Leapfrog into technology to avoid getting leapfrogged yourself
Those that still question the need for technology leapfrogging in development need to know if we continue to use camel-era technology on the highway, we may get hit by fast cars that have embraced innovation.
The human transport journey has moved from camels to modern cars. But while riding a camel is convenient in harsh rural terrain, our development journey at the crossroads of innovation demands faster movement with the latest affordable technology. Those in our community that question the need for technology leapfrogging in development need to know if we continue to use camel-era technology on the highway we may get hit by fast cars that have embraced innovation.
Everyone’s favorite example of leapfrogging technology is the mobile phone. Many developing countries skipped the 20th century landlines and moved straight to the 21st century mobile technology. India, for instance, now has about 980 million mobile connections, and is adding about 5-7 million new connections every month. Many of the new mobile users are people who waited for years to get a landline connection, and most have never used one.
In 2005, I was caught up in an embarrassing situation in Afghanistan, where I kept asking for an office landline number when there was none. With a population of about 30 million, Afghanistan today has only 110,000 landlines but close to about 20 million mobile subscribers.
Awareness of leapfrogging in technology is also important for existing businesses, as a declining revenue base can entail writing off of productive assets. Demand for electricity has been falling in the Australian market over the last five years thanks to rooftop solar power, following the same model of the great decline of landlines in the US phone market. Investing in the right technology is more important today, as we at the crossroads of disruptive technologies.
For instance, close to 200 million users of electric bikes in the People’s Republic of China have bypassed the motorcycle and jumped straight from human-powered bicycles to plug-in electric bikes. It’s like how today most of us carry an ATM card but few remember the last time we wrote a paper check to pay a bill.
The fundamental question is, why jump into unknown over long distances when one can swim to the same destination slowly and safely? The answer is simple – a frog jumps to an opportunity by leaping over the irrelevant items in between to save time. Today 4.5 million people in rural Bangladesh and millions all over Africa have leapfrogged from depending on kerosene to generating their own power from solar panels.
The days of waiting for a grid are gone; off-grid is the new lifestyle. Hundreds in the developed world are also leaving the grid, as a lifestyle choice and for cheaper power, creating huge pressure on regulators to find ways to pay the utilities for the connection assets.
Leapfrogging in technology is a major consideration in infrastructure investment because of the looming stranded asset risk as technologies become obsolete. Today many developing country policy-makers worry about investing in a coal-fired power plant or a remote distribution network that will last more than 30 years, but the cash flow projections in 15 to 20 years are uncertain.
Millions of people with no access to electricity in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and all over Africa are taking an interest in solar power and off-grid technologies. People in these developing countries use their mobile phones to Google for businesses that sell solar technology, or look up technical answers from Wikipedia, as the new generations don’t appreciate the concept of waiting for the next year’s updated version of the Yellow Pages or the Encyclopedia Britannica for their research. This is a new world, where one's inability to leapfrog will only ensure being leapfrogged by others.
At the macro level, consistent policy is important, as “economic growth is a process, not a 4G antenna.” You can’t leapfrog development; it has to come with vision, leadership, fighting lobbies, and often making hard sacrifices to preserve the greater good.
We are seeing many interesting new products and services ahead of us. My interest is to bring off-grid DC solar with lithium batteries to sparsely populated remote rural areas, rather than building or waiting for grid connection to arrive. Micro-grids are the wave of the future, and leapfrogging from power grids to energy self-generation is a viable option for 1.2 billion people worldwide.