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Human-driven development through shared ownership and decentralization

Carolina Odman and Kevin Govender explore how science and technology can fundamentally change the context in which human development is defined, through the lens of shared ownership and decentralization.


Conversations, insights, planning, strategizing and thinking over the last three decades about human development, by great minds from all over the world, have shaped an amazing landscape around this issue, within which we all strive for one simple goal: to make the world a better place. While ‘rearticulating human development’, we must celebrate the wisdom that came before and recognize the strengths of the current state of play. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the current definition of human development, nor with the Sustainable Development Goals – they are a comprehensive and worthy set of ambitions that has managed to rally the world’s leaders (both in government and industry) and provide common ground for a diverse human population to work towards a united vision.

The question rather is what can we do better in a world very different from 30 years ago? Where are the gaps that would motivate this rethinking of human development? The six ‘emerging dimensions for a new human development paradigm’, as articulated by the ISC-UNDP project, capture well the possible issues in need of consideration. Here we explore an overall perspective of this already well-informed landscape, with a focus on science and technology, and two underlying principles: one of shared ownership and one of decentralization. With a combined lens of shared ownership and decentralization, we explore how science and technology can fundamentally change the context in which human development is defined.

Shared ownership: what if development goals were everyone’s goals?

Astronomy gives people the perspective and humility needed to be able to change the world.

In the current world, it seems like the expectation, the vocabulary, the narrative, the very spirit of human development, has been built around the idea that it is the responsibility of a few to deliver ‘development’ to the many. The responsibility seems to lie heavily on governments or large organizations providing infrastructure or services such as water, power, healthcare and education. Furthermore, a model has emerged since World War II where ‘development’ has been delegated to ‘the economy’. Indeed, the wealthy can afford access to services and infrastructure because they have economic power, whereas those who don’t have to make do without. In the book Poor Economics, the authors make the observation about rich nations that their peoples’ needs are not just met, but are also protected by structural safety nets such as the welfare state. Their citizens therefore are less vulnerable than their poorer fellow humans and can live much more secure lives.

While the current definition of human development goes beyond economic indicators, economic power remains the only tool by which development is driven. Wealthy countries invest economic power into mainly centralized infrastructures and services that in turn make that society able to feed back power through, for example, taxes. But is this model of economic power as the only driver of development sustainable and suitable for all societies? Countries with weak institutions leak economic power through corruption, for example. If development wasn’t enabled solely through the power of economic currency, could the loss of development for those countries be reduced? And can we trust governments to provide for everyone, when globally, even democracy has been shaken by the use of misinformation for political ends?

So, let us explore what would happen if we changed the expectation, the vocabulary, the narrative, the very spirit of human development, to one where the ownership of development lies not so much in government structures but more in empowered individual and community structures closer to the ground.

We must emphasize that this is not about completely shifting ownership from government to individuals, but rather a greater sharing of ownership. More importantly, it is about the spirit of empowering people to be more resilient on their own. This could be a very sensitive matter in many countries, as it involves changing how we have been groomed to think as a society. This is especially true in highly unequal societies where the government is expected to provide for the poor, given how many rich there are within that society. An anecdote from rural South Africa to illustrate this: when trying to install biogas digesters for human waste in a remote village, implementers of the project faced a challenge of adoption by the local community, and were asked ‘why should we have to shovel our own sh*t when the rich people in the country can just press a switch?’

Sharing ownership does not imply a removal of governments’ responsibility to serve their people, nor does it imply any less need for governing structures in society. A narrative of human-centred development being owned by the humans themselves means that governing structures focus their energies more on the empowerment of individuals and communities in order to deliver on development goals, enabling human development to flourish in its own context.

In practice this would mean that achieving a goal of zero hunger, for example, relies on a spirit of disconnecting this goal from economic reliance and moving towards investment in self-sustainability. Rather than investing in cheaper foods through imports and mass production, or moving large quantities of food great distances, often at the cost of nutritional value and the environment, governments would invest more in empowering people by providing them with access to land, stimulating community gardens, spreading education on sustainable food production techniques as well as nutrition. Changing the narrative means changing how we think about a particular development goal.

