Biography and profile
Tim Unwin (born 1955) is a British academic and public figure, specialising in the uses of digital technology by the world’s poorest and most marginalised peoples. Trained as a geographer, he believes in crossing boundaries between disciplines and sectors, as well as in the importance of international understanding between peoples and governments.
He was educated at Marlborough College (1969-72), and then studied Geography at St. John’s College, Cambridge (1973-76) where he also learnt to program in Fortran, before undertaking his PhD at Durham University (1976-79) on Patterns and hierarchies of rural settlement in Nottinghamshire before 1700. While completing his PhD he also undertook field research in rural areas of India in what was then South Bihar (now Jharkhand), which provided his first introduction to rural development issues in South Asia.
His first job in 1972 was on a production line making parts of switches for Castelco, and he also worked for the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate during his university vacations. On completing his PhD his first academic post in 1979 was as a research assistant in the Geography of the Middle East at the University of Durham, and in 1981 he was appointed as a Historical Geographer at Bedford College, University of London. When the College merged with Royal Holloway College in 1985 he moved to the Egham campus where he rose through the ranks of Senior Lecturer (1992) and Reader (1993) to Professor and Head of Department in 1999. In 2001 he went on secondment to the UK’s Department of International Development, returning in 2004 until 2007 when he went part-time to combine his academic career with a post as a Programme Director at the World Economic Forum. In 2007 he also became founding Chairholder of the UNESCO Chair in Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) at the then named Royal Holloway, University of London, a post he held until 2023. He took early retirement in 2011 (and was granted the title of Emeritus Professor) to enable him to do the research he really cared about and to teach bright students in other parts of the world, but was asked instead to become CEO and then Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, a post that he held until 2015.
Academic honours, awards and prizes
2011 Honorary Professor, Research School of Arid Environment and Climate Change, Lanzhou University
2011 Apple for the Teacher Award, from the Student Union at Royal Holloway, University of London, for ‘Excellence and positive contribution to life’ at the College.
2006 Royal Holloway, University of London Teaching Prize
2002 Research prize of the Asociación Internacional de Historia y Civilización de la Vid y el Vino (2002)
2002 Honorary Member of the Estonian Geographical Society
1992 Royal Geographical Society, Cuthbert Peek Award for studies of the Third World and the geography of viticulture
Tim’s research over the last 50 years has focused on four main areas, all of which are underlain by his enthusiasm for the discipline of Geography. He has written or edited 17 books and more than 250 other academic papers and book chapters.
- Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D). Tim is internationally recognised as one of the founders of the multidisciplinary field of ICT4D, within which he has focused very much on ways through which some of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people might benefit from these technologies despite their use more frequently giving rise to increased global inequalities. His wide-ranging interests in this field include: the use of digital tech by people with disabilities, street children and women in patriarchal societies; the role of multi-sector partnerships; and also its use in education. He co-founded TEQtogether in 2018 with Liz Quaglia to develop resources and training activities to help change men’s attitudes to women and technology, and in 2021 he launched the Digital-Environment System Coalition (DESC) to create new approaches to understanding the interactions between digital technologies and the physical environment. He is the author of two of the most important books in the field of ICT4D: Unwin, T. (ed.) (2009) ICT4D, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, and Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Philosophy and Geography. Tim has always been fascinated by the intersections between philosophy and geography, and these found expression in one of his earliest books: Unwin, T. (1992) The Place of Geography, Harlow: Longman (translated into Spanish). His interests in philosophy and social theory, especially the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and the work of Jürgen Habermas in particular, but also that of Plato and Wittgenstein, as well as recent work in environmental ethics and moral philosophy, have always underlain his research and practice. In 1998 he co-founded the multidisciplinary journal Ethics, Place and Environment, which later merged with Philosophy and Geography. His interests in philosophy have also found their expression in his commitment to teaching, and his writing on pedagogical practice.
- Wine. Until the 2000s, Tim was best known for his research and teaching on wine, which found its culmination in his classic book: Unwin, T. (1991) Wine and the Vine: an Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade, London: Routledge (translated into Spanish, Italian and Greek). He also co-founded the Journal of Wine Research, and was academic advisor and external examiner for the Institute of Master’s of Wine (2004-11). He has served as Chair of the UK and Ireland Panel of the World’s Best Vineyards awards since 2019, and most recently, he was one of the editors of the Routledge Handbook of Wine and Culture published in 2022. He continues to write an entertaining monthly wine column for a local magazine. He is particularly also known for his research on the 17th century philosopher John Locke’s interests in wine.
- European rural society. This combines Tim’s interests in rural development and European cultural history, and includes a wide range of his research publications on subjects as diverse as rural change in the Baltic states following their independence from the Soviet Union, banknotes and national identity, as well as medieval taxation documents. Some of this is captured in three of his edited books: Owen, L. and Unwin, T. (eds) (1997) Environmental Management: Readings and Case Studies, Oxford: Blackwell; Unwin, T. (ed.) (1998 ) A European Geography, London: Addison Wesley Longman; and Spek, T. and Unwin, T. (eds) (2003) European Landscapes: from Mountain to Sea, Tartu: Huma. He was elected and served as Secretary General of the Permanent European Conference for the Study of the Rural Landscape from 1990-2000.
