[iDC] learning ecologies

Michael F C Moreland mmoreland at seedrl3c.com
Tue Apr 20 05:55:48 UTC 2010

It is clear the technological ability at our disposal is capable of
leveraging monumental changes in developing communities. It is also clear
that this raw ability has outpaced our capacity to absorb it. While SEEDR is
not developing technologies with the intent to enable learning, per se,
fostering and optimizing an ecology of sharing, learning, and creating has
become the most critical and challenging part of what we do. Examining our
strategies, methods, and products in terms of what was learned by whom and
how to what end reveals something interesting about technology’s role in
development more broadly.

Stories like the quiescent computer lab in Mongolia suggest that strategies
transferring functionality and information in a single direction, from one
to another, face significant limitations. As “flat” as the world may seem at
times, we are a long way from a connected and interoperable world where
information flows abundantly and accurately and solutions transfer easily
and effectively amongst communities and causes.

But transfer as a strategy is popular throughout the design, academic, and
business communities alike. Multidisciplinary research and design projects,
nearly de rigueur now, coordinate the transfer of work and information from
one discipline to another. Public-private partnerships coordinate the
transfer of work, responsibility, and value from one sector to another in
pursuit of common goals.

And we see technology both enabling transfer and itself the subject of
transfer in global development. Kiva enables us to hear the stories of and
transfer funds to entrepreneurs in developing countries. Aspen Institute’s
ANDE initiative facilitates the transfer of advice and knowhow to
entrepreneurs in developing countries. OLPC deconstructed and reinvented the
laptop to transfer its functionality to children in developing countries.
These are great examples of how the transaction of funds, knowledge, and
products can help inform and empower.

These transfer-based programs establish connectivity between communities,
initiating the flow of information and connecting developing markets of
needs and wants to the foreign and domestic goods and services traditional
private and public sectors have not. As these models find success and
hopefully iterate through their own challenges, we begin however to see the
limitations of transfer as an enduring strategy for development.

When we establish transfers, in any space, the learning required to make the
solution we are transferring relevant and effective remains optional.
Because the participants are not integrated into a shared ecology the
investor is not necessarily the beneficiary. Stakeholders remain subjects of
instead of owners in the process and the product. Solutions run the risk of
being irrelevant, out of context, unsupported, and unadopted. Risk and
reward along the value chain remain uncorrelated. The distance between
disciplines, sectors, and positions along the value chain keep the solution
a sum of its parts and not a product of them.

Beyond the limitations and potential risks of transfer-based development
strategies, we are also foregoing the potential for the extraordinary value
of integration. Etymologically we are told the primary subforms of
creativity are inventiveness and resourcefulness. We know that when both are
integrated cleverly in a given context, we can achieve the highest form of
creativity, ingeniousness. We know each of these qualities to be
instrumental in achieving efficacious design and delivery. So if
ingeniousness is the goal for our organizations, programs, policies,
strategies, and solutions, we find transfer without integration often lacks
the necessary nutrients.

With technology-driven initiatives in development, we see high degrees of
inventiveness and strong analytical and design prowess to respond to any
internally posed question.

In country, in the field, on the ground, where resources are scarce and
consequences can be severe, we find the expression of creativity and
intelligence just as potent, but often in different form. It is a strong
brand of resourcefulness that can respond to any externally posed obstacle
and stretch the use and purpose of the resources available.

We are trying to incorporate some of this into how we approach our projects
redesigning expanded technological functionality into the tools and
strategies of development. Our task in designing products and strategies
that bridge technology to development, trying to listen to and learn from
stakeholders in new ways. We are trying to push the bounds of participatory
design from the very start of our projects, using the data to identify
critical points in systems, increase the resolution of our perspective,
understand the capacity for absorption, and generate specific solutions. Our
teams are multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral but are testing new
methodologies that enable transdisciplinary creation and make incorporating
what we learn from each other inescapable and attractive, without the
oppression of design-by-committee.

We see heightened integration as the key for more effective development
programs and products, but are finding both unintended consequences and a
series of questions suggesting the need for conceptual and structural

Structurally we find innovative models that have emerged from developing
communities in the US and UK creating new ecologies for learning at the
design and delivery stages. We see new structures and programs focused on
integrating stakeholders in under-served communities with public and private
funding, nonprofit, community foundation, and industry resources to increase
impact, sustainability, self-reliance, ownership and wealth through
development initiatives.

We see community development corporations (CDC), community development
financial institutions (CDFI), employee stock ownership plans (ESOP),
low-profit limited liability companies (L3C), the B-corp, university
partnerships, community development block grants (CDBG), new markets tax
credits (NMTC), myriad affordable housing finance products, empowerment and
compliance programs, individual development accounts (IDC), program-related
investments (PRI), and community-interest companies (CIC) in the UK.

Naturally these solutions do not scale neatly across all cultures and
political economies, but they do provide insights for how structure,
funding, access, metrics, and incentives can evolve when we make a concerted
effort to refit ourselves. These solutions also afford the integration - not
merely the transfer - of the best of public, private, and philanthropic
resources to form and correct markets that serve the causes of development.

These structural integrations are themselves fostering new dynamic
environments - ecologies - for sharing, learning, and creating. If
integration is the next level of development initiatives, what are the
challenges impeding broader integration now? What changes, in matters of
education, policy, culture, and strategy, are necessary for facilitating
integration models of development? What must we learn in order to learn in
this integrated manner?

Michael F C Moreland
managing director

*SEEDR L3C ////
*mmoreland at seedrl3c.com
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