Importantly, creating a spirit of empowerment means that society becomes less reliant on ‘the economy’ and a more sustained system of human-driven development is achieved. If development is indeed about freedom, as described by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr in her contribution to this volume, then governments can strive to ensure that their people have the freedom to take care of themselves. Human-driven development means that a government should actually strive to empower its people, through knowledge and resources, to be able to take care of themselves and take ownership of the means of their development. That is where true resilience resides.

In astronomy education and research, a big focus is on the ‘knowledge’ part of empowerment. We tackle some of the biggest questions imaginable, and push the boundaries of technology in trying to find answers: where did the universe come from? Where is it going? Is there life beyond planet Earth? However, in recent years, the field of ‘astronomy for development’ has emerged, where, through these questions, we also try to inspire every human to realize and release the incredible potential of their own minds. We strive to create problem solvers. We use the excitement of exploration to push the limits of our problem-solving abilities, and then apply these abilities directly to development challenges on earth. Within every individual mind lies the capacity to understand the mechanics of the universe – and that capacity, if adequately supported and celebrated, would take us beyond the challenges of today and the unforeseen challenges of tomorrow.

An example to illustrate: one of the authors of this article took telescopes into a refugee camp and explained what people could see through it. Amidst all the desperation and hopelessness around the camp, the author was overwhelmed with enthusiastic questions, conversations and debates on everything from the shape of the earth to the existence of life on other planets. When one of the individuals from the camp, who had voluntarily helped with translations, was helping pack up the telescopes, he could hardly contain his excitement: ‘I never thought that I could actually understand and explain to people about such things like the planet Jupiter!’ He went on, ‘I have always wanted to study journalism but never thought I was good enough. But if I can actually understand something like Jupiter, then I know I can do journalism.’ An inspired mind can do great things.

Governments should inspire and empower their people. Inspiration requires an environment that feeds natural curiosity about the world around us and beyond – curiosity that in turn can trigger motivation and creativity. Empowerment requires two things: knowledge and resources. These are things that governments can make available for, and accessible to, their people, thereby sharing the ownership of development goals with them. This decentralization of ownership needs to be accompanied by a decentralization of the tools and technologies of development. Fortunately, science and technology has reached a state of sophistication and democratization that enables the complexities of a decentralization of development.

Decentralization: taking the eggs out of the basket

In very broad strokes, the two technological elements that have brought many developed societies to where they are today are digitization and networking. Digitizing information from any source (biological, physical or social, for example) has given machines the ability to process and analyse it. Networking has connected not only people but also the machines processing information. This has given access to new data sources and new analyses, bridging the realms of the physical world and the cyber world and effectively making the internet an organically connected form of distributed intelligence. At the endpoints of the vast internet are increasingly intelligent machines in the hands of humans – like smartphones, or bits of technology forming their own infrastructure (the ‘internet of things’). Today, we find ourselves at the meeting point of powerful technologies.

Where technologies this powerful meet, new dimensions of innovation open up, which previously belonged in the realm of science fiction. Between high-performance computing, big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning lies the sweet spot that rushes us into the 4th industrial revolution (a term coined by the Prof. Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, to describe the deep technological evolution triggered by the crossing of cyber, physical, biological and social boundaries). But therein lies also the opportunity for smaller, maybe less impressive, but highly adapted, affordable technology to service the needs of communities. It is important to note that empowering communities, to use the fruits of science and technology for their benefit, is conditional on the availability of open data, open knowledge, open source technologies and open science.

Previous industrial revolutions were greatly aided by the definition and adoption of technical standards, some as innocuous as screw threads to match nuts and bolts, others as dramatic as railway gauges. Likewise, standards in all aspects of technology nowadays democratize access to those technologies. Web technologies have standards that enable anyone to write a web page and anyone else to be able to read it through any browser. Standards break down technologies into small parts that can be used together to create something new. What is different is that standards exist now not just in the technological elements themselves, but in the tools to build them. That enables economies of scale for minor users. 3D printing, for example, enables the conceptualization of a usable object and its creation from a desktop. Today, people can create technology on a small scale, and start using it without incurring the high costs associated with technology creation in the past.

