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Needs versus Aspirations, or Why Mobile Phone Apps to Save the World Rarely Work

Tuesday, February 17, 2015
12:00 AM
1255 North Quad, 105 S. State Street

The funding for a community-radio program intended to address agricultural needs is cut off when the community decides it most wants to air local music. A computer-based program intended to improve language skills ends up enabling a career upgrade. A mobile operator in India says that while people claim to need health and education, what they pay for are the “ABCs”: astrology, Bollywood, and cricket.

These examples could be interpreted as a clash between the two sides of “needs and aspirations,” a phrase that is commonly invoked to indicate the areas that social policies and interventions should address. In this talk, I present some preliminary thoughts on the difference between needs and aspirations, and I suggest that while needs are well-understood and operationalized, they are not as powerful a motive force as aspirations, which are under-theorized and often overlooked in practice.

Kentaro Toyama is W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information and a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT. In previous lives, Kentaro taught at Ashesi University in Ghana and co-founded Microsoft Research India, where he did research on the application of information and communication technology to international development. He is the author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.

Sponsored by: Michigan Interactive and Social Computing