The Technium

Why Leapfrogging is Rare

[Translations: Japanese]

Two years ago I posted my skepticism of technological leapfrogging. I really wanted to believe the hope that new lite green digital technology could leap over old dirty technology. But I could find no evidence this was happening. So I wrote up The Myth of Leapfrogging. My main point was that in the case of cell phones — which is the iconic leapfrog example  — the evidence shows that while cell phones are increasing faster than land lines, land lines themselves are still increasing. Land lines follow cell phones. Cell phones create traffic that land lines “burn in” to copper. So in the sense that cell phones lead land lines, you can say that cell phones have leaped over land lines. But the ordinary meaning of leapfrogging which most people take to mean “skip over,” as in never do them at all — this has not happened. Land lines are not disappearing.


Despite this lack of evidence for “skipping over” I still wanted to believe in it, so I publicly solicited any evidence of leapfrogging (other the proverbial cell phone) that was taking place at a significant scale. Most examples of solar and internet leapfrogging were small pilot experiments. There were more promise than fact.

I concluded my original essay by stating that “there is no hi-tech without low tech, and no leapfrogging over low tech.” Again to restate: Most high tech requires a matrix of low tech to support it, so it is very difficult to install high-tech without intermediate layers of old tech. The essay got a few nods, a few scowls, but did not change the status of leapfrogging in the public mind, in part because I offered no data for my observations. Last week the Economist reported the results of a World Bank study that suggested similar doubts about technological leapfrogging. In The Limits of Leapfrogging  they say:

…It is the presence of a solid foundation of intermediate technology that determines whether the latest technologies become widely diffused. It is all too easy to forget that in the developed world, the 21st century’s gizmos are underpinned by infrastructure that often dates back to the 20th or even the 19th. Computers and broadband links are not much use without a reliable electrical supply, for example, and the latest medical gear is not terribly helpful in a country that lacks basic sanitation and health-care facilities. A project to provide every hospital in Ethiopia with an internet connection was abandoned a couple of years ago when it became apparent that the lack of internet access was the least of the hospitals’ worries.

According to a study by the World Bank cited by the Economist, high technology is often introduced to developing nations where it starts to disseminates but then stalls. A fancy technology may reach 5% penetration, but too often doesn’t succeed beyond that. The Economist states:

In the World Bank’s (admittedly incomplete) database, there are 28 examples of a new technology reaching 5% of the market in a rich country; of those, 23 went on to achieve over 50%. In other words, if something gets a foothold in a rich country, it usually spreads widely.

In emerging markets this is not necessarily so. The bank has 67 examples of a technology reaching 5% of the market in developing countries—but only six went on to capture half the national market. Where it did catch on, it usually spread as quickly as in the West. But the more striking finding is that the spread was so rare. Developing countries have been good at getting access to technology—and much less good at putting it to widespread use.

The evidence from successful emerging markets is that if they absorb a new technology they usually do so fairly quickly. The corollary is that if a technology is not diffused promptly, it may at best be diffused only slowly and incompletely.

I interpret this resistance to mean that there is a development pathway in the technium. Technologies are not only like ecologies in requiring complex guilds of technological species to support each other, they may also be like organisms that require a sequence of developments to reach a particular point.  It is hard to imagine why audio mp3 files would need to be preceded by vinyl records or cassettes in a developing country, but easy to see why it would need electricity. Infrastructure may be developmental (requiring a sequence of prior states to support it), while gadgetry may be ecological (not requiring prior states).

The Economist again:

Broadly, two sets of obstacles stand in the way of technological progress in emerging economies. The first is their technological inheritance. Most advances are based on the labours of previous generations: you need electricity to run computers and reliable communications for modern health care, for instance. So countries that failed to adopt old technologies are at a disadvantage when it comes to new ones. Mobile phones, which require no wires, are a prominent exception.


From the World Bank report this graph shows that low income countries are still rapidly inhaling industrial technologies. Big-budget infrastructure –roads, waterworks, airports, machine factories, electrical systems, power plants — are still badly needed and being acquired. The report states:

The diffusion of many of the older technologies depended upon the creation and maintenance of expensive government infrastructure at a time when many governments were grappling with severe budget constraints and weak technical and governance capacity.

