Technology and development: The limits of leapfrogging

The spread of new technologies often depends on the availability of older onesMobile 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.

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