Innovative solutions to dangerous consumption

Marianne Areng
TIK MA Student
Written in collaboration with Grønt Punkt

Our current consumption practices are not sustainable, making food security a challenge. However, potential solutions are on the way.

The concept of food security has been an important aspect of international development policy for many years. The World Food Summit of 1996 defined the achievement of food security as when “all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life». Accomplishing this goal has so far proved to be a complex challenge, as it is not only a matter of short term access to nutritious food, but also closely connected to current global debates on ensuring a sustainable world.

When it comes to secure consumption of food, it is not just a matter of what we eat, but includes what we leave behind in the process and the risks that follow. One of the most problematic materials for disposal is also the world’s most produced and most widely used for packaging: plastic. Worldwide, there were over 300 million tons of plastic produced in 20151, and 40% of all plastic produced in Europe was for packaging alone2. Given the difficulties of proper disposal, plastic is the waste product which most commonly ends up washing into the ocean. This can lead to it being eaten by animals, which can often be fatal.

Furthermore, because the decomposition time for plastic to break down completely is so long, it gets worn down to smaller and smaller parts, creating microplastic. These particles are confused as food by fish and other marine animals – animals which often end up on our dinner table. It is estimated that if the amount of general plastic waste is not stopped or drastically reduced, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 20503. In maintaining our current production of non-degradable plastic, we are endangering one of the world’s most central food sources and jeopardising our own health as well.

Changing individuals’ consumer practices has been shown time and again to be anything but simple. Realising this, some organizations are working directly to change the way certain products are made and thereby impact consumer practices. New developments in the packaging industry have, for example, resulted in the testing of degradable products such as bioplastics and bottles made out of seaweed.

Worldwide, initiatives to reform the plastic industry are growing in size and influence. According to European Bioplastics, bioplastics are plastics that are either made from biomass, are biodegradable, or both. They can do almost anything that commonly used fossil plastic can do. The challenges of replacing fossil plastic are not mainly technical, but European Bioplastics argue that the lack of effective policy measures or regulatory incentives do not encourage full-scale market adoption. The good news is that, despite the lack of widespread commercial demand, an increasing number of companies are switching to bio-based plastics. Prices have come down significantly as production capacities have increased, and supply chains are becoming more efficient. Today, the main applications for bioplastics are bottles and other packaging uses. As fossil plastic also accounts for CO2 emissions equivalent to double the amount of all CO2 emissions from global air traffic4, increased production of bioplastics clearly represents positive change.   

Another way of connecting the issue of food security to sustainability is through the Nordic brand Svanen, the official sustainability ecolabel for the Nordic countries. Among several projects, Svanen attempts to address the challenge regarding renewable packaging of beverages. Their goal is to stimulate the development of renewable packaging materials for certain liquids, while ensuring that the primary function of packaging – protecting and enhancing the durability of the product – is maintained. They want to exclude metal and non-degradable plastic, as well as recycled paper and cardboard in packaging. By doing this, they will not only limit plastic garbage and CO2 emissions, but also prevent chemicals from processed paper from migrating into the product.   

In a 2012 research paper, Tim Lang and David Barling suggest that although there is a growing awareness of the stress the capacity of food production is under, there is still too little recognition of how extensive the changes to the process need to be for it to become sustainable. This includes the whole value chain, from the first step of production to final consumption. Furthermore, they ascertain that a basic truth exists: “[…] the only food system to be secure is that which is sustainable, and the route to food security is by addressing sustainability”.

1 World Plastics Production, 2016
2 Zero Emission Resource Organisation, 2014
3 World economic forum 2016
4 Zero Emission Resource Organisation, 2014

Photo: © Chromatic Studio/Shutterstock

A.I.VESDROPPING

Nora Vilde Aagaard
TIK MA Student

Do you know how long it takes to list all the ingredients of a Burger King Whopper? Neither did I, until now. Allegedly, it should be possible in only 15 seconds. The proof: Have a commercial trigger your smart home device to read the ingredients for you in your own living room.

What was Madonna’s first single? How tall is the world’s tallest building? So-called far-field voice controls, such as Amazon’s Echo, allow you to get answers to your questions or control your music or TV, without having to leave the couch. All you have to do is ask, and Alexa, the voice assistant of Echo, will answer your every question. Sounds quite nifty, doesn’t it?

