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TRACK 2: Applying systems thinking in ICT4D
Track Chairs: Marita Turpin and Mario Marais

Despite repeated calls for the use of systems thinking in Information Systems research there has been limited responses. In terms of the application of systems thinking to the general application domain of ICT4D a recent survey of three of the main ICT4D journals and IFIP WG 9.4 conference proceedings revealed only seven publications in more than a decade that deals with systems thinking, with only four of these papers in which it plays a central role (Turpin, 2012). These papers highlight the use of systems thinking to respond to the multifaceted nature of the problem situation in ICT4D, which presents challenges that include technical, cultural, political, infrastructural and regulatory aspects. In response to this complexity, multiple perspectives are advocated that encompass multiple research paradigms and/or the use of pluralist methodologies. The methods advocated include Soft Systems Methodology, critical systems thinking, and various combinations of social and technical systems approaches.

Many questions arise. If the complex, multi-dimensional problem situation in ICT4D calls for a systems approach, why is systems thinking in ICT4D a rare approach? Is it too difficult? Are ICT4D researchers not aware or convinced of the potential benefits? Can the promised benefits be delivered? Since there is little empirical work on systems thinking in ICT4D from which to draw conclusions, it provides an opportunity for new work in ICT4D to illuminate, or even refute or support these concerns.
New work can be focussed at different levels in the system of development role players, e.g. at policy, programme, project and community levels. The Overseas Development Institute, a development thinktank, has been doing research into how to deal with the complexity of implementing development policies and programmes. The conclusion is that policy implementers need to use appropriate tools and methods based on complexity science. New research opportunities can arise in combining systems thinking with complexity science in the development and ICT4D domains.
We welcome any paper that uses systems thinking in an ICT4D context:
Firstly, papers should embrace a systems philosophy overall, such as being concerned with wholes, emergent properties, transdisciplinary thinking and interaction among subsystems.
Secondly, papers should use a clearly described systems approach, whether the approach be hard, soft, emancipatory or associated with complexity thinking.
The particular systems position taken should be motivated and substantiated, in the light of the stated ICT4D problem and context.

Suggested list of areas

  • The use of established systems approaches in ICT4D (such as SSM) as well as novel approaches
  • Development and use of pluralist systems methodologies in ICT4D
  • Combining multiple perspectives on systems in ICT4D (e.g. social, technological and ethical perspectives)
  • Empirical studies in ICT4D with a sound systems thinking application
  • The use of systems thinking as part of action research in ICT4D
  • Combining systems thinking and complexity science in ICT4D
  • Systems thinking in design, execution and evaluation of ICT4D projects
  • Systems thinking in evaluating ICT4D impact at various levels (Policy, Programme, project and community)

For paper format and submission guidelines please refer to the main conference website.

In order to provide some indication of relevant work a few references are provided.

Systems thinking in IS:
Alter, S. (2004) Desperately seeking systems thinking in the Information Systems discipline, ICIS 25, Association for Information Systems, Washington, DC.
Benbya, H. and McKelvey, B. (2006) Toward a complexity theory of information systems development, Information Technology & People, 19(1), 12-34.
Checkland, P. and Holwell, S. (1998) Information, Systems and Information Systems, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester.
Mumford, E. (2000) A Socio-Technical Approach to Systems Design, Requirements Engineering, Vol 5 pp 125-133.

Systems thinking in ICT4D:
Gunawardena, C. and Brown, D.H. (2007) IS initiatives in the vocational and technical education sector of developing Asian countries: A systems approach to the management of project intervention processes, The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, Vol 30(1) pp 1-19.
Nepal, T. and Petkov, D. (2002) A systemic framework for the evaluation of rural telecommunications infrastructure in South Africa, Proceedings of the Seventh International Working Conference of IFIP WG 9.4, Bangalore, India, May 29-31, 2002.
Turpin, M., Phahlamohlaka, J. and Marais, M. (2009) The multiple perspectives approach as a framework to analyze social systems in a developing country context. Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Social Implications of Computers in Developing Countries, 26-28 May 2009, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, pp 353 – 365.
Turpin, M. (2012) Assessing the contribution of information technology to development: A social systems framework based on structuration theory and autopoiesis, PhD dissertation (under review), University of Pretoria.
Walsham, G., Symons, V. and Waema, T. (1988) Information systems as social systems: Implications for developing countries, Information Technology for Development, Vol 3(3) pp 189-204.

Development and Policy:
Jones, H. (2011) Taking responsibility for complexity: When is a policy problem complex, why does it matter, and how can it be tackled? Briefing Paper 68 of the Overseas Development Institute, London. http://www.odi.org.uk/resources/docs/6811.pdf
Jones, H. (2011) Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems. Working Paper 330 of the Overseas Development Institute, London. http://www.odi.org.uk/resources/docs/6485.pdf

General Socio-Technical:
Whitworth, B. and De Moor, A. (2009) Handbook of Research on Socio-Technical Design and Social Networking Systems. Information Science Reference, Hershey, USA.

Williams, B. and Imam, I. (eds.) (2006). Systems Concepts in Evaluation: An Expert Anthology. American Evaluation Association.  Point Reyes, USA: EdgePress. ISBN: 9780918528216

About the track chairs:
Marita Turpin is a senior lecturer at the Department of Informatics, University of Pretoria. She has submitted a  PhD for examination where she applies systems thinking in ICT4D. In particular, she uses a social systems theory to describe and assess the contribution to socio-economic development of an ICT4D initiative in rural KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.
Mario Marais is a senior researcher in the Living Labs and Usability Methodologies research group of the CSIR Meraka Institute (www.csir.co.za/meraka) and a part-time PhD student in Informatics at the University of Pretoria. His research focuses on the factors which influence the long-term sustainability of ICT4D initiatives.

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