3 minute read

Kevin Kelly provides an excellent analysis of the rust beneath the chrome of leapfrogging:

The most commonly cited evidence for leapfrogging is the pattern of cell phone adoption in China and other parts of the world. For hundred of millions of people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, their first telephone is a cell phone. But second examples of skipping the industrial revolution are scarcer. I am aware of a small island in the Ganges delta of India and one village in Thailand that installed solar power. Beyond that, the examples of skipping the industrial revolution evaporate on inspection. A few pilot programs here and there, but no real adoption. In fact the closer one looks at the evidence, the more unlikely it seems to me that leapfrogging actually happens.

He goes on to point out that leapfrogging is really just an overlapping boom -- the cell phone boom overtook -- but did not destroy -- landline growth, which continues apace, just not as fast as cell (he argues that cell phones in fact encourage reliance on telephone communication, essentially spurring continued landline growth).

Kelly also underlines the liberal and environmentalist bias of leapfrogging -- why don't we consider the jump straight to landrovers and trucks from donkeys and handcarts, skipping large horse-drawn carriages and rail infrastructures (and sometimes preceeding paved roads)? Is it not green enough? Not high-tech enough? Not an elegant solution?

I feel that these are valid objections. Particularly in ICT, it is far too easy to get caught up in creating the best solution than to make an inelegant first step, and get something started, whether or not it's the perfect solution.

Beyond the humanitarian need to do something quickly more than perfectly, there's also the benefit that step-by-step methods allow those you're working with to have a better feel for the process, instead of being presented with just the final project.