In reality, smart home devices such as Echo, are the latest form of eavesdropping. When activated with the command “Alexa” or “OK Google”, the device records and stores every word you say in Amazon’s cloud. Since the device is constantly listening and storing information, it creates opportunity for several kinds of potential exploitation.  

On a November night in 2015, Alexa became involved in a possible murder case. In the Arkansas town of Bentonville, James Bates invited two of his friends over to his home. After drinking beer and vodka shots, the three men decided to take a bath in Bates’ bathtub. Later claiming he went to bed around 1 a.m., Bates woke up the next morning to find one of his friends, Victor Collins, floating face down in the bathtub. The event appeared to be a tragic drinking-related accident until police noticed signs of a struggle on Collins’ and Bates’ bodies. So, how did Echo get involved in the case? The other attendee on the evening of Collins’ death remembered he heard music playing from the device, and, as previously mentioned, Echo records and stores all audio when activated. The police thought the audio recording might disclose evidence of possible foul play, but Amazon refused to release the audio recording due to its privacy agreement. The case remains unsolved.

Another less grave example is Burger King who took its advertising game to a whole new level by involving Google Home devices and Amazon Echo devices. In a 15-second ad, a guy in a Burger King uniform is seen holding a Whopper, Burger King’s flagship burger.  He says “OK Google, what is the Burger King Whopper?” triggering smart home devices all over America to start reading out loud from the Wikipedia page about the Whopper. Intrusive or borderline genius? You tell me! What Burger King did not foresee was how people would respond. They edited the Wikipedia page, citing amongst other things that the Whopper contained child meat, and that it was the worst burger in America. Google later deactivated the function, making it impossible for Burger King to trigger the devices. Some believe Burger King caught the idea from a recent news story, where a six-year-old girl used Alexa to order a dollhouse and get Girl Scout cookies delivered to her front door. Her parents were, mildly speaking, surprised when the delivery arrived. Even more interesting, when a news reporter told the story on TV, using the girl’s words “Alexa, buy me a doll house and girl scout cookies”, several other Echoes were triggered and placed the same order in the households of unknowing families watching the news.

These examples are some of the first, but most certainly not the last, of how smart home devices may be exploited. Whether they are used as a possible solution to a potential murder case or as an innovative advertising method gone wrong, opening up our homes to smart home devices which store information about what we talk about and look for on the web, results in new privacy issues. On a more positive note, Amazon seems pretty serious when it comes to privacy, by not handing out sound recordings even to the police. And personally, it would be indisputably comfortable not having to get up from the couch or reach for my phone every time I argue with my boyfriend about who won the Olympics or what the weather will be like tomorrow.

© Vladimir Voronin/Adobe Stock

Resistance is Nigh

Christoffer Olsen
TIK MA Student

Antibiotics have played a leading role in saving millions of lives worldwide for over half a century. But for how long can antibiotics provide us with this state of security?

It’s a Wednesday morning. The alarm enthusiastically goes off at seven o’clock, and you start your morning routine. The commute to work is busy as usual, but you get to your cubicle at the office in time, power up the computer and sift through your e-mails. It’s an ordinary Wednesday, though you feel a slight tingle in your throat. The next couple of days you develop a fever, and eventually you call the doctor’s office. You answer a couple of routine questions and the doctor collects a few samples that indicate that you have been visited by the beta-hemolytic streptococcal bacteria. The doctor hands you a prescription for antibiotics, and you should be back to work within a few days. Confident in modern medicine’s ability to get you back on your feet, you never really worry about the illness. But is your trust rightly earned?

This very common story of a person’s short journey from sickness to health might have a different ending in a few years, as antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is rapidly increasing. AMR is when a microorganism, such as bacteria, becomes resistant to treatment by e.g. antibiotics. When treatment becomes ineffective, the bacteria survives and spreads. An estimated 700,000 deaths can be attributed to AMR each year, and if no corrective measures are taken it may increase to 10 million by 2050. The millions of deaths are themselves a tragedy, but AMR is also associated with substantial economic costs. Given this scenario, it’s estimated that up to 100 trillion USD may be lost in global production alone. Similar to, and potentially worse, than the financial crisis of 2008, this threat to the global economy will increase economic inequality and the share of people living in extreme poverty.

