In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about! We are posting selected articles each week to give readers time to savor the array of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays in this very special issue. Check the website every Monday!

Beyond Engineering for Sustainable Global Development

Monday, January 11, 2021

Author: Kentaro Toyama

About 5 years ago the number of mobile phone accounts in the world exceeded the total human population (ITU 2019). Nomadic pastoralists in East Africa and tribal communities in South Asia make fluent use of cellphones, even where life is otherwise preindustrial, even preagrarian. As measured by the speed and extent of its market penetration, the mobile phone is the most successful consumer product in the history of human civilization.

But what has been its impact on global socioeconomic development, and what can we expect of its technological descendants? An interdisciplinary research community focused on information and communication technologies and development  has found mixed outcomes.

Benefits, Shortcomings, Lessons Learned

On the positive side, mobile phones have a range of benefits. They offer portable, real-time communication at a remarkably low cost, connecting communities that, just a decade ago, were largely isolated. Migrant workers stay in touch with their families. Smallholder farmers receive text-message weather alerts. Shopkeepers accept mobile payments in lieu of cash. In the south Indian state of Kerala, the arrival of cellular towers improved fishing markets, leading to a 5 percent decline in the price of sardines for consumers and a 9 percent increase in profits for fishermen, who used their mobile phones to call ahead to find the best market on shore at which to sell, flattening prices across the coastline and eliminating wasteful gluts (Jensen 2007).

Smartphones and 3G appear to have augmented these effects, putting the power of internet-enabled supercomputers in purses and pockets everywhere. Thanks to Chinese low-cost handsets, local markets for second-hand (and third- and fourth-hand…) devices, and fierce competition among mobile operators, day laborers in the developing world now have access to goods and services that wealthy 20th century elites never had: movies anywhere on demand, instant money transfer, political protest by swiping a screen.

The same technologies, however, have caused their share of problems. Mobile payments and crypto­currencies have facilitated international money laundering. In the world’s poorest households, meager income is sometimes diverted from nutrition and education to keep mobile phones topped up. And every country appears to be wrestling with the problem of fast-flying fake news about politics, public figures, personal health, and myriad other topics.

Even focused attempts to apply digital technologies toward positive ends rarely succeed. Efforts to improve education with laptops and smartphones consistently fail to show results. Making corruption visible through online reporting changes little where citizens always knew it was happening. Just as previous generations of development engineers promoted innovative cookstoves that no one used and sent medical devices to rural clinics ill equipped to maintain them, today’s technological do-gooders often fail to appreciate the nonengineering challenges that must be addressed for innovation to have positive impacts.

Fortunately, interest in engineering for development and its poor track record of success has led to reflection among engineers and development practitioners, and to a search for more effective ways to design and apply technology. Some engineers recommend that technologies be codesigned in collaboration with the communities they are meant to benefit (Brewer et al. 2005). Others suggest an emphasis on training and partnership to ensure that users have and know what they need to take advantage of a technology (Chib and Zhao 2009). Still others emphasize that systems are sociotechnical; good outcomes require a combination of design decisions and institutional choices that account for each other (Dearden and Rizvi 2009). Almost everyone agrees that that the social context in which a technology is used is as important as the technology itself.

One way to encapsulate these insights is to see that technology does not add a fixed benefit wherever it is adopted; rather, it amplifies underlying human forces (Toyama 2015). Where those forces—social, political, cultural, economic—are capable and well intentioned, technology can make things better, but where they are ineffective or dysfunctional, even the best-engineered technology cannot turn things around. Where human forces are corrupt or repressive, adding powerful tools can even make things worse.

The Next 50 Years: Reconsidering Assumptions

What will the next 50 years bring? On the one hand, technological advances will continue, with improvements in artificial intelligence, robotics, device affordability, and miniaturization, among others. It is less clear whether there will be nanorobots that hunt down malarial mosquitoes, embedded chips that allow direct brain-to-brain communication, or learning machines that “teach” mathematics through noncontact synaptic induction.

Technology does not add a fixed benefit wherever it is adopted; rather, it amplifies underlying human forces.

But if future technologies are difficult to predict, the law of amplification allows some prediction about their societal impact. If global politics and economic institutions continue largely as they are, no technology in the future will eliminate poverty, heal the rifts of inequality, rein in climate change, or ensure sustainability.

In fact, each new technology may exacerbate existing problems. Technologies of productivity will be appropriated by wealthy capitalists, even if some trickle down to the masses. Technologies of sustainability will be restrained for their perceived harm to existing businesses, even if they could reverse the ravages of the Anthropocene. And technologies of entertainment and consumption will provide an opiate for all as the world lurches from crisis to crisis.

Those projections, of course, assume current politics and capitalism. Beginning in the 1940s, the scientists who ushered in the nuclear age foresaw the threat of a world armed with atomic weapons. Adding their collective voice to those of activists, they lobbied national governments to contain the technology; their efforts culminated in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970. A half-century later, only nine countries have nuclear weapons—an astonishing political feat.

Another half-century from now, what technologies will be available are anyone’s guess. But for the products of engineering ingenuity to contribute to sustainable development, underlying human forces must be righted. For that, engineers will need to engage in their capacity not only as designers, architects, and scientists but as global citizens and activists.


Brewer E, Demmer M, Du B, Ho M, Kam M, Nedevschi S, Pal J, Patra R, Surana S, Fall K. 2005. The case for technology in developing regions. Computer 38(6):25–38.

Chib A, Zhao J. 2009. Sustainability of ICT interventions: Lessons from rural projects in China and India. In: ­Communicating for Social Impact: Engaging Communication Theory, Research, and Pedagogy, eds Harter L, Dutta MJ, Cole CE. Cresskill NJ: Hampton Press.

Dearden A, Rizvi SMH. 2009. A deeply embedded sociotechnical strategy for designing ICT for development. International Journal of Sociotechnology and Knowledge Development 1(4):52–70.

ITU [International Telecommunications Union]. 2019. Key ICT indicators for developed and developing countries and the world (totals and penetration rates). Online at­ statistics/2019/ITU_Key_2005-2019_ICT_data_with%20LDCs_ 28Oct2019_Final.xls.

Jensen R. 2007. The digital provide: Information (technology), market performance, and welfare in the South Indian fisheries sector. Quarterly Journal of Economics 122(3):879–924.

Toyama K. 2015. Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. New York: PublicAffairs.

About the Author:Kentaro Toyama is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Community Information in the University of Michigan School of Information.