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Retro: Envisioning a Leapfrogged World
Alex Steffen, 23 Aug 05

We know leapfrogging works. But we also know that most of the examples we have for the ways in which leapfrogging has worked so far tend to come from relatively "light" technologies, like mobile phones. Can the developing world find ways to leapfrog the other, "heavier" systems (from roads to sewers to electrical grids) upon which development depends? That's the question Vinay set out to answer in his essay Envisioning a Leapfrogged World:

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.

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Thanks for the great article, Vinay.

Curious what your take is on the possibiity for leapfrogging as it may apply to transportation infrastructure. I recently heard Lovins talk, with an extensively pro-car vision for a more oil-free future, but I am caught in a current research project in Brazil where more roads and cars are what absolutely seem to need to be leap-frogged. In my case, the percieved need for paved roads, and the current road inadequacy, seems to be a burdernsome, expensive infrastructure which will lead to greater environmental degradation in the region.

RMI et al may be doing a great job of promoting SiP, and may have some great technologies in mind, but what do we do with them when transportation infrastructures (e.g. not having road access in isolated communities) is the problem? Do you side with, say, paving roads, or is there some other small-and-powerful option out their to side-step this dilemma.

Posted by: Eve on 23 Aug 05

On a related note to Eve's, a powerful way to leapfrog can be innovative uses of low-tech alternatives, eg Curitiba's bus system instead of the recommended expensive rail networks. Or simple water filtering techniques and local watershed restoration rather than a centrally piped network. This may be particularly relevant to infrastructure challenges, but depends largely on local circumstances of course.

Regarding the current retro posts on the approaches to science/technologies: it's not just a matter of solving a problem & transferring the solution, leapfrog or not, but also of involving local communities in identifying & diagnosing the problems & their causes to begin with, then testing and giving feedback on the potential benefits and issues. Their different views of a problem can be surprising. This intermediary role (drawing on available technologies & applying them to problems - which always have a social element to them) has been highlighted in research as important as the original R&D - more important in the poorest communities. Largely by accident of omission and the nature of the focus, many of the solutions we see here on WorldChanging focus on the technnology involved and inadvertently portray the people in developing countries as passive recipients. Let's revise that!

Posted by: J on 24 Aug 05

I've wondered about this myself, particularily in regards to transportation, while shrugging my shoulders in dismay as China increasingly abandons the bicycle for a US-style automobile culture.

On the other hand, some of the most desirabley civilized cities in the world, Amsterdam and Copenhagen (among others) have managed to re-embrace the bike as a legitimate mode of transportation, improving health, community, and livability in the process, while not entirely replacing the car.

Is this process a "leapfrog"? Can places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam be held up as "ideals" that might inspire other largely pre-car cities to think... "hey! that's where we want to end up, let's just do that now". Does China really need to produce millions of automobiles to join modernity? What about other places, South America, for example... is there leapfrog potential there, or am i thinking pie-in-the sky?

Posted by: Nick Aster on 24 Aug 05

Some of it is chinese wanting to be able to go places farther then a bike can go with more then a bike can carry.. like the new middle class learning how to ski and vacation.

Some of it simply has to do with the fact alot more bike riders are being turned into roadkill by the massive army of trucks carreening around china as it builds itself up so fast.

Some of it has to do with pollution... its hard to ride a bike when the air is brown.

And finaly its simply that alot of people do like cars.

Posted by: wintermane on 24 Aug 05



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