Technological Leapfrogging


Ashok Khosla

In a world where there is still so much extreme poverty, inequity,

Biomass Gasifier - A leapfrog technology
using biomass to generate electricity and
create sustainable livelihoods

and environmental degradation, the concept of technology leapfrogging acquires a new and special meaning. 

Even in this age of rampant “globalisation”, perhaps as many as half the people on this planet still continue to find themselves outside the mainstream economy.  Given the record of progress over the past fifty years, it is becoming clear that today’s development strategies may be good for those who already have power and wealth – whether in the North or the South –  but they can neither eradicate poverty nor strengthen ecological security.  The perennial search for progress and development has failed to deliver the benefits of the extraordinary technical or political advances the world has seen over the past century to many of its citizens.  Today, we need to search for a better form of modernisation, a goal that has come to be called sustainable development.

At its most fundamental, particularly for developing countries, sustainable development simply means two things: first, it must meet the basic needs of every single person; and second, it must maintain, and indeed regenerate, the resource base on which we all depend. Sustainable development must lead to a world with more equity, more ecological security, more economic efficiency, and more empowerment.  And since all these are inextricably linked, this means that they must all be achieved at the same time.   It is not possible to get, say, ecological security – or even economic efficiency – without greater equity and social justice.  Thus, eradicating poverty is not just a moral imperative, which it certainly is, but also an ecological and social one as well.  Above all the existence of extreme poverty imposes an unnecessary ceiling on the possibilities of overall development in the first place.

How do we bring about a more sustainable form of development? There are five basic types of intervention that society has available to change the direction in which it is going.  Technology is the simplest one, and probably the one that can be implemented most easily and quickly.  Economic instruments are a little harder, and take a little longer to implement, but they are also often deeper and more pervasive.  Institutions and systems of governance are even more difficult to reconfigure, but lead to changes that can be effective for long periods and for large sections of the people.  And at the most fundamental level, we can also change the way we structure our knowledge (particularly about the world around us) and the basic values of society – usually the most difficult changes to bring about and also the longest lasting. 

Interventions at all these levels are needed to reorient our pathway to bringing about a more sustainable world.  And all of these issues must be addressed at the same time.  For example, as long as our “civilisation” continues to be cavalier about producing and dumping wastes (resulting from a breakdown of age-old values underpinning the relationship of humanity with nature), or we continue to follow the compartmentalisation ordained by Cartesian science, it is highly unlikely that our planet can become a good and healthy place for everyone living on it. 

To get a glimpse into the types of fundamental changes needed in all these spheres, it is worthwhile to start with the technology issues, which as I mentioned earlier, are among the easiest to deal with.

There are three broad types of impact that technology has on society. The first is its impact on the efficiency, and thus the productivity, of our economy. Technology determines how much we get for each unit of land, resources, energy, labour or other factor we put in to the production system.  The second is its impact on the environment. This can be either bad, such as pollution, or good, as in regenerating soils or water systems.  And the third is its impact on the distribution of wealth and equity.   Technology is probably one of the biggest causes in history of the exclusion faced by certain sections of society.  It has for millennia excluded the women, the poor, the villager, the farmer, and in more recent times, the whole of the South.  Technology has passed all of these people by – and in the process created many perils: to the environment, to society and to the poor.  These are the ultimate divides that so many international conferences these days go on about.  To bridge these divides, we must now invest in a totally different future and I believe that science and technology also offers the best means to overcome those perils: a promise that can only be fulfilled if we choose and design our technologies in a very different way.

The choice of technology has to be specific to each context. It must be in tune with the people’s aspirations, it must be in consonance with the resource endowments of the place, it must recognize the stage of development of a particular society or community.  Furthermore, it must be accessible and scalable, and it must be environmentally friendly. As circumstances keep changing, the choice of technology must be dynamic and changing as well.

It is now important to analyse these issues from a very specific point of view: that of today’s developing countries. Half of the population of this planet basically lives – survives?  subsists?  — on some six or seven per cent of its wealth and income.  From this majority’s point of view, the best technologies are those that create sustainable livelihoods.  That has to be the first and primary function of any technology. They must also encourage adoption of lifestyles that are sustainable. They must also facilitate the fulfillment of basic human needs, and wherever possible, they ought to empower the people and promote basic attitudes of self-reliance. 

The principles of good technology are that it must liberate human potential; it must create economic opportunities; it must regenerate the resource base that we have destroyed and it must engender ‘technicity’. Technicity is not a word you will find in the dictionary yet, but by it I simply mean what Jawaharlal Nehru used to call the scientific temper. It is the ability to handle technology in a way that is not only to our advantage but leads to confidence in handling other technologies.  I think even more important than Jawaharlal Nehru’s insight is Gandhiji’s understanding, which is that technology is only good when it is a servant, not the master of people. The fundamental choices that we are addressing today at this meeting are, do we copycat, do we piggyback or do we leapfrog?

