Kentaro Toyama: Research on ICT for Human Development

Notes from the the II Encuentro Internacional TIC para la Cooperación al Desarrollo (Development Cooperation 2.0: II International Meeting on ICT for Development Cooperation) held in Gijón, Spain, on February 10-12th, 2009. More notes on this event: cooperacion2.0_2009. More notes on this series of events: cooperacion2.0.

Research for Development at Microsoft Research India
Kentaro Toyama. Microsoft Reserarch India

Microsoft Research India is a computer science research lab focused in technology for emerging markets.

They promote the ICTD Conference.


  • Immersion: ethnography; qualitative social science
  • Design: iterated prototyping; design, engineering
  • Evaluation: randomized control trial; economics
  • Implementation: partnership; political science (this point relating implementation usually transferred to partners)

Is technology always worth it? It depends: if the increase of productivity is smaller than the cost of technology (applied to achieve this increase of productivity), then, the cost-benefit analysis results in negative returns, even if productivity increased. Microfinance in developing countries seems to be a clear example of this, at least at the front-end (though further research is needed because in some cases it might pay back).


  • Microfinance and Technology: raise of productivity by adding technology. Might not be cost-effective.
  • MultiPoint in Education: increasing education quality with several kids using same PC and by means of multipoint devices (i.e. each child their own mouse to interact with the screen). No significant impact on education
  • Digital Green for knowledge transmission in the field of agriculture: storyboarding with video. Results: 7 times more adoptions of new techniques, 10 times more cost-effective.

Key lessons

  • Development first, then technology. The goal is not to close the digital divide, but to achieve a development goal.
  • Expend time with communities, not with “experts”.
  • Multidisciplinary of teams, not individuals.
  • Quality through great people, not processes
  • Sustainability is case-by-case, there’s no magic bullet. And sustainable models are often very different among them.
  • Impact as the goal, ideology has to be set aside

Notwithstanding, there are three counterexamples (e.g. the mobile phones) for the first three dots in this list!

Q & A

Q: Why should Microsoft invest in basic research of this kind? A: Knowledge is created, even if (in principle) roughly related with your direct interests. It’s good for the morale of the company and their workers. Being concerned about the future of the World makes you aware of the future of your own company. And, sometimes, Microsoft (Microsoft-not-research) is up to do the follow up and scaling of a prototype or pilot project.

Q: is research tied to business models? A: no, it’s basic research bound to find impact. Implementation (and their related business models) come after. But if the impact is positive, and there’s a justification to go on with implementation, business models will come.

Q: How are research projects chosen? A: It’s up to the researcher. There’s an abolute trust on their criterion.


Development Cooperation 2.0 (2009)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2009) “Kentaro Toyama: Research on ICT for Human Development” In ICTlogy, #65, February 2009. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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