Development 2.0 - the challenge of planning for serendipity

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From McKinsey's article on "Six ways to make Web 2.0 work" that set the social media world on fire recently:

Our research shows the applications that drive the most value through participatory technologies often aren’t those that management expects. Efforts go awry when organizations try to dictate their preferred uses of the technologies...rather than observing what works and then scaling it up." (Italics are mine.)

The article goes on to quote a company that introduced a social networking tool for new hires: "The intended use never caught on, but people in the company’s recruiting staff began using the tools to share recruiting tips and pass along information about specific candidates and their qualifications. The company, however, has yet to scale up this successful, albeit unintended, use."

McKinsey focused on enterprise collaboration. However, there's a parallel to be drawn here with the applications of Web 2.0 to development. One of the reasons why Development 2.0 is so hard for many traditional development players to embrace is that it challenges the linear thinking of logical frameworks and the (sadly) still deeply engrained assumption that a project needs to be a success almost by default if it is to get funding from donors. Web 2.0 is the realm of uninteded uses and consequences, and success might be defined by the end users in ways that are substantially different from what was originally planned in project proposals. (This TED Talk on the unintended uses of Twitter by one of its co-founders makes the point quite forcefully).

Development 2.0 is about embracing user-driven innovation, non-linear planning and scaling up instances of successful technology adoption even if they go beyond the original "output/outcome" framework. Take for instance the "Big Board" project, aimed at facilitating village-to-village mobile communication in rural areas in Africa (hat tip: Chris Kreutz):

In the trial the two most popular types of user-generated content were completely unexpected.Young people used the board to upload T-shirt designs which a local printer then downloaded and manufactured, and local choirs used it to swap recordings of their gospel choir performances.

The lesson about the serendipity of technology adoption is hardly new. What is different with Web 2.0, though, is that, on the one hand, the cost of failure can be significantly reduced and, on the other, scaling up can be dramatically accelerated through network effects. Is the development world ready for this shift?

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