Leapfrogging: Mind the Gap Between the Tech and the People

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Published: Melina Mitsotaki and artwork by Ryan Ward.

It is easy for people with a tech background in the developed world to forget about the alternative pathways of technology. This was certainly true for me, with an undergraduate degree in engineering and all my peers pursuing careers in the largest tech hubs in the US and Europe. Things changed when I decided to take on an internship with the UN Environment in Jamaica this past year. That was when I first encountered the notion of leapfrogging development, and realized that tech can, in fact, escape its hubs and diffuse into all corners of the world.

 

In Jamaica I was able to learn about the internal structure of a country while also experiencing it externally through everyday interactions and observations. On one hand, through the UN I experienced the attitudes of the Caribbean Community to sustainable development through the governmental activity of its various member states. In other words, I read quite a few policy documents: proposals, reports, action plans. These alone provide good insight on countries’ development models and their place in wider global power dynamics. On the other hand, in my daily life outside the UN I was getting a glimpse of what it is actually like to live in a developing country that is following the said models and strategies. This linking of theory to everyday observations allowed me a more critical look at the pragmatism of the strategies employed and the feasibility of the projects proposed. 

 

My introduction to leapfrogging came through the official channels of the UN which is perhaps an indication of its top-down nature as a development strategy. Leapfrogging is an effort by highly established international organizations to improve living standards of millions of people on the ground and has become something of a buzzword in the world of international development. For anyone lacking the background or a clear idea of what it refers to, here is a handy definition by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD):

the bypassing of intermediate stages of technology through which countries have historically passed during the development process (2018).

There are various examples of developing countries adopting technologies that have ripened or been mainstreamed in developed countries without having to go through the entire development process themselves. Whether that be mobile telecommunication networks in Western Africa or bank-account-free money transactions through mobile phones in South Asia, the leapfrogging approach has been Picture 1gaining ground and popularity (UNCTAD, 2018)(Chhabra and Das, 2019). And that should be expected. The promise that leapfrogging gives to developing countries for accelerated development has an undeniable appeal, it comes as something like a deus ex machina. Except, in this case, the promise does not materialize magically. Leapfrogging requires extensive calculation and planning. Most importantly, it necessitates in-depth comprehension of the existing sociopolitical conditions of the country at hand. This necessity is precisely what I intend to call attention to.

 

In Jamaica, I found development to be inextricably linked to political strategy which was a driving force for its implementation. Development was also at the forefront in in-person discussions on environmental and energy aspects of development between stakeholders and government representatives, for Jamaica and the Caribbean as a whole. Some overarching questions were: What is Jamaica’s strategy post-Paris Agreement to achieving its Nationally Determined Contribution as it relates to its carbon emissions? How can we effectively green the energy sector as outlined in Jamaica’s national strategic plan for sustainable development, Vision 2030? What technologies can be successfully adopted and introduced in the Caribbean to facilitate sustainable development? One such facilitating technology that occasionally found its way into forum discussions and stood out to me as a case study subject was electric mobility, more specifically Electric Vehicles (EVs). 

 

In today’s world, EVs are widely deemed as the paradigm of clean transportation. In the face of a planet that is struggling to keep its CO2 emissions under control, and a road transportation system that is responsible for at least one-tenth of global emissions (C2ES, 2017), EVs are now seen as the promise to revolutionizing road transportation. Within the automotive industry, they have already made a strong market entry. Most large car manufacturers are producing many of their new models with hybrid or purely electric engines. Purely electric cars require no gas at all, bringing their direct emissions down to zero, and operate on rechargeable batteries. They can be charged at home or at public stations that often supply power from renewable sources, such as solar. This transition in the automotive industry has received support from national and international policymakers alike, and already some states are employing financial mechanisms to incentivize the purchase and use of EVs (CSE, 2019).

 

At one of such events, UNDP’s UNCut Discussions on Climate Change, the co-founder of Barbados-based company MegaPower, Joanna Edghill, was discussing and promoting the commercial success of EVs in Barbados. According to MegaPower, Barbados has made significant progress in e-mobility with 200+ EVs on the road and 50+ publicly accessible charging points (Megapower Barbados, 2019). Edghill, being herself a serious advocate for the suitability of EVs for Caribbean countries, was very encouraging toward Jamaican stakeholders entertaining the idea. Without a doubt, the Caribbean climate has an abundance of sunlight and could support solar-powered charging stations. To add to that, cheap solar-powered charging makes EVs all the more appealing when compared to the forbidding cost of imported gasoline in many Caribbean islands. However, during Edghill’s short presentation I perceived some inertia and maybe a slight hint of skepticism among the Jamaican audience. This triggered my curiosity.

