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Envisioning a Leapfrogged World
Vinay Gupta, 24 Feb 05

I'm going to take a brief shot at outlining what a "Leapfrogged" world might look like, one in which smart use was made of available technologies. In a sense, this Leapfrogged World is already around us, it's just very heavily mixed in with both the traditional-technologies world and the direct-copy-of-worst-practices world.

In particular, I'll be covering what can be leapfrogged, what cannot be leapfrogged, some thinking about the embedded capital base of the first world, and "invisible leapfrogging" - the leapfrogging which happened so fast, nobody called it that!

1. Leapfrogging

Leapfrogging (one of our favorite topics!) is the idea that countries without basic infrastructure like universal telecommunications can go directly to the best, most fitting solutions without having labor through the developmental struggle of telegraph, manually-switched telephony, direct-dial, brick-sized cell phones, analog cell phones, 3G digital. They just hop straight to 3G, piggybacking off the enormous human and capital investements it took to get there.

Leapfrogging is said to be a great equalizing force because the rich nations have already paid the price of developing these technologies, competition among companies in those nations keeps the technologies cheap, and the world's poor gets the benefits. The poster-child for Leapfrogging is the the cellphone. (link goes to excellent and very human article about cellphone deployment in the poorer parts of the globe)

If you question the value of the consumer society, please remember that the only reason that the peasants in China have cell phones is because the people in LA demanded them (and were willing and able to pay) them 20 years ago!

2. One limit on leapfrogging

There is one proviso: according to Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute individual developing-world consumers will only leapfrog to technologies which are already deployed by the rich. Everybody wants an "American Toilet" not a urine-separating or composting one. Consumer preference is "do as the rich do" and there's not much we can do about it, even if we know that "the rich" are doing it in a poor, expensive, messy way.

Other solutions may be ecologically better, but poor consumers are usually no more ecologically motivated than rich ones are, and often less. That's damned inconvenient, but may not constrain institutional investment quite so much. Individuals may want the loud flush and the gleaming porcelain for their own house, but most people do not care how their school is lit or cooled.

3. What, exactly, did Industrialization buy us?

This is actually a really important question, and not one I've seen commonly asked. To understand what we have is critical to understanding what we might be able to export.

Start where you are, and work out from your skin to the edge of what you own and use.

For me, my clothes are mostly imported and/or high tech fabrics, then there is this laptop I'm writing on containing dozens of incredibly refined components, requiring tens of billions of dollars of capital to create. It plugs into 120V AC power. That runs back to another trillion dollars of capital: the National Grid. The lights over head are CFL, imported from China. The wireless internet connection goes to a cable modem, running over incredibly expensive buried copper wires laid to carry yesterday's-big-thing, Cable TV. The water I'm drinking is drawn from Lake Michigan, filtered and purified by a giant factory, and fed to my house through a baroque system of sterile pipes - another few hundred million, right there. The house I am in is, in itself, another couple of hundred thousand dollars worth of capital, and relies extensively on the availability of lumber, shingles, glass.

This is modernity: a pile of capital, of sunk costs, running into the quadrillions of dollars. This is the amount of capital that it takes to provide average Americans or Europeans with our lifestyle.

Leapfrogging provides a way of freeing the poor world from the development cost of technologies like the mobile phone. Fortunately, higher technology tends to have lower and more modular installation capital requirements. But still, this world we are taking about exporting parts of is expensive, interwoven, complex, and took many, many generations to build up. It's existence is not just a scientific or technological phenomena, but has roots in democracy, christian and secular culture and long-dead greek philosophers.

Our Rome was not built in a day.

4. The leapfrogging nobody noticed.

Consumer goods and global services turn out to travel extremely well. You simply put consumer goods in a box and ship them: leapfrogging achieved. You can put a Gameboy anywhere on the planet and leapfrog the entertainment revolution. Perhaps not helpful, but true :-) The truck that carried the Gameboy is also leapfrogging - no Model T, no horse-drawn carriage, but an 18 wheeler likely lugged it most of the way. Transport technologies were the first leapfrogging! All those land rovers in Somalia? Real leapfrogging.

