July 3, 2017

How ICTs can help bridge the rural-urban divide (Q&A)

By ITU News

ITU News interviewed Dr Shailaja Fennell, Lecturer in Development Studies at the Centre of Development Studies and Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge.

How does your academic work link to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

SF — My current research focuses on the importance of linking sustainable solutions for cities and villages. The research agenda proposes the notion of a Smart Village that not only focuses on the means and design for providing access to basic infrastructure such as roads, water, power, education and healthcare facilities, but also focusing critically on the local institutions and networks that can ensure sustainable growth and the development of these villages. Communication and information technologies (ICTs) will play a major role in the design, delivery and monitoring of the services.

Above all, the key to success in creating “Smart Villages” lies in integrated planning which is well supported by robust monitoring and execution of the activities using appropriate governance models. Devising an appropriate Smart Village requires the use of an institutional lens to under­stand how development can be catalyzed in villages and must focus on both the supply and demand features of the provision of infrastruc­ture, such as ICT service provisions.

How important are ICTs and ICT infrastructure (SDG 9) for progress on the SDGs, especially on rural development and education?

SF — ICT services can be a powerful lever of change for the youth population by generating employment opportunities that can help youth achieve their unmet aspirations in the labour market. This is particularly important in the case of rural households to access education. Where the parental generation has not completed secondary schooling it is difficult for them to successfully identify educational strategies that will ensure social mobility. The achievement of educational and employment aspirations is key to the translation of education outcomes into improving human lives and this can be enhanced by appropriate information that is provided through ICT channels.

A focus on rural areas, and on the aspirations of rural youth can be the beginning of designing innovative interventions to provide the much needed skills to deliver the promise of higher agricultural productivity that is necessary to bring about a diversification of non-agricultural, income-generating activities (e.g. food process­ing, construction, businesses and services).

For a sustainable transition of the entire econ­omy there needs to be a linkage of networks, both human and technical, between rural and urban areas to sustain growth and to promote the convergence of living standards for all citizens. The mobile phone revolution provides one such powerful lever that can catalyze rural households into Smart Villages that are distin­guished by their ability to use new technology to improve education and employment pros­pects for rural youth. There is a need to work with demand led solutions so that the opportu­nities provided by ICT technologies are inclu­sive. The power of digital inclusiveness is that it allows youth to create social media groups and to access new information networks.

Where do you see the most progress in harnessing science, technology and innovation to achieve the SDGs?

SF — The SDGs provide an important oppor­tunity to harness science and technology to design innovative methods for measuring a range of sustainability features — such as meas­uring groundwater levels, energy efficiency, food security — to name a few — that are crucial to understand the food-water-energy nexus — at the core of human and natural sustainability. The SDGs also provide a powerful push towards multidisciplinary research in the academia and policy circles to develop multi-skilled teams that have the ability to conceptualize and measure the physical challenges as well understand the human impediments to changing behaviour.

Technical interventions are more likely to suc­ceed when they are devised with a rich knowl­edge of local conditions and an understanding of the needs of different communities.

“There is still a challenge in getting sup­ply side institutions to understand how the pro­vision of mobile phones and ICTs in rural areas can be a catalyst in rural populations, particu­larly among youth.” – Dr Shailaja Fennell

Where do you see the biggest challenges?

SF — There is still a challenge in getting sup­ply side institutions to understand how the pro­vision of mobile phones and ICTs in rural areas can be a catalyst in rural populations, particu­larly among youth. Infrastructure providers have regarded urban areas as far more important as they have the finances and the knowledge necessary to access the Internet. In contrast they regard rural communities as being unable to understand and access new technologies.

Consequently, they disregard the potential for youth directed learning to become a powerful conduit for generating new employment oppor­tunities. This results in a complete disregard for developing a model of bottom up govern­ance by which rural communities can improve rural productivity and diversify employment opportunities.

The academic and policy institutions need to develop stronger partnerships with service pro­viders and commercial players to devise more innovative interventions.

There is also a need for the creation of more accessible platforms that allow easily accessi­ble information regarding local solutions that can build on stronger national sustainability initiatives — as in the case of local watershed management that can improve water availa­bility — or locally designed food production networks. The privileging of these linkages has the added advantage of placing the youth population at the centre of the decision-mak­ing process, thereby ensuring inter-genera­tional sustainability.

Want to learn more about how ICTs are accelerating the SDGs?
Go in-depth with our latest edition of ITU News Magazine.

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How ICTs can help bridge the rural-urban divide (Q&A)

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