Copycat technologies are best avoided. The conventional automobile is an example, the

Copycat technologies

- to be avoided


Conventional Automobile


internal combustion engine
q Large, centralised production systems


coal fired power stations
q Concrete, energy intensive buildings
q Urban sprawl
q Fixed wing aircraft

 internal combustion engine is another.  These are dead-end technologies. They may be here for another 20 years, may be 50 years, but you cannot imagine a world a hundred years from now where these technologies will be widespread. The same applies to large centralized production systems, such as coal-fired power stations and big factories,  energy-intensive high rise buildings made of steel and cement, urban sprawl, fixed wing aircraft, I could name a hundred more. These are copycat technologies that everybody wants to get today but in fact will lead them into various dead ends, environmentally, socially and in the long run economically. 

Piggyback technologies are a little bit better. They can in many cases be adapted, and perhaps will help us get from here to where we have to go.  They are not necessarily permanent solutions, but can help get us through the interim phase where the immediate survival, subsistence and surplus generating needs of people can be met.  These technologies include things like public transport, landline telephones, public health technologies, urban infrastructure, lighter than aircraft – airships, balloons, blimps –  refrigeration, and so on. These are technologies that we have to use as a means of getting to a more sustainable world and then, in the long term, with greater efficiency.

Piggyback technologies

- to be adapted

q   Public transport
q   Landline telephone
q   Public health
q   Urban infrastructure
q   LTAC
q   Refrigeration

It is, however, the leapfrog technologies that we most need to adopt.  And there are two significantly different kinds of leapfrog technologies. One group consists of those that are needed by the poor, the excluded. The second group comprises those that will help everyone, included the excluded, attain his or her own human potential and growth. So, leapfrog technologies for livelihoods and basic needs are things that produce jobs and products for local markets, renewable-energy-based decentralized production systems, recycling, wireless communication (such as wireless telephones), local water harvesting structures, local construction materials, and so on.

Let me show you an example. Our headquarters building at Development Alternatives is made almost entirely out of mud. It has very little cement, steel, fired bricks or wood in it. And, other than for our rather pampered computers, it has no air-conditioners.  There are many other technologies

Leapfrog technologies
- for livelihoods and basic needs

q   Jobs and products for local markets
q   Renewable energy


  Decentralised power
q   Recycling
q   Wireless telephone
q   Local water harvesting structure
q   Local construction materials

 that can be considered leapfrog from the viewpoint of the Indian villager: fuel plantations, energy efficient cookstoves and solar pumps, for example — devices that are able truly to revolutionize the lives of women throughout the country. Then there is biomass-fuelled power station, based on an advanced gasification technology developed by our partners, the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. 

New roofing materials, water systems, livelihood technologies are all being manufactured and marketed by organisations such as Development Alternatives and TARA.  One of the major recent breakthroughs is the highly efficient vertical shaft brick kiln, which produces less than 50% of the carbon emission produced by a conventional kiln! 

Conditions for Success

q   Innovation systems
q   Delivery systems
q   Pricing systems
q   Subsidies
q   Intellectual property rights
q   International cooperation
    -  Reward systems

Leapfrog technologies

- beyond basic needs

q   Space technologies
      -  satellite communications
      -  Remote sensing
q   IT and Internet
q   Biotechnology
q   Nano technologies
q   Robotics

Now there are other kinds of leapfrog technologies (biotechnologies, information technologies) — all of these have a potential for taking us beyond simply basic needs. Finally, let me share with you what we have been working on most recently, which is the power of the Internet to leapfrog the poorest of the poor into the 21st century. The Internet is quite remarkable in being probably the first technology in maybe 5000 years that can actually close the gap between the haves and the have-nots, provided we

design it right. And we have set up a business, TARAhaat, to put up a portal (large, all-purpose website) and a network of cyber cafes to bring content and connectivity to every village in India within the next few years.  TARAhaat aims to provide villagers with access to the best information from all over the world as well as goods and services currently available only in the city, which will basically enable them to jump right into the 21st century.  The key to making this technology a success is to design, as TARAhaat has done, a commercially viable mechanism that works not for private benefit but for the public good.  Such a mechanism might be called the independent sector, combining the reach of the public sector, the social objectives of the voluntary sector and the motivation of the private sector.

There are certain conditions

for success. I believe that technology alone cannot solve all these problems. You also have to have systems for innovation, delivery, pricing, subsidies, and so on.  Equally important, reward systems must be in place to encourage scientists and engineers to work on these kinds of issues. And what we need to do now is to develop a whole new range of institutions, which can overcome the inherent contradiction between the need to fulfill social objectives and commercial viability. q

Village Revival

The revival of the village is possible only when it is no more exploited.  Industrialization on a mass scale will necessarily lead to passive or active exploitation of the villagers as the problems of competition and marketing come in.  Therefore, we have to concentrate on the village being self-contained, manufacturing mainly for use.  Provided this character of the village industry is maintained, there would be no objection to village using even the modern machines and tools that they can make and can afford to use.  Only they should not be used as a means of exploitation of others.

(Harijan, 29-08-'36)


Back to Contents

    Donation Home

Contact Us

About Us