News - Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, Belfer Center

Information and Communications Technology and Public Policy: The Next Wave

| November 15, 2011

Conference at the Harvard Kennedy School, September 27–29, 2011

  • How do you transform an invention into an innovation that changes society?
  • Why does the transition to a new internet protocol amount to a "brain transplant?"
  • How can "interactive geospatial mapping" save lives?
  • How can schools use technology as more than just as a hood ornament? (hint: start with "student-centric" teaching—and use technology to empower it)

satellitesThose were just a few of the questions addressed by industry and academic experts from Harvard, MIT, and other Boston-area universities at a three-day conference in September 2011, convened by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affair's Information and Communications Technology and Public Policy Project (ICTPP) at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). The event examined policy choices facing the fast-changing field of information and communications technology at the intersection of public policy.

Professor Venkatesh Narayanamurti, faculty chair and director of the Belfer Center's Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program (STPP) challenged the audience of technology executives to build organizations able to translate inventions into innovations over the long haul:

"It might be a radical invention like a light bulb: It's complex, it's interactive, and you need to understand that both science and engineering are involved in innovation," said Narayanamurti, the founding dean of Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "You need leaders who understand [that] cannot be done in the short term."

"Don't just think about software," he added. "Think about the society 10 years down the road, and think about the technology in that context."

STPP launched ICTPP in 2010 to suggest new policy approaches to address these challenges. The three-day "Next Wave" conference was organized and moderated by Zachary Tumin, special assistant to Narayanamurti. Some of the speakers' presentations are available for download below.

The conference heard Peter Bol, the Charles H. Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations (and ICTPP faculty affiliate), describe the project he directs with partners at Fudan University in Shanghai to create a geospatial information system covering 2,000 years of Chinese history.

Bol was joined by Wendy Guan, the executive director of the Harvard Center for Geographical Analysis, who discussed the transition from passive, static mapping to interactive geospatial mapping—and the ways this information technology was used in the Haiti earthquake and the Japanese tsunami to locate victims and direct emergency resources.

"It has to be more than a really cool map," Bol said.

Speakers ranged far and wide on the issues straddling information technology and public policy. ICTPP Fellow Tolu Odumosu warned of key challenges ahead for Internet governance, including the transition to a new Internet Protocol known as "version six" that he likened to a brain transplant for the internet. MIT Professor Nazli Choucri and ICTPP Fellow Aadya Shukla suggested that improved performance on cybersecurity requires fundamental agreements on the language used to describe cyber events.

The Vietnam Program director at the HKS Ash Center, Tommy Vallely, described the explosive growth of cellular telephone use throughout Southeast Asia and how that is transforming economies and creating opportunities for investors. In a luncheon address, Professor Calestous Juma, director of STPP's Science, Technology, and Globalization Project, sketched similar growth in African information technologies, which are leapfrogging past land lines. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, challenged technology companies working in autocratic countries to use "constructive defiance" to keep governments from crushing free speech with internet censorship.

Chris Dede, Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard's Graduate School of Education (and ICTPP faculty affiliate), described the innovative thinking behind the 2010 National Education Technology Plan. A key lesson, he said, is to stop thinking first about the technological devices and focus instead on student-centric teaching and learning models. Use concepts such as "intelligence amplification" and "distributed education."

The Ash Center for Democracy Governance and Innovation's Archon Fung, Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at HKS (and ICTPP faculty affiliate), examined the intersection of technology and politics. He said he doubted there would or even could be a killer app in politics like those transforming the economy, production, and social relations. But he said technology can have an incremental positive impact in politics and policymaking.

"In our case studies, we saw that when technology works, it's because it amplifies the face-to-face organizations," he said.

"It's a mistake to focus just on the technology. Rather, figure out all the context pieces of the puzzle and then use the technology. Technology can accelerate political action, like using a power drill rather than a hand drill."

The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, & Public Policy's Nicco Mele, HKS Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy, echoed Professor Fung's comments in a dinner address. A veteran of the earliest Internet campaigns, Mele regaled participants with illuminating war stories and a succession of "Wow. Huh?" moments from the earliest days of Internet campaigning to tomorrow's.

Thomas Davenport, who holds the president's chair in information technology management at Babson College, suggested ways that governments and nonprofit organizations can step up their use of analytics to move beyond describing a current situation.

"The key is predictive and prescriptive analytics," said Davenport. "That is the 'so what'". Ashish Jha, C. Boyden Gray Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management at Harvard School of Public Health (and ICTPP faculty affiliate) captured the attention of all even in the final session of the workshop, assessing the critical importance to the success of technology intervention from engagement of users and a keen understanding of the underlying business processes. Failing that, even "home run" technology innovations can be game-ending strike outs.

Ashley Brown, executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, pointed out some of the policy obstacles to using technology fully. He said only a handful of utilities are exploiting the available technology for smart meters to send signals to consumers on when it is cheapest to use electricity. That is because utilities have lobbied against such innovations so they can spread the risk of price swings among all energy consumers.

"Objections are rooted in politics and social perceptions, not technology constraints," Brown said. "So energy conservation is very difficult to do because it is divorced from price signaling."

Julius Akinyemi, the resident entrepreneur at MIT's Media Lab in Cambridge, said the explosion in cellphone usage in developing countries offers a huge opportunity to build a "mobile money value chain" that would link transactions through a mobile hub to "epayments" and virtual wallets used by recipients of transactions.

"At a market in Nigeria, there is a huge volume of financial activities. The same occurs at the bazaar in Turkey….We are missing all those transactions within the financial system," said Akinyemi, the former global director of emerging technologies for PepsiCo.


Photo credit: Martha Stewart


Speakers' Presentations Available for Download:

For more information on this publication: Please contact Science, Technology, and Public Policy
For Academic Citation: Smith, James F.. “Information and Communications Technology and Public Policy: The Next Wave.” News, Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, Belfer Center, November 15, 2011.

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