[CROSS-POST] The 9 principles of digital development, for a better impact of projects

This article was originally published on January 21, 2021 on Journal du Net.

A group of development experts and practitioners, from several international organizations including Unicef, UNDP, WHO, WB, undertook to bring together good practices for the success of digital development.

Digital has become omnipresent in our life and influences our daily habits. It has brought significant progress in various sectors such as finance, health, education, agriculture, finance or humanitarian aid. More communities around the world have been connected and underserved populations have been reached in ways that were not possible before. However, some digital projects have failed – and many times that failure was for both predictable and preventable reasons.

The observation is shared: Although digital has the potential to increase efficiency, profitability and impact in all sectors, there are still major obstacles to ensure that its impact is fully realized to reach a large number. users.

Creating a digital tool must be thought out from the start so that it is able to reach more people, have a greater impact and produce stronger and more sustainable results by actively applying systemic principles of design and development. approach to realization.

A working group, made up of development experts and practitioners from several international organizations including UNICEF, UNDP, WHO, WB, succeeded, through a consultative process, in unifying a shared vision around nine principles for digital development.

These good practices specific to digital development to improve the design and efficiency of organizations’ digital programs:

1. Design with the user

If a development team wants to succeed in its digital project, it must understand the needs of its user, his characteristics and the challenges he faces. Designing with the user begins with discussions, observations and continues throughout the project to build the solution directly with them. The information thus collected leads to the development of digital tools that will best meet its needs.

Creating with a user means cooperating with him at each stage of the project, while involving all the other stakeholders in the organization by adopting a product vision of the solution.

2. Understand the existing ecosystem

Well-designed digital initiatives and tools take into account the specific structures of the target organization, sector, country or even region. It is necessary to devote the time necessary to analyze the ecosystem and the context in which the digital solution will be operated. This is the only guarantee of its durability.

Projects that do not take into account ecosystem challenges are unlikely to achieve their goals.

3. Design to be able to evolve and scale up

Achieving the right scale and the right size of the project target is the goal of all digital development initiatives.

Remember, for example, that the vast majority of e-health solutions have never been able to go beyond the pilot stage of the project.

Scaling can mean different things for different contexts. At the grassroots level, the project needs to be adopted by more people than the pilot group

Designing to scale means thinking beyond the pilot to overcome traditional obstacles which may be financial, technical or managerial.

4. Build for sustainability

Building a sustainable digital solution is necessary to maximize the long-term impact.

A sustainably designed project has a better chance of adapting to a user’s daily habits and practices. The history of digital is littered with digital corpses, solutions abandoned at the end of the action of the funder, only because the operating and maintenance costs are disproportionate compared to the added value or not adapted to the context.

5. Be data-driven

Data-driven impact must be at the heart of any digital solution.

Captured data only has a significant impact within the organization when information is used to make decisions and it reaches the right people at the right time.

Data should be used to take action and create positive impact, not just for reporting or writing articles.

6. Use open standards, open data, open sources and open innovation

An open approach to digital development can lead to better cooperation between communities of many initiatives and thus optimize the effort between them.

Open data, open source and open innovation make it possible to avoid starting from scratch each time and reduce project costs.

Being open means different things for each project. An open approach allows project resources to be used as efficiently as possible but must be done with due regard to confidentiality and security requirements.

7. Reuse and improve

Instead of starting from scratch, initiatives that “reuse and improve” optimize how they can accelerate projects by leveraging existing ideas, solutions, methodologies and products.

Reuse requires continuous monitoring to know what resources are available and how the project can use them for its objectives.

Improving means exploiting and modifying existing tools, products and resources to improve them and increase their quality and impact. For each project, we must begin by identifying the standards, products, solutions, frameworks, already proven and tested.

With this approach, projects can create better tools, which could also be used by others. This can significantly reduce the time and resources required to create and implement a new digital solution.

8. Reinforce confidentiality and security

Each project must guarantee security and confidentiality at all levels.

This is why organizations should think through, for each project, from what sources and how data is collected, used, stored and shared. It is essential to minimize the amount of personally identifiable and sensitive information collected and clearly define its life cycle.

Each project must also protect confidential information and the identity of users against unauthorized access and manipulation from the outside.

9. Be collaborative

Being collaborative means exchanging information, ideas, strategy and resources through different projects, organizations, sectors and communities. The aim of these actions is to improve the efficiency and increase the impact of each project.

This principle connects all the other nine in practice.

In addition, it is important that the project team share a common vision of the target solution and the process to follow to deploy it.

Collaboration is not the result of chance; it takes time, planning and resources to research and develop opportunities. Actively participating in forums, networks and events around digital helps bring ideas, strategies and the latest technologies to your sector project in order to maximize the impact on the organization


Over the past few months, the Covid-19 has precipitated the launch of countless digitization projects and development teams have been inundated with news. The 9 principles for digital development represent a collection of good practices to help realize the full potential of the digital solutions developed, even in times of crisis.

Khaled Ben Driss