Technology Agnosticism in Action: Designing Projects before Tech

Technology Agnosticism seems to take on a few forms. If you ask some people, you will quickly get into a discussion about technological determinism, or wider discussions on whether technology is a product of or shaper of culture–or more likely both. But when it comes to applying technology to solve problems, a different use of the expression is perhaps more relevant. An organization which describes itself as being technologically agnostic isn’t tied to one particular technology.

Most groups describing the opportunity and potential of technology, have already made up their mind that technology can make certain projects better. And it’s true. There are some spectacular and diverse uses for all sort of technology–new and old. Information Communication Technology (ICT) is creating new opportunities in developing countries and developed countries alike, from cutting edge smart phone applications, to social media sites, and SMS health services. Transportation technology continually changes the way people get from place to place, and sustainable or green technologies are increasingly letting people do this and other activities using less resources. A whole range of innovators are inventing new technologies, services, and tools or recycling old ideas to do all of these things and more.

In development, the growing emphasis on ICT for Development (ICT4D) is advocating  for more and more ICT applications to help developing countries. And increasingly evidence is showing that the spread of mobile phone and related applications is having positive, though broad and sometimes hard to quantify, impacts on developing communities. Likewise, developed world businesses are placing an emphasis on social media to promote and improve their work–again opening a new range of opportunities.

This emphasis on technology though, particularly the newest technology, is making the leap to technology driven projects before the most important design decisions have been made and the most important questions asked: Is a particular technology the right solution to a problem at hand? or the right way to make a system work better? or the right way to keep pace with the competition and the market? Yes, sometimes it absolutely is. But to honestly get the most out of technology, the technology design process needs to take a big step back. Choosing to use a particular technology in the first place is already a huge decision based on assumptions about the means and methods of creating change and providing a service.

This is where an idea of technology agnosticism comes into play. Its fine to have preferences for certain technology, and even better to have an expertise — but this expertise must extend to cover not only how to apply a technology, but also when, where and why. When someone in an organization begins a project, or begins to design a project, the when, where, and why questions are first — and sometimes overlooked. These questions, expertise, and preferences can’t get in the way of good design, but must instead guide a project to the most feasible, applicable, and practical solution. Even if that means the mobile phone might be totally left out, Facebook might remain turned off, and there are no solar panels in sight. This ability to leave out the new, the popular, or the hi-tech, can sometimes lead to Cheap Oakleys projects that do exactly what they are meant to do, and are based around a good design in the first place. (And controversially, sometimes these popular technologies are the right decision strictly because they are popular and will generate publicity a project needs or the initial interest to catalyze participation).


Working at this intersection of technology and informality, we are encountering lots of projects that use technology brilliantly. From maps and SMS, social media and voice, stickers, posters, solar panels, web-apps, smart phone apps, wells, bricks, pipes, wires, GPS, to mass-customization, supply chain management, bar codes, and currency. And for every good project using one or more of these technologies, there are just as many failing to use them effectively. What is needed is more emphasis on the project design before technology is introduced or assumed as a necessary part of the equation. More processes that starts technologically agnostic and end with good design and functioning projects are needed in the field of development. We need more people talking about project design before technology design, more people looking at the context of a problem before jumping to solutions, and more people defining an objective before choosing the tools they want to use to achieve it.

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