Is it really possible to leapfrog technology? Perhaps not. The ever interesting Brookings have in conjunction with one of their annual development conferences commissioned this paper from Diego Comin at Harvard. What is so interesting here, is the empirical work documenting a fascinating, and perhaps intuitive pattern of global technology diffusion. The figures above are cut from the paper.

Two important phenomenons:

1. Technology is spreading, globally, at an increasing rate. Technological breakthroughs find there way around the world at an increasing speed. (and in the study going back 200 years) Indeed, today there are tablets and twittering people  in the most fragile conflict affected environments.

2. But, and here comes the nuance, the intensity of use differs enormously and does in fact show the opposite pattern. As Diego puts it: “the divergence in the intensity of use of technologies suggests that despite all the great uses found in developing countries for some new technologies, in rich countries they have found even more uses.”

Leapfrogging technology may require an extensive support environment, including other technologies, and most of the time these conditions are to in place in a fragile state.

For example, mobile money isn’t leapfrogging, it is a substitute for the lack of other and more efficient payment infrastructure, at least the mobile money systems we see today. It is a creative use of technology creating services from which many benefit, but it isn’t leapfrogging.

Real cases for leapfrogging may however exist. Some systems are more isolated, may not be as dependent upon broader technology adaptation, broader skills basis or infrastructure, and these are the opportunities that one cannot afford to miss.

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