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Friday, December 24, 2004


I came across this interesting article Leapfrog Nations - Emerging Technology in the New Developing World . Excerpts:

"Leapfrogging" is the notion that areas which have poorly-developed technology or economic bases can move themselves forward rapidly through the adoption of modern systems without going through intermediary steps. We see this happening all around us: you don't need a 20th century industrial base to build a 21st century bio/nano/information economy. Rather than following the already-developed nations in the same course of "progress," leapfrogging means that developing regions can experiment with emerging tools, models and ideas for building their societies. Leapfrogging can happen accidentally (such as when the only systems around for adoption are better than legacy systems elsewhere), situationally (such as the adoption of decentralized communication for a sprawling, rural countryside), or intentionally (such as policies promoting the installation of WiFi and free computers in poor urban areas).

The best-known example of leapfrogging is the adoption of mobile phones in the developing world. It's easier and faster to put in cellular towers in rural and remote areas than to put in land lines, and as a result, cellular use is exploding. As we've noted, mobile phone use already exceeds land line use in India, and by 2007, 150 million out of the 200 million phone lines there will be cellular. There are similar examples from all over the world. Examples of leapfrogging other than with mobile phones abound. A few examples, include:

Solar power for rural communities in Pakistan.
The "Hospital of the Future" in Thailand
World's Greenest Building, as voted by the US Green Building Council,in Hyderabad, India
Free broadband and Linux machines in Brazil.
"Barefoot Solar Engineers" Rural women trained to install and repair solar power systems in India:

Two important things to notice about many of the leapfrog examples: most haven't yet led to society-wide transformation (although it is happening with mobile phones, and, in the case of Linux use, may be happening soon in Brazil and China); and the "leapfrog" technologies are largely those which don't require a pre-existing grid -- solar power, mobile phones, wifi, etc.. The important thing to note is that the "leapfrog" isn't in the specific technologies themselves (which are no better than those in the West), but in the infrastructure, the rapid growth of decentralized, ad-hoc, flexible networks.

Mobile phone towers go up faster than stringing phone lines, as noted, and there's no worry about upgrading legacy analog switches. It's easier for Pakistan or India or African nations to push for wide adoption of community solar power than for most places in the West, since they don't have to worry about integration with sprawling existing power systems. Down the road a bit, it may be easier for China to shift to fuel cell vehicles than in the West, as they'll have a much smaller existing network of gas stations that would need to be converted from gasoline/diesel to hydrogen.
Leapfrogging doesn't always work.
There may be government policies or lender mandates requiring the adoption of certain infrastructure technologies which made sense a decade or two ago, but are less useful now. There may be resistance for reasons of tradition or marketing. And chosen leapfrog technologies may simply not work well. But leapfrogging is an important concept to keep in mind when thinking about global development and the future of emerging countries such as India, Brazil and China. Developmental histories do not all follow the same path. Technologies and ideas which seem somewhat powerful when implemented in the West may be utterly transformative in locations not laden down with legacies of past development. The future belongs to those best able to change along with it; sometimes, starting from nothing can be an engine for just that sort of change.

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Sadagopan's Weblog on Emerging Technologies, Trends,Thoughts, Ideas & Cyberworld
"All views expressed are my personal views are not related in any way to my employer"