Antibiotics are quite extraordinary. Their story began in the late 1920s, with Alexander Fleming (1855-1951) observing staphylococcus colonies under a microscope. While doing so, the culture plates were temporarily exposed to air, and thus contamination. Fleming discovered that one of the colonies had developed mould, and was intrigued by how the surrounding staphylococcus colony faded away. This turned out to be one of the most significant medical achievements of the 20th century: the discovery of penicillin. In the following decades, several new classes of antibiotics were approved, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, the “golden age” of antibiotics. Since the golden age, the number of antibiotics successfully brought to market has fallen significantly. Though a small increase from 2011 to 2016 shows some promise, a fair share of these target Gram-positive bacteria. These are easier to deal with, as they are without an outer membrane. The Gram-negative bacteria are more challenging, and therefore more important to address. Another difficulty lies in the fact that antibiotic resistance is a result of natural evolution, and so will inevitably develop for some of the antibiotics being used. However, the process is accelerated by misuse and overuse.

To shed some light on the issue, it is interesting to compare the presence of AMR in livestock in Norway and Denmark. The AMR in question is Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA). In the species of staphylococcus, MRSA is the most frequent cause of illness. It is estimated that 20-40% of humans are carriers. MRSA is usually not dangerous for healthy people, but in health institutions such as hospitals, where patients have a low immune system, it often causes infections. This is worrisome, as MRSA is immune to all antibiotics typically employed.

Among tested herds in pig farming in Norway in recent years, around 0.1% have been identified with livestock MRSA. In Denmark, it has been identified in approximately 60-80% of the herds. While the number of MRSA incidents has increased rapidly in both Norway and Denmark in recent years, it is important to note that 84% of the registered cases in Norway were imported from abroad, compared to 20% in Denmark. The large gap can be explained by Norway’s national strategy to prevent and combat MRSA, with a strict zero-tolerance policy on outbreaks of MRSA in livestock.  

The occurrence of AMR is increasing at a global level. It is one of the biggest health threats facing humanity. Why then is it not addressed by pharmaceutical companies? The main reason is low return on investment. Antibiotics are used for treatments that last a short period of time, while drugs for chronic illnesses, for example, are required for life. Pharmaceutical companies are inclined to develop drugs that will be used for as many years as possible. The use of antibiotics in livestock can be considered in relation to economies of scale: High density of livestock results in larger outbreaks that will spread as the livestock is transported. This is combatted by infection management strategies, including use of antibiotics.

In conclusion, a number of strategies should be followed to tackle AMR globally. Firstly, we need to avoiding unnecessary use of antibiotics. This can be achieved by increased global awareness and some degree of surveillance, combined with development and use of vaccines. Secondly, it is necessary to increase the number of antimicrobial drugs through global innovation funds and incentives to invest in research and development for effective drugs. Finally, we need to create an effective global coalition concerned with battling AMR.

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© Anthonycz/Adobe Stock

3 From TIK

Inga Elizabeth Bruskeland

Program: ESST

Graduation year: 2012

Previous education: Visual Communications, Glasgow School of Art

What was your thesis about?
My thesis concerned how Norway uses national R&D funding in European programs, and I interviewed representatives from relevant ministries and agencies on the motivation to participate in the Joint Programming Initiatives, and on the governance systems which define how national funding is spent on the European level.

What is your current occupation, and how do you use your background from ESST?
After graduating, I have been working at the Norwegian Research Council as the Norwegian coordinator for a European funding program. I was already working here when I discovered ESST, and the master was perfect for acquiring a better vocabulary to understand, discuss and develop what we do. Also, the ability to understand different innovation systems is valuable, as the program is run by more than 30 countries.

Compared to other students, which strengths are special for those coming from TIK/ESST?
The multidisciplinary aspect is definitely a strength; the combination of STS and innovation studies fosters an understanding of both social and economic aspects of technology, and studies at TIK give you the tools to better understand and work across disciplines.

What was one of your most useful experiences while studying at TIK?
The discussions with students and lecturers alike. The different perspectives they brought challenged my own, and broadened my understanding of a topic.

What is your best advice for new or prospective students at TIK?
Engage, ask questions, discuss, challenge each other, and don’t be afraid to disagree. You are here because you can bring a different perspective to the discussion.


