A Principled Approach to Rural Digital Transformation

Rural communities are disproportionally left behind when it comes to digital services, particularly in the fourth industrial revolution. Niger, which has a large rural population of 84 percent, wanted to ensure that its efforts to digital transformation reached and improved the lives of rural citizens. In 2018, Niger Agence Nationale pour la Société d’Information (ANSI) collaborated with ITU, WHO, FAO, UNESCO, and DIAL (The Digital Impact Alliance) to implement the Niger Smart Villages project. “Smart villages will deliver SDG-related services and improve the quality of life for rural citizens through an inclusive digital transformation process, which means a continuous improvement to the way SDG related service delivery is conceptualized, planned, designed, deployed, and operated, to improve daily life in the most impoverished communities.”

An early goal of the project was to share learning with the hope that other countries interested in this approach could reuse and build upon the work undertaken in Niger. The Smart Village concept is not unique to Niger and can be replicated in other countries with rural populations. In collaboration with DIAL, ANSI and ITU recently co-published an initial blueprint, Building Smart Villages: A blueprint, of how to design, build, and deploy Smart Villages. The blueprint aims to share the approach and reduce barriers to replicating the Smart Village approach in other countries. The step-by-step guidance for transforming remote rural settlements into smart villages and delivering much-needed services and tools to their populations is a first draft and call for others to provide feedback as they implement the approach in their own countries.

Leveraging existing tools and resources

The Smart Village project leverages available resources, like the Principles for Digital Development and digital tools, like the SDG Digital Investment Framework. In doing this, the project applies the ‘Reuse and Improve Principle by adopting and using existing resources to a deliver quality digital services to Niger’s rural citizens in alignment with the SDGs.

The Principles for Digital Development (Digital Principles) play a prominent role in guiding the planning, design, and delivery of the Smart Village concept. The Blueprint provides a concrete example of how governments can adopt the Digital Principles and tangibly apply them to influence key strategic digital initiatives like the Smart Villages. By contextualizing the Digital Principles, the Blueprint turns them into a framework that allows practitioners to implement responsible use of digital technologies at the local level. Additionally, the Blueprint has adopted the Digital Principles’ Project Lifecycle categories for better framing the necessary steps for implementing digital programs.

The services provided in a Smart Village cut across sectors, demanding a whole-of-government approach, rather than a sector by sector or fragmented approach to building digital solutions. The team wanted to create an approach where infrastructure and investments were shared and re-used. The SDG Digital Investment Framework provided a foundation of how to design in an interoperable way and disrupting the traditional siloed approach. Each of the building blocks supported SDG goals across sectors. The Smart Village blueprint details how to leverage the framework and map the building blocks to the specific SDG targets and goals.

Why were the Digital Principles used?

Based on the lessons from past and present experience with setting up, managing, and sustaining Smart Villages, the Digital Principles were suggested as a starting point as they are valuable guidelines for digital projects to build upon. While each new Smart Village may identify their own additional principles based on their own context and effort (e.g. best practices that are culturally relevant), it is useful to start with the globally-accepted Principles for Digital Development as a foundation.

“Digital initiatives need guiding principles to align stakeholders and ensure the desired intentions are embodied throughout all activities and phases of the work.  The Digital Principles provide a great foundation of best practice and were created by the digital development community. Using the Digital Principles to frame important activities in establishing a Smart Village meant we were adding to the inventory of existing guidance for their implementation, and our process could be immediately understood by other development actors,” said Hani Eskandar, Senior Coordinator, Telecommunications Development Bureau International Telecommunications Union.

How were the Digital Principles used?

Source: Principles for Digital Development Project lifecycle phases

Not only were the Digital Principles used to guide the creation of the Blueprint, but the Digital Principles’ project lifecycle frame was used as a guide for creating a Smart Village. These four life cycle phases – Analyze and Plan, Design and Develop, Deploy and Implement, and Cross-cutting: Monitor and Evaluate – were specifically chosen by the Digital Principles team in 2017 to better explain how individual Principles could be put into action across a project or program’s lifecycle. It is an adaptation of both common development project lifecycles and the traditional software development. This was intentional, so that Digital Principles guidance would make sense whether a practitioner was a program manager or a technology developer.

During the Analysis and Planning phase, the Blueprint recommends starting by learning from past work in the development sector. This directly corresponds with the Understand the Existing Ecosystem principle. It is also recommended that at this phase, practitioners decide what their guiding principles will be; in the case of the Smart Village Blueprint, these are the Digital Principles plus an additional context-specific additional principle: “develop solutions that are locally appropriate, equitable, and inclusive.”

The Design and Development phase provides guidance on holistic design approaches, citizen involvement, market demand assessments, digital infrastructure decision making, incorporation of SDG digital services (as identified in the SDG Digital Investment Framework), data privacy and security planning, establishing fair procurement systems, and developing Smart Village organization models. The Deployment and Implementation phase looks at management and leadership capacity, sustainable partnership models, resource mobilization, marketing and communications, and management of service providers. The Implementation phase describes how to move from pilot to scale.

The Monitoring and Evaluation phase remains cross-cutting in the Blueprint; this is important, as the cross-cutting nature of M&E allows for important iteration and pivoting as necessary to achieve success. The Blueprint walks users through the development of an M&E Framework, implementing of their evaluation plan, and applying lessons and discoveries to their ongoing projects.

As countries set digital transformation strategies, those with large rural populations can leverage this approach in taking a whole-of-government approach set within best practice of leveraging the Digital Principles. There are many pathways to digital transformation, the Smart Villages Blueprint is one suggestion for achieving transformation in rural communities. As the world moves closer and closer to achieving the SDGs and using digital transformation strategies to do so, it’s important that we document and improve upon the multiple pathways that exist. The Smart Villages Blueprint should be ‘reused and improved’ for years to come so that rural communities can also appreciate the benefits of digital transformation on a large scale.