ICT for Community Empowerment amongst Urban Underserved Communities: A Design for Participation Project

ICT for Community Empowerment amongst Urban Underserved Communities: A Design for Participation Project

Maria Rosa Lorini (University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa)
DOI: 10.4018/IJSKD.2015010101
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The paper highlights the methodological framework of an ongoing research focused on two issues of actuality in Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D): the role of ICTs in cultivating collective capabilities and the role of the participants in the different phases of a new design project in relation to development. A design-based research approach, rooted in exploratory ethnography and emergent design shows that when the researcher becomes ethnographer and designer and the users become resources for the co-production, a new methodology is born. It is a process of dialogue, never ending, in which the designer enters with the intention to make an impact, not only to understand. The participatory process is followed throughout the research, from the ethnographic phase of discovery and understanding, through the design phase of co-creation, till the evaluation final phase. This research is conducted in two marginalised urban settings of Cape Town. An exploratory phase, in which inductive ethnographic methods were used to explore the nuances of ‘agency', ‘capability' and ‘collective empowerment' that occur through technological dealings was followed by a still ongoing design phase, in which the two communities are involved in co-designing new ICT services that support their community activities. The assessment phase, which is directed towards the formulation of theoretical and design considerations, will look towards a participative evaluation process and a sustainable patterns.
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The hopes tied to the success of the changes that have occurred since 1994 in South Africa continue to gain admiration and pride to this country. Despite that, the legacy of the apartheid system undermines the potential for growth and social transformation. South Africa officially belongs to the upper-middle income countries but 45,5% of the population lives behind the poverty line (WorldBank, 2014). Given the inequality of allocations of resources, a series of development issues are present, like scarcity of health and education infrastructures and high unemployment rate and crime (Marais, 2011), in particular in rural area and in the informal settlements of the townships. Information and communication technology’ (ICT) studies and projects in the last decades have tried to address the global development priorities connected with inequality (Duncombe, 2007), not only in the specific context of the digital technology. ICTs developed in several ways. Lots of artefacts have been created to ameliorate the conditions of underserved population (for example giving the government new means to collect information or improve the delivery of services such as health and education) where the beneficiaries are not formally involved in the process (Andrade and Urquhart, 2010). Concerning the closure of the digital divide, ICTs projects had been oriented towards the increase to the access to specific artefacts (like the web) possibly to everybody. In South Africa, and in particular in the Western Cape Province, the impact of digital exclusion is recognised as important in order to address social, economic and cultural equity (www.westerncape.gov.za). Access, skills and usage are the main concerns of the Government.

Having this in mind, the researcher considered as a first step to evaluate the meanings and the roles, if any, of ICT in cultivating empowerment for underserved groups in urban areas of Cape Town, South Africa, where the research is conducted. Based on several years of activities within the communities and an ethnographic phase of research that points towards a designing phase, this study seeks to explore the ways to maintain the high level of participation of the groups, from the needs assessment moment till the evaluation of the project. The main contribution concerns the possibility to use participatory design techniques constantly, despite the heterogeneity of the selected groups, the time concerns and despite the designer pressure to bring about changes.

The added value of the study and its contribution to knowledge resides in the approach of the researcher in framing this issue critically. The ethnographic process involved participatory design techniques with a transformative aim. The ethnographer and the designer became the same person (Baskerville, 2014): while studying to understand, the researcher also advocated for an empowerment agenda through sustainable designs. The other peculiarity of this study resides in shifting the focus from the individual to the collective, in order to support the creative communities (Manzini, 2005). The ethnographic phase sought to understand how social relations and group action both determine and are determined by the use of ICT for information access and production, and if and how ICTs serve to cultivate agency and capabilities at the group level. If and when supported by the participants, some design solutions integrated into the study. A situated empowerment approach, with a critical stance of contextual and socially responsive technologies, lead this ongoing study. A cycle of action and knowledge production is taking place: 1) an exploratory phase, in which inductive ethnographic methods have been used to explore those nuances of ‘agency’, ‘capability’ and ‘collective empowerment’ that occur through technological dealings; 2) a design phase, in which the two communities are involved in co-designing new ICT services that support the community activities already in place and possibly new ones; and 3) an assessment phase which is directed towards the formulation of theoretical and design considerations to advance current debates on participation in every design phase for serving locally-defined and pursued development goals.

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