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Lessons From Leapfrog Biotech
Jamais Cascio   Dec 14, 2004   WorldChanging  

This week’s Economist looks at the growing level of innovation in the health-related biotechnology industries of developing nations. No longer simply copying existing drugs and treatments, nations such as China, India, Cuba and Brazil have begun to make substantial contributions to global bioscience. Biotechnology is an ideal leapfrog pathway, as it doesn’t require a substantial existing industrial base,  only well-educated scientists—education acquired both in the West and, increasingly, at home. It also is a useful pathway for dealing with one of the problems of development:  populations afflicted by serious diseases, yet not rich enough to be seen as an attractive market for American and European pharmaceutical companies.

Developing world biotech groups have come up with innovative treatments for (among others) Hepatitis B, Meningitis, Chagas Disease, and AIDS, with the research sometimes based on local knowledge of indigenous plants and traditional treatments. Some of the research is government driven, but local entrepreneurism is an important part of biotech innovation. This may present some difficulties down the road; the rapid growth of the developing world biomedicine industry is triggering some concern for health activists such as Médecins Sans Frontières. This is not because the drugs and treatments aren't useful -- they are, critically so -- but because a number of these biotech leapfrog nations are starting to adopt stricter patent regimes, potentially restricting the ability to produce cheap copies of new medicines produced elsewhere. A conflict between the principles of South-South science transfer and the desire for WTO membership seems to be on the horizon. It will be interesting to see if the growing "open source" biotech movement gains any ground in these nations.

The Economist piece is based on the December issue of Nature Biotechnology, which surveys the state of health-related biotechnology research in Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, South Africa and South Korea. (PDFs of each of these articles are available at no charge, although a multi-step free subscription to the website is required.) Each article looks at examples of recent health biotech developments, as well as the lessons each state teaches to other developing nations looking at local bioscience efforts. Nature's overall conclusions are worth listing, because they apply to leapfrogging efforts beyond biomedicine:

  • Focus on local needs. The greatest successes come from solving important indigenous problems.
  • Success is expressed in many ways. Don't assume that the developing nation must follow paths established by the developed states, or even by other developing nation innovators.
  • Build on educational and health systems. Good local education systems are the heart of successful innovation-based development.
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    Leapfrog 101

    Jamais Cascio  December 15, 2004

    I've been asked twice in the last two days to give some examples and explain the logic behind the "leapfrog" concept. It occurs to me that many WorldChanging readers may be wondering about what leapfrogging is, and why we talk about it so much. Here's the argument:

    "Leapfrogging" is the notion that areas which have poorly-developed technology or economic bases can move themselves forward rapidly through the adoption of modern systems without going through intermediary steps. We see this happening all around us: you don't need a 20th century industrial base to build a 21st century bio/nano/information economy.

    Rather than following the already-developed nations in the same course of "progress," leapfrogging means that developing regions can experiment with emerging tools, models and ideas for building their societies. Leapfrogging can happen accidentally (such as when the only systems around for adoption are better than legacy systems elsewhere), situationally (such as the adoption of decentralized communication for a sprawling, rural countryside), or intentionally (such as policies promoting the installation of WiFi and free computers in poor urban areas).

    The best-known example of leapfrogging is the adoption of mobile phones in the developing world. It's easier and faster to put in cellular towers in rural and remote areas than to put in land lines, and as a result, cellular use is exploding. As we've noted, mobile phone use already exceeds land line use in India, and by 2007, 150 million out of the 200 million phone lines there will be cellular. There are similar examples from all over the world.

    Examples of leapfrogging other than with mobile phones abound. A few, pulled from the WorldChanging archives, include:

  • Solar power for rural communities in Pakistan.
  • The "Hospital of the Future" in Thailand
  • World's Greenest Building, as voted by the US Green Building Council, in Hyderabad, India
  • Free broadband and Linux machines in Brazil:
  • "Barefoot Solar Engineers" -- rural women trained to install and repair solar power systems in India:

    More examples can be found in the Leapfrog Nations category, and we add pieces all the time (I have another one on tap for later today).

    Now, astute readers will notice a couple of things about many of the leapfrog examples: most haven't yet led to society-wide transformation (although it is happening with mobile phones, and, in the case of Linux use, may be happening soon in Brazil and China); and the "leapfrog" technologies are largely those which don't require a pre-existing grid -- solar power, mobile phones, wifi, etc.. The important thing to note is that the "leapfrog" isn't in the specific technologies themselves (which are no better than those in the West), but in the infrastructure, the rapid growth of decentralized, ad-hoc, flexible networks.

    Mobile phone towers go up faster than stringing phone lines, as noted, and there's no worry about upgrading legacy analog switches. It's easier for Pakistan or India or African nations to push for wide adoption of community solar power than for most places in the West, since they don't have to worry about integration with sprawling existing power systems. Down the road a bit, it may be easier for China to shift to fuel cell vehicles than in the West, as they'll have a much smaller existing network of gas stations that would need to be converted from gasoline/diesel to hydrogen.

    Leapfrogging is not a new concept. One of the first academic articulations of the idea was in Alexander Gerschenkron's 1962 essay, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective. Unfortunately, the essay is not currently available online; perhaps when Google is done with its new libraries project, it will be. In the meantime, this review by Columbia University prof. Albert Fishlow gives a detailed abstract of the argument.

    Leapfrogging doesn't always work. There may be government policies or lender mandates requiring the adoption of certain infrastructure technologies which made sense a decade or two ago, but are less useful now. There may be resistance for reasons of tradition or marketing. And chosen leapfrog technologies may simply not work well.

    But leapfrogging is an important concept to keep in mind when thinking about global development and the future of emerging countries such as India, Brazil and China. Developmental histories do not all follow the same path. Technologies and ideas which seem somewhat powerful when implemented in the West may be utterly transformative in locations not laden down with legacies of past development. The future belongs to those best able to change along with it; sometimes, starting from nothing can be an engine for just that sort of change.

  • Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.

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