How governments deal with the challenge of implementing Technology 1.0 determines how well they can install Technology 2.0. The Economist reports:

This partly explains the patchiness in countries’ technological achievements overall. Call centres in Kenya, for example, pay more than ten times as much per unit of bandwidth as do rivals in India, because India’s fibre-optic cable system is far better and cheaper. So sometimes you cannot leapfrog. As countries get richer, older technology constraints do not always fall away. It depends in part on how governments organise basic infrastructure like transport and communications.

Just because there is not much evidence for successful leapfrogging now does not mean some of the current trials with solar, hydrogen power, and nano-technology won’t leap in the future. It may be there is a minimum set of necessary technologies, and once those are attained leapfrogging is possible. Think of this as a minimum set of literacies that once attained allow you to learn (and leapfrog to) all kinds of state-of-the-art ideas.

  • George

    To perhaps build upon your thoughts on leapfrogging: It may be that Leapfrogging does not “wipe out” the old technological solutions as much as it makes demands for the old technology be re-conceptualizes to sustain optimal service in light of the new market realities.

    As an example: Coal tunnels were built deep below the streets of Chicago and fell into disuse as electricity leapfrogged. The old tunnels were ideal for reuse as fiber-optic conduits to inexpensively facilitate a use never anticipated by the tunnel builders. Disaster occurred with regulatory failure. Most of the major financial district was shut down when the tunnels flooded the buildings because governmental failed to preserve the integrity of the old infrastructure.

    I see two general problems with integrating new technologies. First, if the old technology does not exist it likely needs to be installed to support the new market possibilities created by the new technology. So cell phones can increase commercial opportunities but if roads are not functioning it distorts the market so as to limit the benefit to consumers.

    The second problem is often related to the first. Old regulatory systems and old entrenched interests, tend to make it difficult for the old technology to flex and change to be optimal. Inflexibility in our governance systems retards the benefits of advancement to citizens. For example: more than 20 years ago I was amazed to experience superior television picture quality in rural India over those in the USA. When the old television standards we recently changed in the US, except for much political grandstanding for delays and giveaways, it was a non event.

    Change and increasing complexity in the market increases our vulnerability to disaster because of invasive and poorly executed governance. The reality is that by design our governance systems are hard to change. I am cautioned to think that today’s high ideal, may be the cause of tomorrows suffering. Technology can not save us from ourselves. The law of unintended consequences does not discriminate in favor of good intentions.

  • John Harland

    New technologies are not “better” for all circumstances. An advance that is “logical” for one culture may be retrograde for another. Not least, a technology that advances material wellbeing at the expense of social welfare might even have been unacceptable within Western industrial cultures a generation ago, yet is seen as “good” now.

    Think: “would my grandparents have welcomed this technology as I do?”

    Local cultures are a mat of many strands. Even so “simple” a thing as building “Danish-style” bikelanes in Melbourne, Australia, falls foul of many levels of cultural difference.

    Differing infrastructural cultures mean that the kerb heights are higher, making the lanes work very differently. The normal street sweeping machines won’t fit, and the intersections are confusing in the context of Melbourne infrastucture.

    Motorists don’t know how to fit the new lanes into the traffic culture they have grown up with, and cyclists themselves can’t reconcile the intersections and lane-endings with their cultural preconceptions.

    There is also geography and its interaction with culture. Melbourne has hills, Denmark – largely – does not. The outcome of this is not immediately obvious. Cyclists can easily ride at similar speeds on the flat, or even down hill if necessary, but it is difficult to climb at the same rate. That leads to a far greater range of cycling speeds in Melbourne, and this is poorly accommodated in the Danish layout.

    When we start trying to span much bigger cultural gaps with much greater technological change, it cannot be surprising that adoption is slow.

  • Pierre Levy (reference below) uses the concept of anthropological spaces in his thinking and it might be of use here.
    Briefly, he views each of the ages in human history as actually being an anthropological space; a different way of relating to the Earth, technology, and each other in each different age. Ages end, but the anthropological spaces continue and influence each other.
    For that reason, leapfrogging would be hard. Since each successive space in some manner arises and is the product of the previous spaces, any attempts to leapfrog an anthropological space are doomed because they lack the support of the space they are jumping over.

    Levy, P. (1998). Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age (R. Bononno, Trans.). New York: Plenum Trade.

    • Kevin Kelly

      Don, I am not familiar with Levy’s work. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks.

  • Tim Whitworth

    I thought oil validly leapfrogged coal, at least in advanced countries?

