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Science and Technology
Developing World - mobile communications, open source software, distributed infrastructure, economic growth, globalisation, poverty
Distributed and wireless technologies may precipitate innovative strategies for economic growth in poor countries enabling the rapid development of economic infrastructure.
Summary Analysis:
Conventional approaches to economic development in poor countries have focused on slow but steady transformation through the development of open markets and civil society. Growing nations have been expected to follow a path to industrialisation similar to that of Western nations -- first exploiting natural resources through trade and then moving up the value chain into production and services. A key component of this route to transformation is heavy public investment in large infrastructure networks for transportation, water, and power. However, developing countries in the 21st century rarely have the resources for such large infrastructure investments, and they face unprecedented population pressures quite unlike the Western experience of a century or more ago.

What the 21st century does offer is miniaturisation, wireless communications, and embedded computation. These technologies could permit the rapid deployment of distributed infrastructures in developing countries. Thus, they could radically change the approach to development aid and the way the West understands how to lift nations out of poverty.

Perhaps the best example of new development strategies is the way Grameen Telecom in Bangladesh has coupled new techniques for micro-credit lending with a modular, rapidly deployable cellular wireless network to widely distribute shared mobile phones managed by small-scale entrepreneurs. Strategies such as these will help a growing number of nations enjoy significant gains in economic productivity associated with a freer flow of information. (One recent study of Africa(Vodafone, 2005) claims that "a 1 per cent increase in mobile penetration rates is associated with 0.5-0.6 per cent higher rates of FDI/GDP.")

As distributed "leapfrog" technologies for computing, communications, power generation, water purification, and health care provision enter the market, they may spur development economists to rethink the traditional development model and create new frameworks for growth.


  • Increased support for development of domestic technology industries
  • Increased life expectancy for people in developing countries

Early Indicators:

  • Rapid growth of cell phone networks and subscriber bases
  • Deregulation and spectrum reallocation to accommodate current and future uses of wireless technology
  • Announcement in January 2005 of a new research initiative by the MIT Media Lab to develop a $100 laptop, a technology that could revolutionise how the world's children are educated
  • University of Nairobi in Kenya is launching a program on mobile phone software development in its computer science program, indicating a shift away from mainfame/PC in African computer science training (Nathan Eagle of MIT Media Lab will help them create the curriculum)
  • GSM Association's Emerging Markets Handset Program [link]
  • Ethiopia's nationwide VSAT project, estimated funding at 10% of GDP [link]

What to Watch:

  • India's wireless subscribers grow to more than 150 million over the next 5 years.
  • Radical changes in the allocation of aid to developing countries result in less focus on large infrastructure projects and more on distributed infrastucture and micro-enterprise.
  • Technological societies develop in Africa, but without extensive industrialisation.
  • A verbal/pictorial Web is developed for illiterate peoples to use.


  • Development of improved batteries and alternate portable power-generation techniques (such as Freeplay radio)
  • Use of mobile phones, rather than wire, in developing countries
  • Development of interactive voice response systems and Internet gateways


  • Asia, US, Europe (technology)
  • Africa (impact of technology)


  • Grameen Telecom, Bangladesh (wide distribution of mobile phones to small-scale entrepreneurs)
  • Ministry of Culture, Brazil (initiatives by Gilberto Gil, Minister of Culture, to preserve and expand the information commons)
  • Village Information Project, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, India [link]
  • New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) eAfrica Commission [link]
  • World Bank Information for Development Programme [link]
  • World Summit on the Information Society, Tunis, November 2005 [link]
  • The International Development Centre, Open University, UK [link]
  • Spanning the Digital Divide, Programme for Information on Sustainable Livelihoods Project, Overseas Development Institute [link]
  • Imperial College Centre for Energy Policy and Technology [link]
  • MIT Media Lab (work on the $100 Laptop Program or HDLP) [link]
  • California Energy Commission (use of distributed systems to deliver energy) [link]
  • Technology and Infrastucture for Emerging Regions (TIER) project, UC Berkeley (addressing the challenges in bringing the IT revolution to developing regions of the world) [link]
  • Simputer [link]


  • "The Significance of Information and Communication Technologies for Reducing Poverty." 2002. Department for International Development: Infrastructure Connect.
  • Dibbell, Julian. 2004. "We Pledge Allegiance to the Penguin." Wired 12, no. 11. [link]
  • Africa: The Impact of Mobile Phones (Vodafone Policy Paper Series, Number 2, March 2005). [link]
  • "Distributed Generation in Developing Countries." World Bank. [link]
  • "Leapfrogging 101." [link]
  • World Energy Council. "The Challenge of Rural Energy Poverty in Developing Countries" [link]
  • Bauen, A. Hart, D. and Chase A. “Fuel Cells for Distributed Generation in Developing Countries – an Analysis.” International Journal of Hydrogen Energy 28. 2003. pp 695-701
  • Eric Brewer. 2005. "The case for technology in developing regions." IEEE Computer. [link]
  • "How Countries go High Tech." Economist. November 8 2001 [link]
  • Pambazuka (source of ICT news in developing countries)[link]
  • Smarr, Larry. "Remarks at IFTF Workshop," IFTF. Palo Alto, CA. 27 July 2005.
  • Pescovitz, David. 2005. "Cell Phone as Sensor." Labnotes. [link]
  • Intelligent Infrastructure Systems Foresight Project Overview [link]

At A Glance:
3–10 years
How Fast:

Related Outlooks:

About this outlook: An outlook is an internally consistent, plausible view of the future based on the best expertise available. It is not a prediction of the future. The AT-A-GLANCE ratings suggest the scope, scale, and uncertainty associated with this outlook. Each outlook is also a working document, with contributors adding comments and edits to improve the forecast over time. Please see the revision history for earlier versions.

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