Science and technology give us the ability to decentralize development, and to shift the ethos of human-centred development, towards human-driven development. Currently, most countries rely on central infrastructure and centralized services. Banking, water distribution systems, the power grid, national school systems, and even hospitals are all forms of centralized infrastructure and services. What happens if we adopt the decentralized perspective enabled by technology, and apply it to those aspects that are considered fundamental for human development?

To develop that perspective, we can look at society as embedded within layers of networks. It is known that less centralized networks are much more resilient to failure. A decentralized network is one that distributes a workload and provides redundancy instead of being vulnerable at single points of failure. This is one of the key principles of a strong internet infrastructure, for example. Let us look at some of those centralized infrastructures and services mentioned above, and try to make them more resilient based on the idea of decentralized networks.

Banking and financial services

The formal economy is centralized, and whenever it is hit by a strong downturn, like the 2008 financial crisis, shockwaves are sent all the way down to the individual consumer. The informal economy, however, is quite different and has properties of a decentralized network. It depends much more on local conditions, meaning that an event that occurs due to poor decision-making by a relatively small number of people in one place is unlikely to change informal trade in another place far away.

The informal economy is also a highly adaptive system. Blockchain technologies and their implementation as cryptocurrencies are a way to decentralize trust in financial transactions and rely less on central financial authorities. In fact, there are several different cryptocurrencies that each have their own marketplaces and operate independently of one another. Does this open the road towards an alternative to traditional financial services for the world’s ‘unbanked’ population? This is a growing possibility with both opportunities and challenges currently being taken seriously by the financial services industry.

Water and sanitation

Many of us rely on a central piped water system, which itself relies on large water treatment plants, far away from where the water is used. It is acknowledged that water loss through piped systems cannot be eliminated and places as developed as Central Europe report that 25–50% of water is never billed for; of this, 80–100% is physical loss through leaks. This is critical considering that only about 1% of the world’s freshwater (itself only about 2.5% of the world’s total water) is available for human use. As more places around the world face droughts, the need for consumers of water to have a close connection with the source of this water is key to changing wasteful attitudes towards this limited resource.

The way the 2017–2018 drought in Cape Town was managed made global headlines. With people fully behind avoiding ‘day zero’ (when the taps would run dry) it showed that it is possible, with the right message, to shift the behaviour of a large urban population in a small amount of time. Rain is the main way water resources are replenished, and the state of our water resources and the climate are well researched. So, from scientific research for drought management to rain collection and water purification technologies, there are numerous and affordable tools for better water management that can easily be deployed at a community level.


Power supply is possibly the most obvious of sectors to decentralize. Numerous technologies are more environmentally friendly, standalone and affordable than the system of burning large quantities of fossil fuels to feed into a maintenance-heavy power grid infrastructure. With renewable energy technology, the current centralized system could become obsolete. The grid remains useful, however, when it enables private power generation to be fed into the system, giving it more resilience. This can reduce the need for rolling blackouts, used by some emerging economies to manage an aging central power grid in the face of surging demand. When stressors are applied to an ailing infrastructure such as the power grid, it can stimulate the adoption of better technologies. For example, when rolling blackouts started happening in South Africa, where they are locally known as ‘load-shedding’, they stimulated a local industry of small-scale power self-reliance solutions and some economic opportunities.


Could national education systems be dismantled in favour of a decentralized system? This is a difficult question as education is typically a sector where regulation is valuable – it has been shown that a fully free-market approach to education is detrimental to the students of that education (Hemsley-Brown, 2011; Dynarski 2016). We do see, however, that some of the most respected educational courses can be studied from nearly anywhere with the rise in online learning. The coronavirus pandemic has precipitated the world of education online like nothing previously, and it is difficult to imagine that we will ever go back to a physical-only education system.

But even before the COVID-19 crisis, it was possible to gain fully accredited qualifications, or even refresh one’s knowledge, from many institutions without ever setting foot on those institutions’ central campuses, with some universities setting up satellite sites internationally. Of course, access to technology here is the key enabler to access education, both formally and informally. It is worth noting also that many smaller institutions are now able to provide online education. This includes locally and regionally relevant education providers that play a key role in empowering communities.


