Thursday, April 26, 2012

Gross National Happiness - Putting It First

Synchronicity or coincidence or karma, call it what you will: international examples of computing being adjusted to support societal values (as opposed to the other way around) are presenting themselves.

One of the first cases I ever learned about turned traditional software engineering on its head and inspired me to write my book on socially beneficial computing. The story was about a team of computing professionals from New Zealand and Peru who collaborated on an Andean poverty alleviation project. The way in which they creatively conducted requirements gathering and specification development was a stunning example of respecting traditional cultural values yet raising living standards, addressing environmental problems and seamlessly integrating modern computing technology.

The Peruvian project was a localized example of adaptive software engineering; an article in the most recent Communications of the ACM (CACM)* takes the idea national, discussing how an entire country (Bhutan) is demonstrating that exploitation of people and the environment is not an inevitable result of technological development.

As author Richard Heeks, Director of the Centre for Informatics Development at the University of Manchester (UK) explains, Bhutan is successfully placing "Gross National Happiness" ahead of "Gross National Product". Even though I have just finished reading a book on different economic value systems and even wrote about it (see my last post) it took me a few minutes to wrap my head around this concept (Gross National Happiness? Meaning...?). Fortunately, Heeks anticipates my Western mindset-produced difficulties and starts at the beginning. He discusses the concept of happiness, how it relates to economic development and in particular to 21st Century digital communications.

Putting happiness first is not easy, but it doesn't appear to be any harder than putting other things first (e.g. short term financial profit). It is all about where a society is coming from and what it chooses to encourage and discourage. It doesn't mean a society can't be a vibrant part of the 21st Century global community. Although Heeks only mentions it in passing, perhaps because it would distract from the points he is trying to make, the underpinnings of Bhutan society are Bhuddist (Mahayana, for those familiar with the branches). Heeks avoids a religious discussion and focuses on historical background and current implementation of modern digital technology initiatives.

Whatever your range of interest, there are several truly fascinating aspects to what is happening in modern Bhutan. If you want concrete examples of a growing, competitive society that puts human and environmental welfare first, here they are. If you want to ponder how the Buddhist religion can interact with computing, you have food for thought. (So intriguing; I'm pondering the idea of writing a post on the subject). If you want to learn about a very different model of progress in the developing world, here is your opportunity. Interested in Eastern society and computing beyond what has been written about well known countries such as Japan, China and India? Want some fresh ideas about development (in all its meanings), technological infrastructure, 21st Century global technology? Looking for a research project?

One short article; one small country. A lot of food for thought and ideas about positive directions we can go with computing.

*"Emerging Markets: Information Technology and Gross National Happiness" Communications of the ACM, April 2012, Voll 55, No. 4, pp 24 - 26

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