Source: Library of Congress. Children playing leapfrog, New York City. About 1908-1915. “No known restrictions on publication.”

What’s new?

In the 7 August 2021 issue of New Scientist, Jim Watson, research director at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources in London, argues that “Instead of developing energy infrastructures based on fossil fuels, low-income countries could leapfrog straight to cleaner low-carbon technologies.”

What does it mean?

Coal was king of the industrial revolution. All developed countries achieved their high standard of living by emitting greenhouse gases that are causing the climate crisis. Without just telling less developed countries that they should not follow that path, what can be done? Economic justice and environmental justice demand better approaches. Watson’s leapfrog may be an answer.

A leapfrog in technology is not a new idea, and is often applied to Africa, India, and elsewhere to describe a path using mobile and digital technology to fuel entrepreneurial ventures and social services. Financial Times quotes “Precious Lunga, a Zimbabwean neuroscientist who founded Baobab Circle, a health tech company,”

There are places where there’s still no running water, but you can stream a video,

and quotes “Calestous Juma, the Kenya-born former chair of the innovation for economic development executive programme at Harvard’s Kennedy School,”

The mobile handset in the hands of an ordinary African has become the symbol of leapfrogging.

Eliza Strickland in IEEE Spectrum presents evidence that African now leads the world in some digital applications.

Companies such as M-Pesa sprang up to solve a local problem—people’s lack of access to brick-and-mortar banks—and became a way for people not only to make payments, but also to get loans and insurance. “We’ve refined the concept of mobile money over the last 10 or 15 years,” says Kaabunga, “while other parts of the world are just now coming around to embracing it.”

She also reports that drones can deliver blood to hospitals that cannot be reached as quickly by poor roads.

But where does the electricity come from? Financial Times answers:

In the village of Sahabevava in north-east Madagascar, several hours down a bone-jolting road to the nearest town and far from the nearest electricity grid, Lydia Soa, a farmer, is the proud owner of a solar panel. It produces enough power to light her home — good for when the children do homework — power a boombox and, of course, recharge her mobile phone.

Jakkie Cilliers, in a chapter from his 2021 book The Future of Africa, describes more explicitly what the energy leapfrog might look like, with solar, wind, and ocean generated electricity, plus battery storage and transmission lines. Supplying cheap electricity will fuel the digital revolution, so the energy and digital revolutions are linked. He cautions, however,

A strong focus on technology can provide leapfrogging opportunities for low and middle-income countries, but governments must not lose sight of ‘traditional’ developmental issues, such as governance, infrastructure and skills.

Some actually point to a latecomer advantage, if the leapfrogging is done with careful planning.  Three authors at the Center for Strategic & International Studies state:

The lack of legacy infrastructure and entrenched vested interests could allow for the rapid adoption of emerging technologies, especially compared to developed nations that are forced to follow more incremental transition plans. This flexibility could allow developing nations to plan their policies, innovation ecosystems, and infrastructure with emerging technologies in mind from the start.

What does it mean for you?

While the idea of leapfrogging most often refers to taking a leap in the use of some technology, it can also apply to processes and softer improvements, although, of course, changes to technology and to processes go hand-in-hand. I always advise an organization to study a process thoroughly for efficiency (do all of those five people really need to approve purchases?) before automating.

Those, like me, who study and help organizations implement improvements often contrast incremental with dramatic improvements.  Continuous quality improvement using many small improvements throughout an organization can add up to large total improvement. Sometimes, however, a more dramatic leapfrog can be a better approach.

Benchmarking, according to ASQ, “is defined as the process of measuring products, services, and processes against those of organizations known to be leaders in one or more aspects of their operations.” How do the best performing organizations, both inside and outside of your industry, accomplish tasks? Combining best practices from many others can enable your organization to leap ahead.

However, for me, the biggest lesson is to focus on the goal, and then to think about different ways to get there, not just relying on the paths that others have already taken to that goal. Sometimes even the best ways to accomplish tasks can be dramatically improved by taking a fresh, innovative approach, not just tweaking the approaches that others already use.

Where can you learn more?

As I often do, I recommend my professional organizations as sources of information on how to improve: IISE (the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers) and ASQ (formerly the American Society for Quality).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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