Since 1978, the World Health Organization and UNICEF have advocated for primary healthcare, where ‘Emphasis is placed on the importance of maximum community and individual self-reliance as the most reliable route to widespread, equitable, and sustained improvements in health’ (WHO and UNICEF, 1978). Bringing primary caretakers into the bigger picture of healthcare enables the inclusion of rising public health challenges, with information and education of those primary caretakers being a powerful vector for prevention and mitigation.

In areas of the world where human development (as currently defined) is not the highest, primary caretakers are most often mothers, and women in general. Their ability to care can be greatly enhanced with better information, better education and better public health monitoring, for example. Educational mobile apps, telemedicine, better data collection and monitoring of public health issues are examples already in existence. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials have repeatedly highlighted the importance of social distancing, testing and contact tracing because medical infrastructure is not able to cope with very large numbers of cases. That is putting the first step of containment of a global challenge directly into people’s hands, and relying on existing infrastructure only to assist those who really need help.


The shift to big data can be broadly described as a move from once-off analyses to a real-time, contextually relevant intelligence. It is a change of perspective in reporting systems from a limited number of static and statistical indicators to a near-real-time granular, interacting complex system. This opens the door to going beyond averages, towards a more complex understanding of the challenges to human development. Machine learning and other means of creating complex algorithms allow for the inclusive analysis of outliers and the contextualization of needs as informed from big data analytics.

At the crossroads of science and technology, the many projects of the UN Global Pulse (the UN Secretary-General’s initiative on big data and artificial intelligence for development, humanitarian action and peace) are great demonstrators of this thinking. This new paradigm of information and knowledge ought to enable a much more complex and adaptive definition of meaningful development indices, tailored to local conditions. Again, open data, open source technologies and open science are critical for this to be realized.

Each of the examples above could certainly be developed further, but this is beyond the scope of this contribution.

In the description of digital transformation as an emerging dimension of human development on the UNDP-ISC project website, it is written that “Leveraging technologies for human development, to serve the goals of social and environmental sustainability, is a major challenge.” We acknowledge this challenge; in the healthcare and education examples above, the solutions mentioned often require smart device technology.

But new technology is not always a necessity. Community radio is a much older technology that, in certain regions, has a much better penetration than, say, smartphones equipped with an array of sensors. So, we need to acknowledge that when technology is applied, impacts depend on the level of availability, access and adoption of that technology. But innovation isn’t limited to the creation of new technology. Innovation is often repurposing existing technologies, whichever they may be. That’s why current innovation, driven by science and technology, points strongly to growing opportunities to create solutions at the local and community level.


Changing the lens through which we view development, to one of shared ownership and decentralization, would mean that society as a whole becomes more resilient both to unanticipated shocks of the future and to the foreseeable grand challenges facing humanity. The spirit of development needs to move away from the expectation of a central authority that provides, to one of shared ownership, and from central infrastructure and service provision to decentralization. Through examples, we have painted a picture of how democratized, affordable, compatible elements of technology, along with the vast realm of scientific research, can deliver locally relevant, owned and valued development for communities globally. This requires a major shift in thinking from governments, development organizations and communities, where centralized structures are facilitators rather than providers of development. It requires humility and a big-picture perspective from all stakeholders and deep engagement with communities.

Carl Sagan famously spoke of the earth as viewed from the Voyager spacecraft, saying ‘it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known’. Astronomy gives people the perspective and humility needed to be able to change the world. Just as the sky is accessible to all who wish to engage with it, so can human knowledge and technology be made available to individuals, and empower communities around the world, such that they are free to have as much ownership of their development challenges as their governments do. Finally, to truly achieve human development, and to release the full potential of the human mind, people also need to be inspired. Reaching a level of development where most people are secure, the environment is under less pressure and peace is everywhere, should be seen as no less of an achievement than discovering life elsewhere in the universe.

Carolina Odman is a Professor at the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy, University of the Western Cape, South Africa, and Kevin Govender works at the Office of Astronomy for Development,Cape Town, South Africa.

Image by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center via Flickr.

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