Maria Kristina Stokke

Program: TIK

Graduation year: 2014

Previous education: Human Geography, University of Oslo

What was your thesis about?
My thesis was about a pilot solar energy project in a Kenyan village, and the attempts to up-scale the project in another part of the country. I conducted a field study, which is unusual at TIK, but also very rewarding. Studying what made the project work in different phases, I found that many important factors in one phase where lost when the project up-scaled, which is in line with the idea that technology is social and that a process of a successful technology transfer also is a process of translation. In other words, when building new systems, they have to be adjustable to the context where it is to work.

What is your current occupation, and how do you use your background from TIK?
I work with fundraising and mobilisation in the NGO Norwegian Church Aid. We use different databases and platforms in almost everything we do, meaning that we spend quite some time optimising these systems. Often, the issue is whether it’s a technical matter (i.e. the system is not good enough) or a social matter (i.e. we need better routines). My background from TIK helps me analyse and solve such issues. Prior to this, I worked with solar energy in Malawi, taking part in developing and testing new models for energy supply.

Compared to other students, which strengths are special for those coming from TIK/ESST?
We learn about society’s use and development of new technologies, helping us develop an open and creative mindset whilst remaining nuanced and critical. We do not fear change, but neither do we automatically embrace new trends. This competence is needed by all employers who make decisions in a world exposed to an ever-increasing pace of technical change and development.

What is your best advice for new or prospective students at TIK?
Keep on exploring the topics that interest you, even if you don’t find the core competence at the TIK Centre right away! For my thesis I collaborated with an external project, and had two supervisors. It worked out completely fine, and I’m glad I persisted in what I wanted to do.


Lasse Gullvåg Sætre

Program: TIK

Graduation year: 2017

Previous education: Human Geography, University of Oslo

What was your thesis about?
I wrote about control systems, or more generally ERTMS – a European signalling system for railways – and the rolling out of a European suprastate/-market through technological standardization. Through investigating the entangled historical and technological developments of railways, computers, labour and political control, my goal was to contribute to the debate on democracy and the connection between cosmopolitan elitism and fascist tendencies.

What is your current occupation, and how do you use your background from TIK?
Currently I’m employed at the Railway Directorate, mapping flows in and around the Norwegian railway, while trying to establish some in-house geographic information system competency and routines. My background from the free software movement and geography was probably more important than my master for this job, but the gig ends early December, upon which I’ll hopefully move on to something more relevant for my degree. Meanwhile, I’m moonlighting as a web developer and cartographer.

What was one of your most useful experiences while studying at TIK?
Being a research assistant gave the most learning experience overall. Shadowing a “real scientist”, I saw how interviews about seemingly technical and boring topics can get intense and emotional when done right. It was taxing, but worthwhile, work.

What is your best advice for new or prospective students at TIK?
Learn Python and use the UiO Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) platform while you can. Also, be careful when taking advice from recent graduates – they might be just as lost and confused as you are.

Another Expensive Crash Landing of Public IT Spending?

Martin Beyer
ESST Graduate 2017

Digital defence and IT security have been major concerns of public and private sectors for a while now, and with the amount of information produced today, these issues are more pressing than ever. Now, the public sector also aims to digitize their services. With more services going online, authorities worry that we may become an easy target. The debate concerning a digital border defence has resurfaced.

Digital information constantly flows across our borders through old-fashioned landlines. Norwegian security authorities claim they need access to all the information sent through these landlines to collect relevant and incriminating information regarding terrorism and other serious crimes. Others, however, question whether the authorities can actually find anything relevant to use from this surveillance, or if it is merely an excuse for mass surveillance. Will this digital border defence open a backdoor to your internet activity and give birth to other security issues?

Ninety-nine percent of all internet traffic crosses the border through landlines, even communication between Norwegian devices. The Norwegian Intelligence Service (NIS) (E-tjenesten, editor’s note.) wants to access this traffic in order to identify and gather evidence exclusively from foreign actors. It is not within their mandate to prosecute domestic parties. However, as the Internet is international, the difference between foreign and domestic actors is not at all clear. When you message a Norwegian friend through Facebook Messenger, the traffic is routed through Facebook’s servers that are located in Sweden and the US. It most certainly is not the scope of the NIS to deal with domestic issues, but the Internet blurs the lines between national and international. To collect communication between foreign actors, they will also need to collect domestic data, as long as the internet is global. What will happen with this data is difficult to say.

