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Leapfrogging in Reverse
Jeremy Faludi, 30 Jul 05


We talk incessantly here about leapfrogging, but always in a one-directional way: devices and ideas go from the industrialized world to the nonindustrialized world, and let the latter skip ahead to better lives. But the learning isn't always unidirectional--sometimes the innovations go from the nonindustrial to the industrial.

For instance...

Green architects in the last twenty years have learned passive-solar design tricks from pre-industrial buildings, both historic ones in their own countries and contemporary buildings in non-industrial societies. (For instance, cool towers come from vernacular middle-eastern architecture.)

Innovations in materials have also occurred this way (such as bamboo as a building material).

Green urban design has also benefited greatly from pre-industrial design strategies (mostly pedestrian-centered design); technically speaking, though, these are almost all rediscoveries of historical strategies, not taken from foreign lands.

Even transportation has room for reverse leapfrogging. We've already mentioned the Reva electric car, designed and built in India and causing a splash in the UK. A newer example that may be successful (it's too early to call yet), is the Texxi service in Liverpool (see Green Car Congress for a good writeup on it). It is what happens when a Central American "Colectivo" (basically a group taxi, filling a somewhat fuzzy niche between normal taxis and buses) gets wired.

There are several questions about reverse-leapfrogging. Most important, what are the stages of development being skipped by adopting them? For example, home solar cells in India let people enjoy modern electrical appliances without going through a hundred years of building a grid infrastructure; what does a bamboo building let us leapfrog past? Decades of strip-mine reclamation? Should we look to the third world more often to see its environmental problems and spot the ones that will also be ours in twenty years, in order to leapfrog past them?

A more trivial question, but one that nags at me, is what do you call this? "Reverse-leapfrogging" is awkward and also implies that the natural flow of innovation is inherently from rich country to poor country. "South-North innovation" is okay, but doesn't express the idea that the North is skipping some hypothetical historical stage. And for ideas which started in the first world, went to the third world and got tweaked, then came back to innovate the first world, what do you call that? "Boomerang leapfrogging"? (Actually, I like "Boomerfrogging", but no one else will ever go for that...)

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Am I missing something here? It seems like we're simply talking about innovation and are having a hard time getting our heads around the fact that innovations knows no geographic boundaries.

Posted by: Zaid on 30 Jul 05

Jeremy, thanks for posting this. I've been involved in "green" architecture for 25 years, and I can assure you that we've been learning good ideas for vernacular buildings for a long time. The most important lesson they teach to today's architects is humility.

Posted by: David Foley on 30 Jul 05

What do you call technology flow from less-industrialized to more-industrialized nations?

With tongue firmly in cheek, I suggest "wetback technology".

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 30 Jul 05

The texxi sounds really intriguing. Optimizing single-passenger taxis seemed like an obvious idea once they were GPS-enabled. The two additions for the Texxi are 1) passengers geocode their destination (or rather produce a postal code) and 2) more than one passenger can ride at the same time.

Is this catching on?

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 30 Jul 05

'Frog-ducking'? 'Tadpole - diving'? 'Openness'? 'Connectedness'? 'Interaction'?

Zaid has a point. Technology transference has happened in all directions since time dot. Leapfrogging is a strong metaphor now, better left undiluted.

Posted by: Janelle on 31 Jul 05

Sturat Hart, S.C. Johnson Chair of Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management, sees this whole thing as a future trend: multinationals concerntrating on authentic emering market needs, pushing them unpmarket to developed markets. It's described better, of course, in his Capitalism at the Crossroads:The Unlimited Business Opportunities in Solving the World's Most Difficult Problems, a follow-on to his work with C.K. Prahalad.

Posted by: Will on 31 Jul 05

Oooh, I *like* "wetback tech." To mirror the metaphor used in leapfrogging though, I would suggest "backflipping."

As far as "express[ing] the idea that the North is skipping some hypothetical historical stage," I think that's a bit of a misrepresentationÂ… it implies that the developed world has always been developed and has no history of its own.

Turning an idea like leapfrogging on its head is usually a good way to investigate other possibilities: but the reverse of one system or idea is not always a polar opposite. It is more of a parallel, or diversion. In the examples of reverse leapfrogging given, and in most other instances I can think of where backflipping has migrated to the first world, the outcome is not one of skipping a step so much as it is a matter of moving forward with a hybrid of high tech applications of simple solutions.

Really, backflipping most often has the effect of simplifying a complex problem, or presenting a more eloquent solution to something that was formerly addressed in the developed world by throwing wads of cash at a problem.

Zaid's comment has merit: innovation is the real heart of what we're talking about. But it is a specific kind of innovation. I've spent years as an artist and designer studying third world design, bricolage, and art. The design process in these cultures, by necessity, is built upon reversal, re-use, reconfiguration, rebirthing of an object or idea by turning it into something new and useful outside of it's original context. In exactly the same way that Jeremy turns leapfrogging on it's head to look at the question of how third world innovations can be used in the first world, the third world has often achieved it's innovations by subverting western tech to the needs and purposes of the immediate situation. This is a different form of innovation from that of the developed world in that it is more open to chance, curiosity, and constraint.

