10 Frontier Technologies for International Development

November 1, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Ben Ramalingam, leader of the Digital and Technology research group at the Institute of Development Studies ben-1(IDS), introduces their new report on new and emerging technologies, and how international organisations can capitalise on their potential.

New and emerging technologies have often underpinned and enabled significant development progress over the decades – from vaccines to mobile phones to the internet. The UN has recently called for much more work in this area, arguing that it is ‘critical to assess how technology can be mobilized to provide solutions to our greatest challenges’ in achieving the Global Goals. If by 2030 we are to extend universal healthcare to nine billion people, provide them with sustainable sources of food and energy, and develop secure and inclusive work – to pick just four of the goals – it is clear that business as usual and reliance on existing solutions won’t get us there.

But development and technology have had at best an uneven history. There are well-known and justified critiques based on technological over-optimism and ‘technology transfer’ that consists of little more than development organisations trying to ‘copy and paste’ new high-tech innovations into developing countries with little attention to context or complexity. There are also numerous instances where the technological development has happened despite the development sector and it has been left sprinting to catch up.

ben-2The perils of technology transfer from Aid on the Edge of Chaos

We still see these issues today – as Duncan has argued elsewhere on this blog, it seems ‘the cycle is endlessly repeated: a new magic bullet, rapidly turned into a straw man… then someone takes a cold hard look at the evidence and concludes that it’s all about the institutions, governance etc.’ The technology hype cycle is not just damaging for development prospects and ambitions, but also ignores the real lessons of successful technological innovations from the past six decades.

Put simply: the more grounded technological development efforts are in specific, tangible development and

The Ten Frontier Technologies report

The Ten Frontier Technologies report

humanitarian challenges, the more sensitive they are to national and local political and cultural contexts, and the more they include local communities, organizations and governments as active creators and owners and not just as targets or end-users, the more likely they are to be successful.

This is one of the overarching messages from the new report Ten Frontier Technologies for International Development by the IDS Digital and Technology research group, supported by, and being launched today at, DFID. We explore ten technologies (see figure below) across five areas and set out a range of ideas for how development organisations could capitalise on the opportunity of technology without falling prey to techno-optimism or, worse, techno-babble.

ben-4The Ten Technologies Across Five Categories

Examples include:

  • Transforming access to energy. New partnerships between private sector innovators and development organisations have kick-started new markets in solar lighting, with remote digitally-enabled monitoring, control and payment systems – the “internet of things” – being key to the sector’s breakthrough. Increasingly widespread across East Africa and Asia, mobile-enabled solar power has provided millions of people with affordable, sustainable, energy, while new battery technologies can be expected to further extend impacts.
  • Collaborative use of essential assets. Just as AirBnB and Uber have disrupted existing industries through a combination of new technology, privately owned assets, lower prices, and greater consumer choice, there are a range of initiatives across developing countries that are doing the same with the assets needed by poor and marginalised communities. From bicycles in China, to motorbikes in Indonesia, to tractors in Nigeria, expensive assets are becoming more affordable to those who would otherwise not have access.
  • Overcoming infrastructure bottlenecks for remote areas. While the use of drones for digital mapping is well-established, they are increasingly being used for transportation and logistics, enabling delivery of urgently needed supplies, such as medicine or blood, to inaccessible places, thereby overcoming logistical and transportation problems. In Africa in particular, governments have taken the lead in establishing necessary infrastructure and legislation. Notably, earlier this year Rwanda launched one of the first national-scale pilots of drones for healthcare delivery.

In order to capitalise on these and other exciting developments, we need to put in place a new kind of innovation system: more evidence-based and systematic, more anticipatory and dynamic, more open to new ideas and approaches, wherever and from whomever they originate and ultimately more geared to the needs and opportunities faced by poor and vulnerable people.

With this in mind, we have three sets of recommendations for the international development community:

  • enhancing the development, testing and diffusion of frontier technologies;
  • better management of quality and risk throughout the frontier technology development process;
  • and focusing efforts on achieving outcomes and impacts, working in adaptive and politically intelligent ways (see infographic below for more details).

These recommendations underpin a new Frontier Technology Livestreaming initiative within DFID to catalyse new ideas and approaches across its global portfolio, being launched today alongside the report.

The inevitable infographic on recommendations

The inevitable infographic on recommendations

I’d like to give the final word to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, from his foreword to the report:

 “Without due care and attention, these new technologies will become uneven playing fields, with a select few winners and many more losers… to ensure these exciting technologies realise their potential to contribute to economic growth and social progress, people in developing countries will need sustained and thoughtful engagement. Along with patient investment in novel approaches, there will need to be adaptive and intelligent approaches to anticipate and head off risks and protect users’ rights, as well as creative ideas for building these technologies on open standards and applying them in ways that meet the needs of those in developing countries. I urge all leaders – be they politicians, development policymakers, or technologists and innovators – to heed this timely call, and to come together to realise the greater promise of open and inclusive technology in creating a more sustainable and fairer world for future generations.”