  • Alternative Energy will be a truly interesting leapfrog technology to monitor. Power is an old and basic technology. Many of the alternative energy technologies leapfrog not only environmental standards, but also locality issues. Having solar panels on top of houses removes the necessity for power wires to bring power from the coal power plant.

    In the end, I think we will need to monitor alternative energy technologies individually, as Wind power could easily leapfrog in one country, while Solar could in another. Here’s to hoping they all take off.

  • Sarah Logan

    Surely the link between poverty reduction/service provision and the diffusion of new technology is surely what is most important about leapfrogging, not the ‘true fact’ of leapfrogging itself. That development of services has a ‘backwards effect’ which can lead to the ‘pushing forward’ of old technology or the filling of gaps in services which would not be filled otherwise. Again, mobile phone technology is my only real example here, but a useful document in this regard is a swedish development agency document called’ mobile phone technology in the philippines: lessons for Africa’ ( -). I am also thinking here of the experiences of mobile expansion in the Pacific, particularly PNG, where the recent introduction of mobile telephony competition is expected to have a significant impact on GDP. This is in a country where the electricity infrastructure is very limited, and where the geography of the place means that land-lines will probably never follow. The introduction od decent, affrodable telecom services is having a huge impact on the mainly rural based population there – meaning that ‘workarounds’ can be implemented to overcome obstacles old technology simply cannot overcome. For example, my friends there tell me about farmers being able to ring ahead to markets a days walk away and check what is needed, so they only take what they can sell. The introduction of mobile services there also has huge potential for banking and therein other services, in a country where banks are at least a days walk from over half the population. This has massive implications for things like payment (and thus retention) of teachers, as they generally get robbed whilst walking to pick up their pay. It could also have an impact on the potential of remittances from family members working overseas to actually make it back into rural areas, rather than getting stuck in the larger cities as relatives must go there to access the cash. Surely the gaps the technology manages to fill in people’s everyday lives influences its spread, not its typology alone – although of course some types of technology (cheap ones suited to existing technologies or lack thereof )- fill gaps easier.

  • BradOFarrell

    This is a much less intelligent comment, but I was at a crummy run down subway station in Brooklyn the other day, and it made me think of how in scifi vision of the future, all the buildings are pristine and shiny and everything is made of metal and looks awesome. But in reality, brick’s always going to be cheaper, and even though the idea of a train cart that runs on an electrified rail is pretty futuristic (when you think about it abstractly… without the hobos) it’s still easier to build the stations using methods that were used a thousand years ago. I guess what I’m saying is, there will always bee an economic need for crappy technology, even if better technology exists. I guess that’s kind of a different concept from leapfrogging in under developed countries, but, still… uh… I think I distracted myself.

  • KK, another great post. Another thing that perhaos makes this leapfrogging rarer than one would expect is the so called “10X improvement factor.” Andrew Mc Afee of Harvard describes this as people’s overvaluing incumbent technologies by a factor of 3, and undervaluing new technologies by a factor of 3, meaning that a new technology has to be over 9X better to be adopted.

    Stu Card also once told me that there’s rarely been a new technology that hasn’t become adopted by not emulating the technology it is dethroning first.

    Neither of these factors holds in places where there is no incumbent, so perhaps that should be part of the analysis as well. How much “leapfrogging” goes on when it is an instance “late blooming”–a new technology coming in without anything previously fulfilling that function?

    Thanks for the inciteful posts.
    Marc Meyer, CEO Blogrovr

    • Kevin Kelly


      I haven’t seen McAfee’s work, but I’ll be sure to track it down. Thanks.

  • Kevin, your quoted someone a while back as saying “Technology is everything invented after we were born”. Of course, it does feel that way, but it is not at all true. Technology is a vast accretion of learnings. I recently read “A History of Technology, from earliest times to 1900″ It is a dense one volume summary of a 5 volume work done in the mid twentieth century. It really helped me understand how older technologies underpin newer ones. I worked in “hi tech” for 33 years, and I completely took for granted a vast number of older technologies that made our product design, manufacturing, and distribution possible. And as you mention in your post, people without water or electricity will have scant need for (as well as little disposable income for) computers or mp3 players. Satellite TV seems to be another leapfrog. I suspect GPS will leapfrog older means of navigation on the coasts and inlands of less developed countries. But in general I agree that leapfrogging is much rarer that the cell example might lead us to believe. The good news is that it seems that even one leapfrog technology can have a big impact on hastening the implementation of older technology. Cell phones promote communication which will very likely promote transportation. Because my daughter, who lives in the boonies in Tanzania, can e-mail me and ask me to ship things to her, the demand for transportation is increased. Likewise, because an acquaintance of mine can order stock for her “fair trade” store here in Oregon, manufacture and transport of goods in a number of developing countries is increased.