Likewise, services like GPS and satellite imaging are already more-or-less pre-leapfrogged. The hardware has global reach and you just need to know who to call to get the images.

This kind of leapfrogging is, in essence, done. You can buy Coca-cola or a derivative product more or less anywhere on the planet and the same is largely true for television and radio. (see this great article for a discussion of television availability in the world)

There may be some issues with cost, and support infrastructure and so on, but basically, this stuff has worked. Television, radio, satellite services and the like are everywhere. It's notable that "luxuries" like television appear to have out-paced "necessities" like clean water. What this says about human nature I'm not quite sure.

5. The Leapfrogging Gap: Leapfrogging Infrastructure

What's left to leapfrog is, in fact, the dull old Industrial age stuff: reliable electricity, plumbing, water supply, farming. Most of the fruits of the Space Age - chips and waveguides and orbiting birds - turns out to travel easily. It's the backhoe-centric world of civil engineering that we need to make available or help find substitutes for.

This is a genuinely hard problem. Industrial age artifacts are quintessentially different from Space age artifacts. They are raw, big, dug-in, enduring, measured in gigawatts not miliwatts. They require elaborate maintenance from skilled work teams, rather than working forever and being downcycled at obsolescence.

Think about trying to provide rural telephone service in China using Industrial Age telephony technologies. Thousands of kilometers of cable per village. Trenches, poles and strung wires. Wire stolen to be sold on the black market: a problem nearly everywhere there are poor people and exposed cabling. It's just never going to happen.

This is the leapfrogging gap: all of the services which our society continues to deliver using essentially Industrial Age solutions have turned out not to travel universally into the poor world.

Satellite dishes are everywhere, but many of those households don't have a completely reliable clean water supply, because you can put the satellite dish on a truck, but the water supply requires Victorian England to construct.

Leapfrogging infrastructure is going to require a new generation of infrastructure, and the good news is: it is already here.

6. Small is Profitable and the New Infrastructure

Small is Profitable is the Rocky Mountain Institute's book on distributed power generation. A 400 page door-stopper, selected as The Economist's Book of the Year (2003) SiP outlines the financial and technical case for a new approach to providing high quality and high profit margin electrical services to the world. This new approach is a "Post-Industrial" power generation methodology: fewer Industrial style power stations, lots of analysis and feedback loops, lots of technology like microturbines, combined solar-and-wind energy provision, lots of financial modeling to understand the real cost of options. Rather than one-size-fits-all 120V from every socket, powered by a single continent-spanning machine, SiP envisages highly granular power delivery, with each location getting its power from the best available resources: microturbines for some kinds of factories, solar/wind for some percentage of city supplies because the availability of those natural resources closely matches power demand, and so on.

The vision is a fine-grained lattice of different power generation systems not as a stop-gap measure until a national grid is deployed, but in many cases, instead of a national grid, simply because it delivers better quality power at a lower cost.

It is impossible to do the book justice, or (frankly) even make it's case comprehensible, in a single paragraph: it's like trying to summarize Lord of the Rings! Power To The People by Vijay Vaitheeswaran covers a lot of the same ground and is a much easier read!

The critical point from the "New Infrastructure" perspective is that the SiP style power-services model can be rolled out in a very fine-grained fashion: one household, one village, one town at a time. Rather than sinking a billion dollars into a power station, and another billion into a grid to distribute the power, SiP envisages a thousand small investments in solar, wind, hydropower, microturbines, even diesel generators where appropriate, leading to an incredibly efficient, fine-grained distribution of power generation resources.

This break from the industrial model gets us back into the "sweet spot" for leapfrogging: technologies one can put on a truck and ship, which do not require a thousand miles of trenches to be dug at the destination or Victorian engineering to maintain. Power generation with the same dynamics as satellite dishes and televisions.

As the book says, "it is already happening" - it documents a trend and lays out the financial and technical case for the trend to accelerate, but it is based on what is happening in the real world, not futurism.

Surprisingly, there are similar approaches to other areas in which our civilization is dependent on Industrial infrastructure. Water purification and sewage disposal are both areas which are still firmly embedded in the giant-factory-and-trench-based-service-distribution-network model.