 

I later attempted to look closer at this idea of leapfrogging EVs into Jamaica to understand why they have not taken off in Jamaica as they have in Barbados. Not only have they not taken off, but there exists no EV infrastructure in Jamaica whatsoever to support the use of EVs, e.g. charging stations. One obvious factor is that Barbados is significantly wealthier, with a GDP per capita over twice that of Jamaica (Country comparison Barbados vs Jamaica 2019, 2019). This could serve as an explanation for the weak marketability of EVs in Jamaica, both on the consumer end, but also on the end of public or private stakeholders that would have to subsidize the necessary infrastructure. While the economic line of reasoning alone is extremely important and gave me a satisfactory answer to my question, I could also not look away from another, complementary line of reasoning. The cultural line or reasoning became apparent to me when I started thinking about one very specific aspect of car ownership: servicing. 

 

As had become clear to me through my everyday observations, car servicing very unsurprisingly did not escape Jamaica’s status as a developing country. I had seen the high number of unofficial car service stations and decided to ask some local friends about how Jamaicans typically choose to service their cars, and if they prefer mechanics not affiliated to official retailers. I discovered that unofficial servicing is in fact very common. It is cheap and effective, largely because many of these mechanics never receive official training. They know car parts, engine components and how to troubleshoot most common problems – an adequate skillset to earn them their living. In this given dynamic, I wanted to introduce a thought experiment: assuming EVs went mainstream in Jamaica, what would the implications be for its current car service market?

 

Things would certainly not look very hopeful for owners and mechanics of these informal service stations. EVs and traditional gasoline vehicles are like apples and pears when it comes to servicing. Aside from the common checks, like tire pressure and braking systems, servicing an EV is very different (Volkswagen UK, no date). In simple terms, an electric engine conveniently comprises fewer components than a traditional gas engine, which is good in principle because there are fewer things to break. At the same time, though, the bulk of its operation depends on electronics and software rather than on mechanical connections between physical parts. Thus, servicing an EV roughly amounts to checking its electronics, and electronics are no layman hobby. Current mechanics in Jamaica could certainly not check for and troubleshoot software problems in an electric car. There is no knowledge and skills for that there yet. Thus my thought experiment yields two main conclusions: 

 

1)    The mechanics share in the local economy would suffer from an abrupt transition to electric mobility and that would likely result in unemployment for those active in that market.

2)    EV owners would have to visit their official retailers to have their cars serviced -and that is significantly more expensive. 

 

Naturally that brings up the question: does the much lower cost of recharging an EV make up for the expensive servicing? It is an interesting cost-benefit analysis for end-users, and my personal take is that it also depends on how strong the incentives are for them to abandon that which they are used to.

 

The implications of introducing any new technology to a country exogenously are not just contained within the economy. Developers have to be sensitive about how this new technology will interact with the country’s social framework as a whole. The right systems, infrastructure, and institutions need to be in place so that the conditions are ripe for any new entry in the market, and in many cases these factors also involve cultural receptiveness. What is suitable for one developing country might well not be for another.

 

Of course, the wider social implications of leapfrogging a certain technology can never be completely exhausted or exactly predicted. In the case of Jamaica, cultural considerations are yet to be played out in the continuation of the EV relay that Barbados has started. Time will tell as to whether they will indeed be a practical hindrance to its implementation. Regardless, it is crucial for all parties affecting and affected by international development work to have a critical approach. It is true that the benefits of introducing novel technology to developing countries can significantly boost economic growth and people’s living standards, or even improve the environment, but that is only if it is done with great thought and a willingness to understand the existing dynamics within. Leapfrogging is like buying a new outfit; it might look exciting before you try it on, but it is only worth it when it fits. 

Works Cited

C2ES (2017) Global Emissions, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Available at: https://www.c2es.org/content/international-emissions/ (Accessed: 29 October 2019).

Chhabra, E. and Das, B. (2019) ‘Mobile Money Spreads to Asia’, IMF Blog, 30 September. Available at: https://blogs.imf.org/2019/09/30/mobile-money-spreads-to-asia/ (Accessed: 17 October 2019).

Country comparison Barbados vs Jamaica 2019 (2019) Country Economy. Available at: https://countryeconomy.com/countries/compare/barbados/jamaica (Accessed: 20 October 2019).

CSE (2019) CVRP Eligible Vehicles, Clean Vehicle Rebate Project. Available at: https://cleanvehiclerebate.org/eng/eligible-vehicles (Accessed: 29 October 2019).

Megapower Barbados (2019) megapower365. Available at: https://www.megapower365.com (Accessed: 21 October 2019).

UNCTAD (2018) ‘Leapfrogging: Look before you leap’. (Policy Brief), 71. Available at: https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/presspb2018d8_en.pdf (Accessed: 17 October 2019).

Volkswagen UK (no date) Electric Car Servicing, Maintenance & Repairing, Volkswagen. Available at: /owners/servicing/electric (Accessed: 16 October 2019).

 

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