According to former Minister of Defence, Ine Eriksen Søreide, the NIS does not have exclusive access today and the nation’s systems are not built to uncover advanced cyber attacks or communication regarding terrorism or other sinister crime. Critical systems can be under attack for a long time before we even realize they are being targeted. Søreide argues that a digital border defence is a necessary step to make us capable of protecting our assets, our elections and our digital integrity. But at what cost?

The Data Protection Authority (Datatilsynet, editor’s note.) opposes the idea of a digital border defence and says that it violates both the constitution and human rights. Their main concern is that a digital border defence, as outlined by the government, will store metadata that is personified and untargeted. They worry we are close to a slippery slope where normal criminal investigation could access the same information – even though NIS is reassuring us this will never happen.

SINTEF fears the effect it could have on the public – many people might avoid important legal services due to increased surveillance. This effect is called the ‘chilling effect’ and makes a digital border defence into a matter of security versus democracy.

This, however, is not just a debate on whether a digital border defence is a good idea. It is also a question of whether or not it will work. Hollywood gives us the impression that intelligence services have access to cutting-edge technology – often not yet available to the public – and can do whatever they need to do, given the right authorization. But the truth is rather the opposite. Lise Lyngnes Randeberg, president of Tekna, has stated that Norway does not even have the technological capabilities to operate a system like this. In addition, SINTEF argues that people with the right resources and competence will be able to circumvent the surveillance system by using encryptions that cannot be cracked.

Remembering the debate concerning the Data Retention Directive (Datalagringsdirektivet, editor’s note.), we learned that there was no evidence that a defence system like this has actually ever helped solve crime. The system was too slow and easy to avoid, and the authorities usually had the ability to find targeted individuals without the directive. It is difficult to see how the Digital Border Defense will make a significant difference.

There might be a recurring problem for the public sector when dealing with technology. It seems that they either do not properly understand the technology or they are not cutting-edge enough to deal with problems as they arise. The latter might be because of overall slow progress in the public sector. From concept to implementation, the process might take years – through public inquiries, procurements and bureaucratic procedures – and by the time of launch, the technology would already be outdated. Just imagine a municipality signing a four-year contract with Nokia one month before the first iPhone was released. Without going into a lengthy debate, we can point to plenty of examples of how the public sector and its suppliers of IT security are not up to scratch. A recent relevant example is when 30GB of sensitive data on the new fighter jets Norway procured was hacked from an Australian defence contractor in 2016, or the massive vulnerability at South-Eastern Norway Regional Health Authority (Helse Sør-Øst editor’s note.) in 2017 where sensitive patient data became openly available to international subcontractors – even after the authorities had been warned.

This does not seem to inspire confidence in the industry or the sector, and one can only wonder how long it will take before a similar thing happens with the data collected by a Digital Border Defense, and all your communication, passwords, bank accounts and health information becomes available to anyone. And if it is not even likely to work, the massive investment might be better spent elsewhere.

© Lasha Kilasonia/Adobe Stock

Don’t Set Password as Your Password

Anne Waldemarsen
ESST MA Student

Ever since 2011, The Norwegian Center for Information Security (NorSIS) has made October the ‘Security Month’, as a measure to raise awareness and promote security-oriented practices in the aftermath of ‘the Digitisation’. Are the technologies we use to work, communicate, and store information thoroughly secure? Is it easy for outsiders to access a company’s computer systems? Are employees aware of what is at stake if hackers steal or alter sensitive information?

To discuss these questions, a large number of security conferences are arranged. If you’ve never attended one of these crisis-maximizing events – don’t you worry, my friend. I’ve attended a fair share, and here follows a summary of a typical day:

08.30 – 09.00: Registration:

Show up at the right address but wait hesitantly outside for five minutes in case you see someone you know so you don’t have to enter alone. Once inside, receive your name tag (which is misspelled) and pick up a free notepad and a pen that reminds you who sponsored this event (a private consulting company). The notepad makes you appear both sincerely concerned and curious, but you and everyone around you know that you will pick up your phone and browse through emails long before the second speaker enters the stage, and that the real reason for your attendance is to at least look like you are planning on keeping up to date on security-measures, plus the free coffee and “snitter”.