Technologies like solar-powered ultraviolet water purification, for example, have great promise for village and even household-level deployment. A box you can ship which, on arrival, provides first-world-standard drinking water anywhere there is sunlight.

There are a billion people without clean water. They are likely never going to get services from giant water chlorination factories, with thousands of miles of brick-lined tubes and a spiderlike network of PVC and copper running to shiny chrome taps. But they could have drinking water.

Composting toilets likewise offer safe, sanitary disposal of human waste without an industrial sewage processing facility and super-abundant clean water to carry the human waste to the factory.

This is the new infrastructure.

7. The Leapfrogged World: Services without Industrial Infrastructure

I've simplified, almost to the point of parody, by saying "if you can put it in a box and ship it, it's leapfroggable."

However, as a rule of thumb, it is close enough to explain most of what we see around us: even a cell phone tower is, in essence, something you can ship in a Sea Container.

The Leapfrogged world is shipped in boxes. There are almost no backhoes. In the rural world, on arrival, unskilled or semi-skilled people open the boxes and unpack the goods. Instructions make it clear how the devices are to be used and once every couple of weeks, a Barefoot Solar Engineer comes around to help make sure everything is set up correctly and that the water is clean, the toilets properly operated, the batteries charged properly, the refrigerators used correctly, and so on.

In the urban world, it's the same process, but the boxes are microturbines, cell-wireless routers, microwave backhauls. In the leapfrogged world, the endless snaking corridors of pipes are largely replaced by trucks which come around once in a month and recharge the fuel supply on your fuel cells.

Modular, granular, fine-grained, and shipping in on trucks. Not the Aswan Dam, but a hundred thousand 12 volt village solar grids. A curiously future-retro combination of space-aged and mud-and-stick houses. High density, ultra-wire(less)ed urban hubs, and villages with solar-electric lighting and drinking water.

This is the leapfrogged world.

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Somebody forward this article to the leadership of China.

I think that China is in a unique position to redefine Amory Lovins "do as the rich do" - because they have a totalitarian government which can mandate (to a degree at least) what it is the people do.

Agreed that if the market were left to operate on its own, the people of China would continue to snap up wasteful American toilets (or whatever product example you want to use) - unlike most countries, however, the Chinese government has the political apparatus and will power to define and enforce a mandate - i.e.: force a leap frog to composting toilets, hydrogen economy, whatever.

The secondary benefit to this is that China's size will make whatever level the leap-frog economical for the rest of the world to adopt as well - i.e.: if China developed a composting toilet "for the people" and produced 700 million of them, those same production lines could produce them cheaply for the rest of the world.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 24 Feb 05

Just one follow-up note - I certainly don't condone all of the actions of China's government, past or present. I'm just pointing out that the intersection of their style of government at with this stage of our world's technological evolution makes for some interesting possibilities that would be much harder to achieve in the litiginous, special interest dominated, bloated bureaucracies and legislatures of the western world.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 24 Feb 05

I actually have my very own term for this: ecostalinism.

You can see it's *my* term because nobody else ever seems to have used it, which is a pity, because it's a critically important idea. Ecomaoism might be more accurate, but doesn't quite have the same ring. The EPA is essentially totalitarian, and it works fantastically well. Coercion appears necessary to enforce environmental responsibility at times.

China had it's own run in with this: they (according to an RMI story) bought some Japanese refrigerator factories, and started running them 24/7 to satisfy refrigerator demands, but the old fridges turned out to be incredible energy hogs, and soon enough ??Shanghai?? was having rolling brownouts because of the new refrigerators. I *think* they upgraded the factories or passed some minimum effiency laws...

Mandated end-use efficiency is absolutely one of the best weapons we have, and I've often said that we'll know when America is taking environmentalism seriously when the Incandescent Light Bulb is simply banned.

(I really shouldn't post comments after I've had a few, but there ya go!)

