Cautionary Tales of Technology Leapfrogging

The late twentieth and early twenty-first century recorded enormous technological advancement that helped transform the global economic, political, social, and environmental landscape in a way quite exceeding the expectations of ardent development pundits. While these recorded improvements on the global socio-economic spectrum may yet be perceived as abysmal by others, the strides made are widely acknowledged across fields. The velocity of changes witnessed in the technological sphere has prompted researchers to surmise, that technology users who are late in adoption could easily afford to skip a whole generation or bundle of technologies since a more efficient and high-tech alternative to such conventional technology would have been in existence within a short period of time. The ability of these late adopters (using traditional technology) to skip a generation of technology (conventional technology) and leap to the very latest (emerging ultramodern technology) is often referred to as leapfrogging.

One fundamental feature of technology development and adoption is that it assumes an S-shape, depicting the key stages of introduction, growth, and maturation as shown in Figure 1 below. An S-shaped technological change implies that: either the development process is very slow to allow for a catch-up that is a non-revolutionary breakthrough, or is very fast to allow for the skipping of intermediate stages1. An individual, country, or entity able to achieve the technological changes described is deemed to have leapfrogged. The success of the emerging technology depends on many factors including the extent to which it differs from the present.

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Figure 1: Technology development curve

The introduction of a new technology which provides the same services as a conventional one, but adds improved features such as expedience, portability, accessibility, suitability, affordability, among others is often touted as ideal for those who remained without access to the existing technology. The adoption of the new technology among those without the conventional one however does not usually develop as rapidly as the optimists forecast. A key reason for this disconnect between the Utopia that technology optimist imagined and the reality, is the omission of external social-cultural precepts that influence the consumers’ adoption decision-making process. In brief, peoples’ way of life does not instantly change with the introduction of a technology2 as they require significant time for realignment. Technologies do not also prescribe their own path or course of action but instead depend on the social context of individuals, institutions, and structures which they shape3.

The figure below is a depiction of leapfrogging using technologies in the energy sector. The old and near-absolute technology here is called the traditional (energy) technology, the present dominant one is referred to as the conventional (present energy) technology, and the modernistic or next generation, revolutionary (renewable energy) technology. Renewable energy leapfrogging in Africa is one of the growing research areas among recent academics. Following the global fight against climate change and progressive improvements in renewable energy technology development, many scholars are investigating the prospects of leapfrogging Africa, which largely characterised by unmet energy markets, to renewable energy technologies.
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Figure 2: Energy Technology Leapfrogging Framework

Figure 2 illustrates how Africa and other unmet energy markets could depart from their present traditional-based energy to renewable energy without going through the ‘dirty’ conventional fossil energy regime. Their ability to do that would be facilitated by the fact that they are not trapped in conventional energy infrastructures which often act as inertia.

Extant leapfrogging literature tend to focus largely on the technology, with limited consideration for the social-cultural environment. They assess the incentives the technology offers as well as the consumer’s ability to pay for it. One recent study surmised: “…..unlike the old infrastructure technologies such as fixed-line telephone systems, which were subjected to the budgetary pressures of governments as the main provider, new technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones are delivered within the regulatory framework that fosters market competition and promotes private capital”. While this is the case to a large extent, the success of the telecommunication leapfrogging exceeds the convenience it offers. The social acceptability of the technology and how appropriately it is infused into the daily lives of adopters is essential to its success story. The leapfrogging discourse must therefore take into account both social and technical changes.

Amid the contentious debate surrounding energy technology leapfrogging and the potentials it presents in Africa’s energy sector, stakeholders must be cautious of risk associated with the radical leaping trajectory, to have the chance of pre-empting the dire repercussions of a ‘messy landing’. Late adopters must look beyond the origin and journey. Destination obliviousness in the context of technology leapfrogging is a recipe for failure. The success or otherwise of leapfrogging late adopters to a new technology is based on the social readiness or suitability of the adopters to use the technology, their economic strength in terms of affordability, the market readiness to make the technology accessible, and the scalability of innovators to streamline the technology and make it adaptable. It is can be good, but looking before leaping is best and strongly advised.


Notes

1. Sharif, M.N., 1989. Technological leapfrogging: Implications for developing countries. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 36(1-2), pp.201-208.
2. Alzouma, G., 2005. Myths of digital technology in Africa: Leapfrogging development? Global Media and Communication, 1(3), pp.339-356.
3. Davison, R., Vogel, D., Harris, R. and Jones, N., 2000. Technology leapfrogging in developing countries-an inevitable luxury? The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 1.
4. Amankwah‐Amoah, J., 2015. Solar Energy in Sub‐Saharan Africa: The Challenges and Opportunities of Technological Leapfrogging. Thunderbird International Business Review, 57(1), pp.15-31.