09.00 – 09.15: Host welcomes everyone/practical information:

Make sure you know where the fire escape is, yes, but more importantly: What route you can plan in advance to sneak out and fill up more coffee and put some grapes and biscuits into your pocket.

09.15 – 10.00: You are all in grave danger:

Some important CEO warning everyone in the audience about how unprepared you all are should a Russian hacker decide to attack you. He talks about how “technology has changed the way we live”, and says something about the internet of things – which he describes as how everyone’s refrigerator is connected to wifi and can be misused to open your front door.  You nod as if this is a common concern to you. At the same time, you wonder how you have overlooked the fact that your refrigerator from 1991 apparently has wireless internet connection, and inherent bad intentions.

10.00 – 10.30: Comic relief:  

Some unimportant IT-dude (which we later will learn is the real MVP) makes an effort to ease the tension, saying that your systems are sufficiently secure and that you and your company are not interesting enough to be attacked by a Russian or Chinese hacker. Even though this was meant to calm you down, you realise you feel somewhat offended and experience a need to prove yourself.

10-30 – 10.45: Coffee break:

Finally. You talk awkwardly with the man next to you, then run out to get some fresh air, hoping you don’t look as tired as you feel. When back inside, you sit alone and feel unimportant since no one wants to hack your company. Then you count how many speakers are left before lunch break. You are excited about lunch, but slightly worried about small talk. Only one speaker stands between you and lunch: Some woman from The Norwegian Business and Industry Security Council (NSR) talking about security measures.

10.45 – 11.30: A really long session:

The woman from NSR talks for forty-five minutes (!) about how you can behave in a safer way. This woman is abundantly more technically competent than you, with a Ph.D. from NTNU and a background in military intelligence. You are unable to keep up, so instead you desperately type “computer science” + “101” + “for dummies” + “continuous admissions” in the search engine on your phone. Lunch is right around the corner, thank God.   

11.30 – 12.30: Lunch break:

You try to locate the nearest 7-Eleven because you remember how much you dislike snitter.  

12.30 – 13.15: Everybody chill:

Some guy from The Norwegian National Security Authority (NSM) agrees with the IT-dude and says it is unnecessary to maximise the threat assessment. He explains how the media is making too much of a fuss about potential threats in cyberspace, and that private consulting companies will exploit your fear and offer you overpriced security packages.

13.15 – 13.45: Some good advice:

A woman from NorSIS, who seems tired of giving the same speech over and over again, informs the audience about how to act responsibly: “Always update to the latest version. Don’t set “admin” as the password to the admin-user account. If your employees love the company, they are less likely to harm you when they don’t work for you anymore.” You look around at the other attendants and wonder whether someone really is stupid enough to need  this information. Then you remember that the password to the workfile in your workplace containing sensitive health data is ‘password’.

13.45 – 14.00: Coffee break nr. 2:

Feeling sick of coffee due to overconsumption, you head for the tea-selection.

14.00 – 14.30: The sales pitch:

You remember why you never drink tea. A private consulting company representative brags about their experience in the field, lists all the catastrophes they single-handedly prevented, and states that ‘WannaCry’ was below their level of expertise. He continues to talk positively about how the state facilitates educating employees and making sure that Norwegian workplaces have the necessary tools to secure their digital systems, but that this might not be sufficient, and that if you really-really want to make sure that you don’t lose sensitive information, which may lead to both your company and you as a private person being sued, you should hire this private company’s security packages ASAP.

14.30: That is all:  

Host thanks every speaker, but is obviously regretting having invited the private consulting company. The host tries desperately to remind everyone that as long as you follow the official guidelines you are sufficiently secure. Gives a last reminder that it is unrealistic to believe that you can be one hundred percent secure, and that no one should be in a terrified state of mind, since the chance of your company being attacked is very, very small.Any observant conference participant can see how the representative from the private company re-enters the podium, shakes his head and mouths “You are in grave danger. We can make you one hundred percent secure.”

14.38:

The conference is over and the doors opens. A confused crowd of people exits, some of whom will head straight to the office and add two more capital letters in their password, some will for the first time in their lives press “Update now” on the popup on their computer screen, but most will live forever after with a vague anxiety permeating their body, passive-aggressively resisting any further form of digitisation.

