Wednesday, January 24, 2007

leapfrogging technology


Leapfrogging is a theory of development in which developing countries skip inferior, less efficient, more expensive or more polluting technologies and industries and move directly to more advanced ones. Its about 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).
A frequent example is countries which move directly from having no telephones to having cellular phones, skipping the stage of landline telephones altogether.Examples of leapfrogging other than with mobile phones abound. A few, pulled from the WorldChanging archives, include:
· Solar power for rural communities in Pakistan
It's small, but it's a start. According to the UN's IRIN, about 100 homes near Islamabad are about to be converted over to solar power to test a new model for supplying electricity to outlying communities. Pakistan's goal is to have 10% of national electricity generation come from alternative sources by 2010.

· The "Hospital of the Future" in Thailand
It's not in the US; it's not even in Europe--it's in Thailand. Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok is an all-digital hospital, with one giant database containing everything from patients' billing to medical history to digital images of their X-rays instead of film.

· World's Greenest Building, as voted by the US Green Building Council, in Hyderabad, India
Two 45-foot wind towers and screen walls provide air pre-cooled by 10 degrees to the air-conditioning system, thereby reducing the amount of energy required for cooling. This is called the ‘venturi effect’ in modern buildings. It helps pre-cool the air. Work on the building started in 2000, and it will be formally inaugurated in January 2004. The Centre serves as a showcase of sustainable design techniques as well as an information resource for Indian businesses.

· Free broadband and Linux machines in Brazil
Free broadband Linux computer time in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Sao Paulo. The Telecenter project was started two and a half years ago in Sao Paulo by a left-wing local government as part of a digital inclusion plan that aimed to improve access to information.

· "Barefoot Solar Engineers" -- rural women trained to install and repair solar power systems in India:
This InfoChange piece on India's Barefoot Solar Engineers -- poor women trained to build and maintain rural solar systems – strikes as a definite sign of things to come: "Gulab Devi, 45, of Harmara village in Rajasthan's Ajmer district comes across as the quintessential rural woman from Rajasthan. Dressed in the traditional ghagra-choli (long skirt and blouse), Gulab is the sole bread-earner for her four children and her ailing husband who hasn't had a job in the 24 years of their marriage.

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.
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.

Reference: material on the net while surfing.