Category Archives: Information and Knowledge

Infranomics−What’s in a name?

Traditional disciplines such as engineering, economics, finance, or law deal with infrastructure issues from somewhat narrow perspectives. I find that no single discipline, however comprehensive in its span of analysis, can be adequate to deal with infrastructure issues. Five years ago, I started a search for a concept that can go beyond a single discipline. That’s when I chanced upon Nomic, a game about changing rules. Most infrastructure issues have nomic-like characteristics where rules are changed during a play to win. I particularly liked the part of the game where any loophole in the initial rule set may give the first player the chance to pull a scam and modify the rules to win the game, something we see constantly in infrastructure. Finally, I had found a perfect title for this blog – Infranomics.

Why am I explaining this now? I saw an interesting technical note on Infranomics. The authors, Adrian V. Gheorghe and Marcelo Masera introduce “Infranomics” as a crucial discipline for this century and defined it “to include a body of disciplines supporting the analysis and decision making regarding the metasystems (e.g., the totality of the technical components, stakeholders, mind frame, legal constraints, etc composing the set of infrastructures).” For these authors, “Infranomics is the set of theories, assumptions, models, methods, and associated scientific and technical tools required for studying the conception, design, development, implementation, operation, administration, maintenance, service supply, and resilience of the metasystem. Because none of the currently existing disciplines provides a complete solution, infranomics will be the discipline-of-disciplines grouping all needed knowledge.”

My view of Infranomics is quite different. It is not a composite library of knowledge drawn from all disciplines. It is even less about integrating different meta systems, tools, or models because that may not add value for policy makers. Infranomics is about processes and interactions. It is about infrastructure institutions and their real life limitations. It is about inability of societies to create perfect contracts and about voice and participation of stakeholders. It is about empowerment of common citizen to understand possible impacts when ordinary decisions are taken to create infrastructure assets or policies. I cannot predict whether it is possible to develop a comprehensive discipline as suggested by writers of the technical note. I have a modest goal, to translate complex issues relating to infrastructure into simple understandable messages. At the end of the day, one needs to improve the accountability for infrastructure decisions that affects ordinary people and I hope Infranomics can begin doing this, even in a small measure.

Democratizing development economics. What Next?

A new phrase was coined in Washington, D.C. this fall. In a speech at Georgetown University, World Bank President Robert Zoellick asked an important question: Is development economics today addressing the most important problems facing developing countries, or has it lost its way? No doubt, the question was addressed to academia at large, but in reality, it was intended to signal a process of introspection within the World Bank. After all, for the last sixty years, the World Bank has been at the forefront of the research agenda dealing with issues of economic transformation in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. His recommendation sought to end this intellectual monopoly and look beyond today’s “elite retail” model of research and analytics. Zoellick painted a powerful picture of the many possibilities available to development practitioners: Data, analytical tools, and real time local information that can lead to ground breaking results by linking economic theory to practical policy advice via broad based empirics. He presented a new approach for generating development solutions where no one will dominate and all can play a part. This is the basic premise behind Zoellick’s new phrase, democratizing development economics.

With this initiative, development economics too is joining the successful experiments of citizen journalism such as CNN iReport  or the MIT initiative of “unlocking knowledge, empowering minds”. Development economists now live in an exciting new era of “open data, open knowledge, open solutions”. People with hands-on policy experience can hope to be able to influence development policy designs and final outcomes at global levels. Having open access to World Bank resources is the first necessary condition to do so, but it will not be enough to generate results on the ground or on a global scale.  A number of crucial additional steps will be required too and some of these have large resource implications.

First of all, it will be important to make information resources available through one gateway portal otherwise, as Herbert Simon had predicted decades ago, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. There are very large numbers of sources that are supported by the World Bank with somewhat different mandates and many different identities. There is also a vast amount of data — lessons from other multilateral and bilateral donors supporting knowledge networks on development issues, like the International Growth Institute funded by DFID.

Second, in order to improve the quality of debates, dialogues, and cross learning, it is not enough that there is simply more information out there. There is, after all, no point of a search that returns tens of thousands of results, without discriminating among them. Even with efficient information systems there is a need for some intermediary institutional entity that will make this information usable for policy actions.

Third, how will anybody be certain of the quality of policy advice coming from all these sundry sources? Will there be some quality assurance function integrated in these experiments?

Finally, as one of the World Bank’s own blogs shows, over 70% of the demand for development knowledge generated by the Bank comes from the developed world. In reality, there must be greater demand from policy makers in developing countries themselves. And steps will be needed to overcome the real constraints of resources, capabilities, and internet infrastructure they currently face.

Ultimately, development will only be democratized when the basic power structure within a society is changed. Athens, after all, would have remained an oligarchy if not for the steps taken by Kleisthenes to turn to the common people for support against the aristocratic struggle.  Fundamental changes will be needed in the institutions of development within developing countries. Development economics is only a small part of this equation. Better information and policy analytics will need to be used by  domestic constituencies for effective development. We need to go beyond the “world of international development”.