges that have often resulted in diminished impact, product sustainability challenges and sometimes innovation failure. More than an eventual product, innovation is a process supported by a conducive ecosystem.
Africa, and in particular developing markets have been touted with the ability to leapfrog technology, but they cannot leapfrog the development of an ICT (eco)system and sector. The production and success of ICT solutions is dependent on the existence of a robust sector and ecosystem. Although many innovative solutions have worked technically, and to some extent backed by notable financial muscle, scaling and sustainability has often been a major challenge within developing markets. This could be because those solutions were not deployed within a robust ecosystem.
Well structured innovation (eco)systems like those established in the West, have catalyzed the growth of many innovations. Replicating such deployment, development, financing and design plans in Africa may be challenging. The answer lies both within the particular innovation and the understanding of the innovation (eco)system.
ICTbyDEV, invites innovators to think first about understanding the development of the innovation (eco)system prior to embarking on developing an ICT solution. ICTbyDEV invites policy makers to focus on the enhancement of the ecosystem. Without the enhancement of the ecosystem, Africa may be doomed to remain a net consumer within the impending digital revolution. ICTbyDEV introduces systems thinking to the innovation process. Viewing ICT4D from such a systems perspective will assist most innovators develop tech that will harness the desired emergent behavior elicited from the innovation (eco)system or market.