    This was a very insightful post. I hope it figures prominently into the heart of your book on what technology wants.

    • Kevin Kelly


      Yes, no technology is an island, or an orphan. Every technology is co-dependent on others.

  • Kevin —

    I agree with most of your positions (and others, in other essays); in this case, I’m reminded of something I heard about first at the WSIS in 2005, regarding cell phones, fishermen off the coast of Kerala, India, prices, and fish waste. The best reference I can easily find ( concurs with what I heard presented — that once cell phones were available to the fishermen, they were able to self-regulate (on a daily basis) the fish-selling in local fish markets, by going to the markets that were not oversupplied with [specific types of] fish.

    In the presentation I saw in the WSIS presentation in Tunis, the “fish waste” (the day’s catch which was shoved overboard, because it wasn’t selling) went to flatline, once cell phones allowed rational market validation (because the fishermen were *cooperating* and not accidentally converging on markets).

    It was an instance of leapfrogging for sanity — that is, a tool that fit a specific need (in this case, “where is there a market?”), and so validated and encouraged the application of a technology.

    In many contexts, especially in the developing world, human-power will and can outdistance technology-power, because the cost of time (human power) is less than the costs of technology — infrastructure development, technical expertise, etc.

    Leapfrogging happens, I suspect, only when a devalued human-labor cost (cheap time) is outweighed by technology costs (expensive expertise and infrastructure). We in the north/west often forget about how cheap human time is, in developing countries: a five-hour round-trip walk to a nearby city to recharge the cellphone isn’t outrageous, in rural Kenya. In urban America, it would be ridiculous.

    So leapfrog technologies must therefore be *exceedingly* advantageous, to “take” in the developing world.

    For the fishermen of Kerala, it was worth the cost to have a cellphone. For the average Joe in rural Kenya, renting an occasional call from a neighbor’s cellphone business makes sense, in terms of cost and value, but owning the phone, and paying the costs, has few advantages, given the necessity of that five-hour walk to recharge the phone.

  • Is the world wide web leapfrogging libraries and reference books?

  • Tim Graettinger

    Feels like there’s a bit of relationship to Maslov’s hierarchy of needs in psychology – first, take care of the physiological needs (infrastructure, electricity, …), move on to safety/security, and on up the scale. It’s not a perfect analogy, but there appears to be an implied hierarchy and a notion of “must-have” precedents. And the tie-in to psychology may not just be a loose analogy when you think about people’s needs driving technology. A cell phone might be a “want”, but not a “need” if you don’t have clean water to drink.

    • Kevin Kelly

      Tim Graettinger, thanks for the reference to Maslov. I had not thought of that before, but you may be right. It would be interesting to try and create a hierarchy of needs FOR TECHNOLOGY.

  • David Murray

    I see in the Wall Street Journal that Europe plans to build 50 new coal-fired power plants (in Italy, Germany, Belgium) over the next five years. Despite strong objections from the population, coal remains cheaper and easier than oil, and except in France, nuclear faces even mroe objections and obstacles. What would you call this – back-hopping?

  • Adam Holland

    A great read as usual, Kevin.
    Where do you think Kuznets curves, especially environmental ones, as Conor Neu above is hinting at, fit into all this?
    I suppose what I have in mind is that you may well be right about leapfrogging, but that with the right sort of assistance from countries on the leading edge of innovation and adoption of technology, it might be possible for the up and coming countries to, if not leapfrog, at least dramatically increase their rate of change.
    That is, it may well be that the U.S, had to go through a century-long polluting period before it was rich enough to be able to worry about deliberately reducing pollution, but do China and India have to take the same length of time? Is it necessary that they make all of our mistakes, or can we at least help them make new ones?

  • truthADjuster

    Do you find relation of technology with Nietzsche’s concept on will-to-power? Technology is a will of another.Perhaps not human. Nietzche’s prose on “the new, the nameless, the hard-to-understand, we newborns of a yet untried future…”, is very representative now.