Tim has always believed that academics should also be engaged in public life, serving citizens in his own country but also particularly in the Commonwealth and more widely across the world. This commitment builds in part on his reading of Habermas’s Theorie und Praxis, but also on his Christian commitment to serving others. Having been Head of the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, he was invited to lead the UK Prime Minister’s Imfundo initiative based within the Department for International Development (2001-2004) where his team created a partnership network of more than 40 companies and civil society organisations working in eight African countries to use digital technologies to improve education for the most marginalised. In 2004 he was appointed to the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, the non-departmental public body responsible for allocating scholarships to the brightest young people from across the Commonwealth, and he served as Chair of the Commission from 2009 until 2014. Meanwhile, he had also been appointed part-time as Programme Director of the World Economic Forum’s Partnerships for Education Initiative with UNESCO from 2007-8, and continued as senior advisor until 2011. From 2011-2015 he also served as Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, the membership body of governments and companies across the Commonwealth implementing telecommunications and digital tech policies and practices. He has served on numerous international advisory boards, particularly within the UN system and relating to the use of digital tech for development. In recognition of his services to the Commonwealth he was appointed a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St George in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, 2016. He was also Elected an Elder, with the title Shujaa, by Commonwealth Scholarship Commission alumni in Kenya in 2014. He regular leads services and is an occasional preacher at Christ Church, Virginia Water.
Tim is married with three children and two grandchildren. His wider interests include walking, photography, mountain landscapes, music, gardening, and most recently repairing pottery. In his younger years he was a keen athlete and rugby player. He continues to write poetry when inspired. He has worked in more than 50 countries, undertaking research, implementing development activities, teaching and convening events and workshops.
Selected journal articles and other publications
In addition to his books mentioned above, Tim has more than 250 publications in journals, book chapters and monographs since 1980, with the folllowing being a representative sample of the range of his interests. Most of his most interesting new writing is made available through his blog.
- Unwin, T. (2022) On language, gender and digital technologies, in: Fiormonte, D., Ricaurte, P. and Chaudhuri, S. (eds) Global Debates in the Digital Humanities, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 298-304.
- Unwin, T. (2021) “Cyber security” and “development”: Contested futures, Chapter 47 in: Cornish, P. (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Cyber Security, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 769-784.
- Unwin, T., Naseem, A., Pawluczuk, A., Shareef, M., Spiesberger, P., West, P. and Yoo, C. (2020) Education for the Most Marginalised post-COVID-19: Guidance for Governments on the Use of Digital Technologies in Education, London: UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, and EdTech Hub, 200 pp.
- Hassan, B. Unwin, T. and Gardezi, A. (2018) Understanding the darker side of ICTs: gender, harassment and mobile technologies in Pakistan, Information Technologies and International Development, 14, 1-17.
- Unwin, T., Weber, M., Bruga, M. and Hollow, D. (2017) The Future of Learning and Technology in Deprived Contexts, London: Save the Children International, 51 pp.
- Unwin, T. (2017) ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements, in Sharafat, A. and Lehr, W. (eds) ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, Geneva: ITU, 37-71.
- Hassan, B. and Unwin, T (2017) Mobile identity construction by male and female students in Pakistan: on, in and through the ‘phone, Information Technologies and International Development, 13, 87-102.
- Unwin, T. (2015) Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships in Information and Communication for Development Interventions, in International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society, Chichester:Wiley,1-10
- Unwin, T. (2015) ICTs and the dialectics of development, in Cantoni, L. and Danowski, J.A. (eds) Communication and Technology, Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 193-214
- Unwin, T. (2013) The Internet and Development: a critical perspective, in Dutton, W. (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 531-54.
- Unwin, T. and Wong, A. (2012) Global Education Initiative: Retrospective on Partnerships for Education Development 2003-2011, Geneva: World Economic Forum
- Unwin, T. (2007) No end to poverty, Journal of Development Studies, 45(3), 929-953.
- Unwin, T. (2005) Towards a framework for the use of ICT in teacher training in Africa, Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Education, 20(2), 113-129 ISSN 0268-0513
- Unwin, T. (2005) Partnerships in Development Practice: Evidence from Multi-Stakeholder ICT4D Partnership Practice in Africa, Paris: UNESCO for the World Summit on the Information Society
- Unwin, T. (2004) Beyond budgetary support: pro-poor development agendas for Africa, Third World Quarterly, 25(8), 1501-1523
- Unwin, T. and Saeidi, Al. (2004) Wine in the poetry of Hafiz, Journal of Wine Research, 15(2), 97-114.
- Unwin, T. and Hewitt, V. (2001) Banknotes and national identity in central and eastern Europe, Political Geography, 20, 1005-1028.
- Unwin, T. (2000) A waste of space?, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, new series 25(1), 11-29
- Unwin, T. (1999) The contested reconstruction of national identities in eastern Europe: landscape implications, Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift, 53, 113-120.
- Unwin, T. (1999) The end of the Enlightenment? Moral philosophy and geographical practice, in: Proctor, J.D. and Smith, D.M. (eds) Geography and Ethics: essays in a moral terrain, London: Routledge, 263-274
- Unwin, T. (1998) Locke’s interest in wine, The Locke Newsletter 29, 119-151
- Unwin, T. (1997) Agricultural restructuring and integrated rural development in Estonia, Journal of Rural Studies, 13(1), 93-112
- Unwin, T. (1995) Agrarian change in Estonia: historical context and contemporary restructuring, Eastern European Countryside, 1, 37-51
- Unwin, T. (1987) Household characteristics and agrarian innovation adoption in north-west Portugal, Transactions, Institute of British Geographers new series 12(2), 131-46
- Unwin, T. (1982) The Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian occupation of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, Journal of the English Place-Name Society 14, 1-31
- Unwin, T. (1981) Rural marketing in medieval Nottinghamshire, Journal of Historical Geography, 7(3), 231-51
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