The Limits of Leapfrogging

Stephen DeAngelis

March 26, 2008

In a recent post about Green Development, I noted that The Economist, like many others, recommends helping emerging market countries leapfrog older technologies. “Everyone will gain,” the magazine claims, “if poor countries find a way to leapfrog over the phases of development which in so many other places did terrible harm to the environment.” In another article, however, The Economist notes that leapfrogging is not a simple matter [“The limits of leapfrogging,” 9 February 2008 print edition]. In fact, the article begins by noting that “the spread of new technologies often depends on the availability of older ones.” The article concedes that mobile phones have been an exception and that they have transformed telecommunications in even the poorest of countries.

“Mobile phones are frequently held up as a good example of technology’s ability to transform the fortunes of people in the developing world. In places with bad roads, few trains and parlous land lines, mobile phones substitute for travel, allow price data to be distributed more quickly and easily, enable traders to reach wider markets and generally make it easier to do business. The mobile phone is also a wonderful example of a “leapfrog” technology: it has enabled developing countries to skip the fixed-line technology of the 20th century and move straight to the mobile technology of the 21st. Surely other technologies can do the same? Alas, the mobile phone turns out to be rather unusual. Its very nature makes it an especially good leapfrogger: it works using radio, so there is no need to rely on physical infrastructure such as roads and phone wires; base-stations can be powered using their own generators in places where there is no electrical grid; and you do not have to be literate to use a phone, which is handy if your country’s education system is in a mess. There are some other examples of leapfrog technologies that can promote development—moving straight to local, small-scale electricity generation based on solar panels or biomass, for example, rather than building a centralised power-transmission grid—but there may not be very many.”

I have always insisted that sustainable development relies in large measure on governments (or public/private partnerships) building a certain amount of critical infrastructure: transportation systems, electrical power generation and distribution systems, water systems, and banking systems being among them. Some of these systems might not be able leapfrog current technologies, but using Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ approach to build such systems they can at least be implemented using the best practices available. Doing so places countries in a much better position to take the next step forward.

“As a recent report from the World Bank points out, it is the presence of a solid foundation of intermediate technology that determines whether the latest technologies become widely diffused. It is all too easy to forget that in the developed world, the 21st century’s gizmos are underpinned by infrastructure that often dates back to the 20th or even the 19th. Computers and broadband links are not much use without a reliable electrical supply, for example, and the latest medical gear is not terribly helpful in a country that lacks basic sanitation and health-care facilities. A project to provide every hospital in Ethiopia with an internet connection was abandoned a couple of years ago when it became apparent that the lack of internet access was the least of the hospitals’ worries. And despite the clever technical design of the $100 laptop, which is intended to bring computing within the reach of the world’s poorest children, sceptics wonder whether the money might be better spent on schoolrooms, teacher training and books.”

I wouldn’t easily dismiss the importance of introducing as much technology as possible, even in the poorest areas. Pundits have been constantly surprised with how people use new technologies to improve their lives. At the same time, I don’t get too excited about hyperbolic visions of a future created through technology. Just go back a few years and look at some of the things that prognosticators were saying about the future. For example, Herbert A. Simon, an expert in artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon University, predicted in 1965 that by 1985, “machines will be capable of doing any work Man can do.” Few things develop the way they are predicted to unfold. Fortunately, pundits have underestimated achievements as often as they have exaggerated them. Three years before Simon was predicting the rise of machines, Dennis Gabor, British physicist and author of Inventing the Future, predicted that the “transmission of documents via telephone wires is possible in principle, but the apparatus required is so expensive that it will never become a practical proposition.” Predictions aside, baseline infrastructure is important for any future.

“The World Bank’s researchers looked at 28 examples of new technologies that achieved a market penetration of at least 5% in the developed world, and found that 23 of them went on to manage a penetration of over 50%. Once early adopters latch onto something new and useful, in other words, the rest of the population can quickly follow. The researchers then considered 67 new technologies that had achieved a 5% penetration in the developing world, and found that only six of them went on to reach 50%. That suggests that although new technologies are often adopted by a small minority of people in poor countries, they then fail to achieve widespread diffusion, so their benefits do not become more generally available.”

For more on this phenomenon and what The Economist had to say about it, see my post Technology and Developing Countries. The article concludes that developing countries require “lavatories before laptops;” although I would argue they need both lavatories and laptops.

“The World Bank concludes that a country’s capacity to absorb and benefit from new technology depends on the availability of more basic forms of infrastructure. This has clear implications for development policy. Building a fibre-optic backbone or putting plasma screens into schools may be much more glamorous than building electrical grids, sewerage systems, water pipelines, roads, railways and schools. It would be great if you could always jump straight to the high-tech solution, as you can with mobile phones. But with technology, as with education, health care and economic development, such short-cuts are rare. Most of the time, to go high-tech, you need to have gone medium-tech first.”

You simply can’t create something from nothing. Sustainable development requires a solid foundation of infrastructure, especially in the electrical power and transportation sectors. The better this infrastructure (i.e., the more it adheres to best practices) the faster development can take place.