Perspectives: The Risks & Rewards of ICT for Sustainable Development

Over the last decade, there have been substantial advancements in information and communication technologies (ICTs) which have led to increased interconnectivity between communities of all shapes and sizes. This new level of interaction is bridging the divide between the global north and south, rural and urban centres and has dramatically reconstituted our idea of the “global village.” Paramount to this development has been the affordability and accessibility of ICTs, particularly to marginalized people around the world. For instance, two thirds of the world’s mobile phone subscribers are in the developing world, with Africa as the fastest growing market (Garside, 2009). With such vast global distribution, ICTs have been highlighted as a potential tool and enabler of sustainable development. However, the question arises as to what are the ethical, social, environmental and economic risks and rewards of incorporating these technologies into the sustainable development model?

The term sustainable development was popularized by the United Nations’ 1987 Bruntland Report. It is defined as development which ensures that the present needs of a people are met while not jeopardizing the capability of future generations to meet their own needs (World Commission, 1987). Embedded in this concept are two ethical considerations, intragenerational justice, where members of society are responsible for ensuring the needs of the present generation are met, and intergenerational justice which ensures that future generations have the capacity to meet their own needs.

To date, much of the world has failed to abide by the tenets of sustainable development and we are in fact creating a situation that will place a burden on future generations. Some have argued for a bold new approach to global governance that establishes a “right relationship” as the foundation for a new economic model. Based on the Quaker concept, a right relationship would consider the balance between economic advancement and fairness; the environmental limitations of the planet; and the social, spiritual and cultural wellbeing of humans (Brown et al, 2009). At the international level, organizations such as the United Nations Educational Science Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have championed a global rethinking of development, one that re-examines sustainability, inclusion and equity to determine whether these frameworks meet human needs in ways that are conceptually rigorous and have practical applications (Gasper, 2011).

ICTs can play an instrumental role as an enabler of development by increasing innovation, empowering societies, and increasing efficiency and transparency. This is accomplished in large part through the four essential pillars, which serve as the foundation of the technologies, namely: connectivity, content, computing and human capacity (Tongia, 2005). ICTs can contribute to the sustainable development model by improving the accessibility and availability of information, reducing transaction costs, and encouraging a participatory culture with a variety of stakeholders (Garside, 2009).

There are numerous cases where ICTs have helped to address the human needs of local communities. For instance, in Bangladesh, a country regarded as one of the least “wired” in the world, a village phone program was established where local women purchased mobile phones using micro-credit loans. These women acted as local operators, thereby increasing the connectivity of the rural community and simultaneously creating a new class of small business owners (Cohen, 2001). Also, in Kenya, a program called M-PESA has revolutionized rural financing by enabling mobile phone uses to transfer funds to families or receive credit from buyers (Garside, 2009).

While ICTs have played a role in the economic empowerment of marginalized people and have arguably made a significant contribution to sustainable development, the other perspective is that they can also contribute to unsustainable practices. These concerns are based on the level of resource consumption required for manufacturing ICTs (Hilty, 2010) and the level of energy consumption needed to operate the devices. Further, there are concerns about the impact that discarded hardware can have on the environment (life cycle assessment) in addition to effects on market prices and social values (Isenmann, 2008).

One of the challenges encountered when providing sustainable development solutions via ICTs, is the lack of integration between technological innovations and development concerns. Some ICTs are not tailored to the unique needs or cultural conditions of the communities they are intended to serve (Garside, 2009). At times, the implementation of these technologies may fail to incorporate programming that would foster local capacity building, content development and adaptability (Garside, 2009). Moreover, another major barrier is that access to data usually requires technical and lingual literacy which can limit accessibility to upper socio-economic levels of a society and leads to an increased exclusion, alienation and marginalization of some communities (Tongia, 2005).

If sustainability is truly to be redefined, there must be a fundamental shift from public understanding to public engagement. ICTs must be affordable, accessible and adaptable to the communities they are intended to serve. Technologies that focus on advancing the human condition while incorporating development concerns ensure the maximum rewards of ICTs for sustainable development. Further, development stakeholders must view ICTs as a strategic tool to meet development needs. The absence of integration of ICTs into development frameworks results in an inability to measure the impact of the technologies on the social and cultural fabric of local communities (Garside, 2009). If ICTs are to make a valuable contribution to the global village, an interdisciplinary approach is required, where the voice of all stakeholders, financiers, marginalized groups and technology manufacturers are heard, respected and incorporated into a development strategy.

Kori St. Cyr is a Research Associate at the Council of Canadian Academies. He holds a Masters of Applied Science in Biotechnology from McGill University (Montreal, Quebec) with a concentration in technology management, policy and ethics, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology from Trent University (Peterborough, Ontario).



Brown, P., & Garver, G. (2009). Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy. San Francisco, California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Cohen, N. (2001). What Works: Grameen Telecom’s Village Phones. Washington DC: World Resources Institute.

Garside, B. (2009). Village Voice: Towards Inclusive Information Technologies, IIED Briefing, April 2009,

Gasper, D. (2011, August 17-18). Development Ethics-What? Why? How? Paper presented at UNESCO forum on Rethinking Development: Ethics and Social Inclusion, Mexico City, Mexico.

Hilty, L., & Hercheui, M. (2010). ICT and Sustainable Development. What Kind of Information Society? Governance, Virtuality, Surveillance, Sustainability, Resilience. Boston, MA: Springer. pp. 227-235.

Isenmann, R. (2008). Sustainable Information Society. In M. Quingley (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Information Ethics. Hershey, PA: IGI Global. pp. 622–630

World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our Common Future. London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Tongia, R., Subrahmanian, E. & Arunachalam, V. S. (2005). Information and Communications Technology for Sustainable Development: Defining a Global Research Agenda. Bangalore: Allied Press.

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