Posted by: Vinay on 24 Feb 05

I agree with a large amount of this post but there is an angle missing from it all. Different people in different places require (and will invent) equivalent solutions to the same problems. Whereas previously solutions have come from an almost centralised system where there are avenues through which innovation travels, this is in the process of being replaced by the realisation that people can do it themselves. Brazilian open source is a good example of this. The much feared homogenisation of everything will not take place because sooner or later we will realise that it comes from everyone not someone in particular. How different would our societies and cultures have been if they had all had electricity since the dawn of man? Because that's where we're going! Of course, the widespread use of travel and communication alters this slightly but it's still interesting to think in what ways we're all going to develop contrastingly in the future.

Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 25 Feb 05

Vinay, it's political suicide, not to mention incorrect, to say that the EPA is "totalitarian". It's also a bad idea on general principles to incorporate the name of a mass-murdering tyrant into your slogan.

The EPA is an expression of the will of the American electorate. Repeat that over and over again, because it's true. Further sensible policy successes will happen once the invisible infrastructure has all been made visible, and everyone agrees what to do because they understand. We're already moving in that direction. There is no way to make it go any faster.

Peace out. :-)

Posted by: pierre on 25 Feb 05

Coercion appears necessary to enforce environmental responsibility at times.

I think I understand what you mean, but again let me caution you to phrase the idea more carefully. The example that should come to mind is American-style zoning laws.

Compare: Four major hurricanes hit Florida in the space of six weeks and there are perhaps two dozen deaths. A single typhoon hits Bangladesh and hundreds, perhaps thousands are killed.

Why? Zoning laws and building requirements.

These fit the dictionary definition of "coercion" but nobody would call them "coercion" and take on the connotational baggage of that word; rather, zoning laws and building requirements are considered part of what defines an "advanced" country.

Just as zoning laws and building requirements for *safety* are part of what make "advanced" countries today, zoning laws and building requirements for *sustainability* are part of what will make "advanced" countries tomorrow. And today's underdeveloped countries might well leapfrog in this regard!

Posted by: pierre on 25 Feb 05

Pierre - your last sentence is exactly what I'm talking about, China being a position to pro-actively manage that leap-frogging process.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 25 Feb 05

I do not *recommend* ecostalinism. It's the "totalitarian solution" to environmentalism, just as communism was the "totalitarian solution" to poverty. LIkely it'll work just about as well, given the environmental disasters which are the former USSR and China.

None of that changes that One Child Family probably cut China's current population by about 250,000,000 people. My rough estimate is that it cut the total environmental impact of THE ENTIRE HUMAN RACE by 2%.

It's ugly, but it's got to be looked at. In some cases it just works.

Likewise, the reason I call the EPA totalitarian is that, if other aspects of life were policed as closely as the manufacture and use of certain industrial chemicals, we would feel we lived in a police state. The beaurocrasy, the paperwork and forms and permissions and all the rest of that stuff is an "apparatus of control."

It happens to be controlling stuff which we can all agree is Bad Stuff, but it should be recognized as what it is: government control by the stick, not by the carrot. Not "responsibility" but "enforcement."

And I like that. I think that the planet's ecological health is worth protecting with outright bans on things which harm it. Call me crazy, but I think that's actually a pretty good way of dealing with some kinds stuff, like, say, PCBs.

A lot of our environmental rhetoric is littered with political sweet talk about justice, and liberty, and individual responsibility, and collective responsibility, and a lot of very egalitarian values.

None of that has anything to do with protecting the environment. It's basic liberalism which has been grafted on to a new cause, and is actually profoundly unhelpful. I think we could take incredibly effective environmental action which didn't talk about social justice, didn't talk about fair trade, didn't talk about any of that tagged-on agenda or value system, but just dealt directly with "what will cut our CO2 emissions by 25% as a culture?"

I'm *FOR* those other values, yes indeed I am, but we are we willing to cripple our environmentalism by having it grafted on to liberal values?

I'm not. I'm just OVER THAT. Screw egalitarianism if it interferes with slowing and stopping climate change.

That stuff is all very nice, but the entity which actually does the work on the front line is the EPA, and it is a "identify and ban" organization which will simply shut your plant down and throw you in jail if you do the Wrong Thing. That's how it is acually being done. That's not about egalitarianism, that's not about fair trade, that's not about social justice. That's about "we told you not to do this, you did it, you go to jail!"

