Pondering leapfrogging

This week, Tthere is an interesting article in The Economist about the limits of leapfrogging. As you may know, this term refers to technologies that allow to skip another tech generation (for instance cell phone allow to skip the introduction of huge landline infrastrucures). Based on a recent report from the World Bank, the article describes the limits and the pre-conditions needed to have leapfrogging. It shows how the spread of new technologies often depends on the availability of older ones:

"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. (...) it is the presence of a solid foundation of intermediate technology that determines whether the latest technologies become widely diffused. (...) 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. (...) 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 (...) Most of the time, to go high-tech, you need to have gone medium-tech first."

Why do I blog this? interesting article in terms of innovationm change and implications for foresight.