Thursday, June 26, 2003


Thomas Kuhn used the term paradigm in a number of ways in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but central to his concept was that a community of people will collectively define a model of some aspect of reality and that the model will identify some kinds of information as relatively important and others as less important. Kuhn’s paradigms were not some ultimate truth, but relatively consistent bodies of theory and observations which could be superceded. Indeed, a key to his thought is that a crisis can occur in a paradigm as it fails to explain more and more observations. While new paradigms can be created explaining the anomalies, these are typically hard to sell to the adherents of the old paradigms. Moreover, the old paradigms may still be the most useful – few would seek to use Einstein’s relativity theory to calculate the trajectory of a missile when Newtonian dynamics are available.

On June 23, 2003 my entry in this Blog discussed institutions and development. One of the foundations of the discussion was a distinction between two things which we might characterize as paradigms:
· The project paradigm, that development takes place as a result of successful implementation of development projects; and
· The institutional paradigm, that development is the process of building institutions that enable social and economic progress.
I sought to make the point that evaluating development efforts using a project paradigm may totally miss what is happening if an institutional paradigm is more appropriate. (Kuhn might suggest that the proponents of each paradigm will never by convinced by holders of the contrary view, and that paradigms die out only as their proponents do.)

We can adapt the concept of the paradigm in discussing our models of the introduction of information and communication technologies in developing countries. It seems likely that we can define communities of practice which more or less share a specific model. I would suggest that we are frequently presented with observations which challenge our existing models and understanding.

There is a huge interest in understanding the effects of ICTs on organizations, institutions, and countries as a whole. Similarly there is a great interest in evaluating ICT projects and ICT programs. Evaluation of the effects of the technology, of a project, or of a program, however, depends fundamentally on the conceptual model one has – what causal relationships are deemed to be important, and what observations are deemed to be pertinent.

One point seems clear. There are many studies that indicate that most ICT projects fail. On the other hand, it is very clear that the diffusion of ICTs have been exceptionally rapid and that ICTs are used in huge numbers of applications revolutionizing many fields. How can this be? How can large numbers of failed projects result in unprecedented success of the technologies?

Perhaps the reason is that the project paradigm is not the right one. Perhaps a more complex paradigm that focuses on the rate of construction of the infrastructure, on the rate of development of “killer apps”, and on the information and communications technology system is better for understanding what is happening. Perhaps people using a project paradigm, and evaluating the success or failure of individual ICT projects are doing a disservice to the cause of ICT for Development.

In many cases more than one paradigm can be applied to explain the same situation. Where the paradigms suggest different causal relationships and attend to different observations, one may suggest something of a crisis. Moreover, where there are crises in the paradigms we use, the evaluations that they spark are suspect.

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