Theory of Unintended Consequences

Proponents of the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid point to shampoo sachets as an example of affordability. Exponential adoption of mobile phones is a boon, especially for ICT innovation projects. Drone transport can solve last mile delivery issues in inaccessible locations. Yet, buried in these innovations are unintended consequences that cause damage as well. Can you guess what those are?

Coral Reef, Belize (cc) World Resources Institute

Coral Reef, Belize (cc) World Resources Institute

This was part of my presentation at the recent ICT4D conference on Increasing Impact through Innovation convened by the Catholic Relief Services (CRS). (Side note: It was a great conference as you can see from the summary on storify’s Top Tweets from Catholic Relief Services’ ICT4D2015 Conference)

According to Wikipedia (the last word on everything obviously ;)), “the law of unintended consequences has come to be used as an adage or idiomatic warning that an intervention in a complex system tends to create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.”

Coming back to the unintended consequences of three examples at the start of this blog post, shampoo sachets are a waste disposal nightmare. Before the mobile phone era, public call office (PCO) licenses were given to the handicapped, underprivileged women and wounded veterans in India, who could use it to create a thriving small business. They lost their livelihoods, similar to how Grameen Phone’s success meant phone ladies’ loss in Bangladesh. The conversations about delivery drones make the shiny-object-loving-geek in me happy. However, what of the youth who augment their earning by serving as couriers for local shops, as is the case in India and other developing countries?

There are many more examples of Unintended Consequences on that Wikipedia page. So what are we to do? Throw up our hands and give up? Of course not!

Systems by their very nature are complex. One-point answers are not at all possible. Neither are simplistic solutions. Here are a few ways we can begin to address this.

Impact Models

Monitoring and evaluation of a project’s impact is at the heart of many international development projects. Why don’t we expand this even more to include a rigorous study of unintended consequences before implementing innovation projects? Of course, there is the danger of analysis paralysis here but it will at least help surface serious issues if any.

Renewable Economics

Public private partnerships (PPP) are becoming a popular method of pooling resources to combat intractable social problems. The concept of co-creation with the users of the product or service is also gaining credence. Let us push these envelopes even further. How about co-ownership? For example, in the case of the futuristic drone example, maybe local communities can co-own the drone company and enjoy its financial benefits alongside financial investors. Maybe this will result in a renewed capitalism (capitalism 2.0? :)) that values generating economic, social, and environmental wealth equally.

Iterative Development

Entrepreneurs world over are taking the lessons of lean startups and creating companies that test hypothesis and iterate at a fast pace. Technology sector has already moved from waterfall to agile software development methodologies. However, adopting these for ICT innovations means that we have to disrupt existing models of designing, funding, and implementing projects. Alongside funding multi-year projects with definitive plan, activities, outputs, and outcomes, why don’t we create projects that are shorter and have at their heart experimenting, learning, and tweaking the project design until the intended impact is achieved? Fortunately many funders are recognizing this and new types of funding are springing up such as Global Development Lab, Development Innovation Ventures, and Global Innovation Fund. More will likely emerge in the future.

Of course, the above is just a beginning. There are many other ways to address this as well. What are your thoughts on unintended consequences and ways to mitigate them?

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