For a great description of this design process, I highly recommend Allen F. Roberts' essay, "The Ironies of System D" in the exhibition catalog "Recycled re.seen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap."

Posted by: johntunger on 31 Jul 05

On the other hand, if we take the long view, what Europe and North America have done is classic leapfrogging.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 31 Jul 05

Since, among other things, mention is made of both bamboo construction and "green architecture," I was wondering if any readers here may've seen this ancient Wired Magazine article (January 2000):

"Newer York, New York
After the Great Blaze of 2015, Manhattan went green - thanks to Bill Gates and bambootekture."

Some interesting ideas in there. Yet nothing on such a scale has yet been tried.

Posted by: Jay on 31 Jul 05

This could be called "sharing information". Why squeeze everything into your exclusive terminology?

Posted by: A on 31 Jul 05

If all you say is "sharing information", you allow people to interpret the direction of sharing according to their prejudices.

If you say "Oh, that's a wetback technology", you implicitly recognize that worthwhile things can come out of the "lesser-developed" parts of the world.  You also brand it with a slightly illicit (and thus perhaps chic) connotation.

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 31 Jul 05

EP I gather yr 2nd post was also tongue in cheek (or foot in mouth). Wetback is derogatory.

Posted by: Janelle on 1 Aug 05

I agree with the other comments above - and innovation has been flowing in all directions since time eternal, and there are certainly no geographical limits to innovation.

However, in the *discourse* on innovation, science and technology, and development, this flow is often *seen* as one-way. So, I think there is value in changing the discourse to highlight and identify the ways in which the "South" influences and can teach the "North". One day I hope we'll come to a world where "South" and "North" will simply be directions, and not words loaded with the legacy of colonialism.

Posted by: karl on 1 Aug 05

Janelle:  think "culture jamming".

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 1 Aug 05

EP - Think "The Rebel Sell" or "Why the culture can't be jammed." A short article can be found here:

It seems to me that Karl has put his finger on it. We only need a phrase or a way of explaining that innovation flows in multiple directions to those who are of the mindset that the West has never learnt anything from the East or the Global South. The obvious danger of coining such a phrase, is that the assumption is that it describes a new phenomenon.

I remember in Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond makes the point that European civilisation contributed virtually nothing to the world before the last 1000 years. Without quibbling on the exact date, I think that we need to remember that historically the norm has been of the West borrowing from other civilisations and it's only in recent years that this has reversed.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 1 Aug 05

Yeah, but that last millennium has sure been a doozy, hasn't it?

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 2 Aug 05

Good point Zaid - I think Guns/Germs/Steel has a subconscious influence on a lot of my thoughts these days.

I also agree that coining a new phrase will make it seem like something new, when in fact it is timeless.

I also think this discussion is touching on the heart of another matter, namely the distinction in the discourse between "developed" and "developing". In the United Nations system, for example, these terms have very specific connotations. There is a (short) list of "developed" countries, which includes N. America, Europe, Japan, and Australia and New Zealand; the rest of the world is classified as "developing".
This distinction actually has real meaning in international law, for example in trade treaties, besides its discursive power.

By creating these terms and imagining some sort of gulf that some countries have crossed, while others are waiting to cross is to imagine that after 200,000 years on this planet, some small group of homosapiens has "developed" (note: a past tense verb) within the last 100 years, while the rest have not! Isn't it possible that we are all developing, we're just starting from different points and possibly going in different directions? Do we all have to end up at the same place?

Of course, there are differences between Iceland and Rwanda, and the US and China. There are certainly differences in GDP/capita, for example. However, as Amartya Sen points out, on other indicators the differences are not so clear. African Americans in the US have a lower life expectancy than farmers in Kerala. Who is more "developed"? Would you rather have a shorter, richer life? Or a longer, poorer one?

The point of all this is that even in our discussions of North->South, South->South, and South->North transfers of knowledge and technology, we assume that we know what North and South mean, and that these terms hold an implicit hierarchical ranking. North, of course, is above South, and almost all maps show it that way. From Mars, above and below are pretty meaningless, and Rwanda can be seen as "above" Denmark as much as it is "below" Denmark.
Take a look at a south-on-top map, it changes your view of the world.

I don't mean to sound like Einstein here, but everything really is relative. If we were conquered by super-advanced space aliens, they would classify all of us as "developing", and themselves as "developed". Would that change how we relate to one another, since we were all part of the same group?

The point of this is that discourse changes the way we think about the world, and the dichotomy between developed and developing changes the way we see transfers of knowledge and information. A way to counteract this is to find a way to valorize and promote transfers of knowledge from so-called "developing" countries to the so-called "developed" world and undermine the notion that knowledge flows one way (which is a central tenet of leapfrogging in development discourse).

For example, sustainable development is a popular catch-phrase, but it is normally applied to "developing" countries. I would argue that it is the advanced industrialized nations, which use way more than their fair share of resources, which are in need of sustainable techniques. We could learn these if we had some humility.

Enough rambling, but I'm interested in starting a project along these lines, to promote reverse leapfrogging or whatever we end up calling it. I'm looking for volunteers.

If you're interested please send me an email and we can do this thing together.

Karl Brown

Posted by: Karl Brown on 2 Aug 05



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