YES. Real environmental action: throw people who do the wrong thing in pokey. If it's good enough for public health violations, it should be good enough for ecocide.

My suggestion is that we need to look, really closely, at the power structures which currently protect the environment. For every kid who religiously recycles their soda cans and thinks they are saving the world, for every adult who drives a hybrid car, and thinks they are saving the world, there's 0.0001 of some hard working EPA inspector who actually is.

The idea that it will take political power and political will, a willingness to compel behavior like CAFE standards, and perhaps further down the line, personal carbon allowances or similar tax-and-quota like mechanisms to enforce collective environmental responsibility is not pleasant. But it might just be what will really work, and right now, very, very little effort is going into that sort of change. Partly that is because it is currently ineffective, because there is insufficient political will to actually start banning inefficient end-use devices: we're still at the "carrot" and not the "stick" end of the problem.

But compare that to how we handle problems we're actually serious about as a culture: stuff we don't like? We declare war on. War on Drugs. War on Terrorism. War on Iraq. War on Poverty.

War on CO2 Emissions.

Now, before you take me too seriously, the *work* I've done in the field was supporting some of RMI's books - I helped the editor deal with some of the technical stuff at times. That's all market based, pointing out that more efficient and more profitable is also more green, highlighting areas where companies can make a dollar of profit by saving a dollar of energy costs. Simple good.

But I say these things to provoke thinking about the "bundling" of eco-hippy values with environmentalism, and to ask folks to think, carefully, if duct-taping those two agendas together isn't rendering us ineffective guardians of our planet's health.


Posted by: Vinay on 25 Feb 05

Hey Vinay - I would definitely agree that the granola-muching, rag wearing, gas-mask-toting iconography of "environmentalism" works against its mainstream implementation - well described notion of the bundling of values.

That being said, I wonder about totalitarianism vs. liberalism in enforcement; I mean, does government's involvement help to quantify externalities and make sure they're paid for, or does it only disrupt natural market processes that would handle the tasks of enforcement better if government weren't involved? I guess ultimately it comes down to whether or not people in an anarchistic society would care enough about the environment to punish people or companies that pollute (or whatever) - judging by SUV sales, the answer would be a "no"...

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 25 Feb 05

Yeah, that's my feeling too: people just don't really care enough, or see the effects of their actions clearly enough, to change their behaviors.

Which is a shame, but seems like a fact we should work with, rather than trying to "raise awareness.'

Posted by: Vinay on 25 Feb 05

Observations that the few knowledgeable "we" are frustratingly unsuccessful in changing the ignorant masses of "they", accompanied by idle speculations about the merits of coercive government, are self-parody.

I think we could take incredibly effective environmental action which didn't talk about social justice, didn't talk about fair trade, didn't talk about any of that tagged-on agenda or value system, but just dealt directly with "what will cut our CO2 emissions by 25% as a culture?"

Well, from where I sit that's what this web site seems to be trying to do, and for the most part succeeding in a very interesting way. Maybe you guys just need to ditch all your annoying hippy friends? It's simpler than re-examining liberal democracy!

Posted by: pierre on 25 Feb 05

(BTW, really liked the orig. article, especially the way the insight about Industrial-Age infrastructure was expressed.)

Posted by: pierre on 25 Feb 05

Who said anything about re-examining liberal democracy?

Our *entire*culture* - American culture - exists in a framework of prohibitions to protect of safety. Product safety is one of the things we're best at: Underwriters Labs, the FDA, the regs on cars, OSHA, all of that stuff.

And all of it is "coercive government" - it's not best practices, it's not recommendations, it's "handle food for the public this way, or we shut you down."

But we're a small part of the world. China is 1/6th of the world's population, could be responsible for 1/3 or more of the new environmental impact as they grow richer so very rapidly, and they're still very totalitarian.

They've already made some big contributions through One Child Family, and perhaps the reforrestation programs.

The planet's health is more important than ideological debates about govermance. It really is.

Posted by: Vinay on 25 Feb 05

Good call, pierre - I had a good chuckle over your succinct summary of this discussion.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 25 Feb 05



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