And one attendant will open her laptop and write this faithful account from memory.

© elenvd/Adobe Stock
© Lagunculus/Shutterstock

The education crisis – is technology the solution?

Emilie Skogvang
TIK MA Student

There are currently 60 million children who do not have access to education, of which 30 million are living in areas affected by war and conflict. At the same time, there is a severe lack of teachers to meet the needs of these children. Can educational technologies, so-called “edtech”, be part of the solution?

A question of safety and stability

When you think about the war in Syria, you might think of the millions of refugees who have had to flee their homes, the lack of food, the poverty and the primary needs that go uncovered. But did you ever think about the consequences of the 2.3 million Syrian children who have lost their opportunities for education due to the ongoing conflict? Even those children who do have access to school may face difficulties in learning because they have been under long-term stress, or because they may be taught in a language they do not master. How can Syria and other countries affected by conflicts ever hope to rebuild if millions of their people have had no access to education over long periods of time?

According to Save The Children, 60 million children are out of school globally. A further 60 million drop out before they reach 4th grade, and 130 million do not learn basic skills in the early years they attend school. At the same time, there are not nearly enough teachers to meet these needs, especially in fragile contexts characterised by war and conflict. According to the most positive forecasts, we will not be close to having enough teachers for the next 30 years. The trend is that many humanitarian crises turn into protracted crises, like the war in Syria. This means that the lack of education for these children is a long-term problem, and short-term solutions for long-term needs will simply not suffice. This is an under-communicated crisis which is not only a question of the psychosocial well-being, safety and the future of the millions of children affected by wars and conflicts, but also a question of global safety and stability in the years to come. These children will build the societies of the future, and we must make sure they have the right tools to do that in order to ensure safe and sustainable development, especially in unstable parts of the world.

Can the edtech industry be part of the solution?

Humanitarian organizations are increasingly looking to partner with the private sector to harness their innovation capabilities and technological expertise. In the context of education in humanitarian crises, there is one industry in particular that might have a solution to the education challenge: the “edtech”industry. This industry consists of companies who are suppliers of educational technologies which might meet some of the needs of the children affected by crises. One example is EduApp4Syria which started as an international open innovation contest facilitated by The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). The contest resulted in two open source smartphone applications with the aim of helping Syrian children with basic literacy in Arabic and improving their psychosocial well-being. Whether the apps will have a positive impact on these two factors is yet to be seen. NORAD is currently collecting quantitative data from the field to see the actual impact, but the qualitative feedback they have received so far is very promising.

Another example is the Norwegian edtech company, Alphabet King. They have developed a solution called “The Learning Lab”. This is a collection of 200 unique educational apps and physical exercises in a reversed classroom where the children walk around at their own pace and do tasks on their own level. The apps are designed to be easy for children with different backgrounds to understand, and they can be used on tablets, smartphones and computers. Alphabet King is currently piloting “The Learning Lab” in Gambia, Uganda, Somalia and Kenya among other countries, and they have found that the solution gives good results for children regardless of their nationality and socioeconomic status.

Although there are tremendous possibilities in technology, both the edtech industry and humanitarian organizations know that an app alone cannot save the world. Children need contact with adults and a safe learning environment to prosper. It is important to emphasize that edtech cannot replace a teacher or a safe learning environment:

Educational technology has great benefits when it comes to distributing learning and knowledge to people in parts of the world where access to education would normally be impossible, as most people have smartphones. Digital tools can never replace teachers and formal education, but in times of crisis and conflict, it can help provide learning regardless of time, space and level.

Hege Tollerud, CEO of Oslo EdTech Cluster

Getting to know the end user through strategic partnerships

When developing any type of technology, the end user is important. After all, it is the end user’s problems one is trying to solve. In this case, the end users are children affected by wars and conflicts, and it is their situations and needs that must be taken into consideration. Culture and context-specific characteristics must be incorporated into the solutions at an early stage in order to achieve real impact and be sustainable. Since humanitarian organizations usually have great knowledge about children affected by war and conflicts, strategic partnerships between humanitarian organizations and edtech companies are important to develop long-term solutions to tackle the education crisis.

Image Courtesy: Alphabet King