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Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2002
Ensuring sustainable livelihoods:

challenges for governments, corporates, and civil society at Rio+10
8 - 11 February 2002, New Delhi

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DSDS 2002: Plenary session 9, 11 February 2002

Technological leapfrogging: the lure and the limits
Prof. Umberto Colombo
Former Minister of Universities, Science and Technology, Italy


Leapfrog is the name of a popular American game in which one or more players bend down and another leaps over them with legs apart.

This expression effectively conveys an image which is used today by those experts of development who study the role played by science, technology and innovation in economic development, to indicate the adoption, in developing countries, of the most advanced technologies available, including those not yet diffused in industrial countries, without the need to go through all intermediate stages.

The rationale for this leapfrogging falls essentially in two categories: firstly, the industrial countries have already invested huge capital resources in industry and are already endowed with expensive infrastructures, as well as with a wealth of knowledge developed over time, which it would make no sense to ignore. This is not the case with developing countries, which are poorer but at the same time have more freedom to choose. Secondly - and this applies particularly to India - when the economy of a country expands at a rapid pace, and new factories and industrial plants need to be built, there are more opportunities to be exploited than in more mature (and therefore more static) economies.

There are often good reasons for this leapfrogging. Clearly, if one were to engage in a project to build a computer industry in Africa, it would make no sense to use outdated technologies, such as electronic tubes or transistors, and from there move to integrated circuits: the use of microprocessors is so much more effective and convenient to exclude any technology of the past. Perhaps less obvious, but understandable, is that whoever has the task of setting up again the telephone system in, say, Ruanda or Kosovo, finds it more convenient to pass directly to mobile phones, even including the use of satellite-based telecommunications, rather than reconstruct the traditional system based on fixed, wired installations which are costly and vulnerable, but which in the richer countries, are already in place and remain the basis of telephone communications.

The examples I have just made are related to technologies that are already fully developed in industrial countries; it is possible, however, to devise original solutions, which are convenient to use in developing countries even before they are used in industrialized ones, especially if one has in mind the overall objective of sustainable development.

I believe it is appropriate in this round table discussion to focus on the issue of energy efficiency. In countries now reaching the post-industrial phase, the current production of steel is highly energy-intensive. In the West, the iron and steel market is stagnating, because all the heavy infrastructures are already in place. There, investment in new steel-making plants is not forthcoming, in spite of the fact that new process technologies, allowing consistent energy savings, have been developed in the pilot scale. The demand for steel is instead increasing at a high rate in developing countries, some of which are endowed with very competent universities and engineering firms. There a profound understanding and know-how of iron- and steel-making processes has been achieved, with resulting improvements in product quality, increases in productivity and considerable savings in energy consumption. Not only India is becoming a champion of leapfrogging in this important sector, but its enterprises are successfully competing in the world market for the most advanced iron and steel products and technologies.

Fuel cells, coupled with electric engines, promise to be a much more efficient solution if compared with traditional internal combustion engines, and are therefore under intense scrutiny in industrial countries in connection with the development of the "car of the future". This innovative technology, however, for reasons of weight and space, is much more suitable for public transport vehicles, which are not very popular in the North (especially in the United States), where individual transport in cars prevails. At present, the public transport company of the city of Beijing needs more buses than the whole of the United States. There is hardly a better opportunity to develop in China a technology that could later be exported worldwide. Still in the transport sector, which country would lend itself better than China for the development of the electric bicycle, and which would be more appropriate than India (the country with the world’s greatest density of two-wheeler vehicles) for that of electric scooters?

Even more important considerations can be made for the whole spectrum of energy system. Industrialized countries rely on complex, articulated electricity grids for the transport and distribution of electricity. There the generation of electricity has been so far concentrated in large plants, and only now decentralized generation is being considered as a viable option. In many developing countries, India included, these complex electric grids are not common and not sufficiently interlinked. Small scale, local generation of electricity is therefore essential for rural dwellings and village electrification. There is here a real opportunity to develop autonomous systems making use of renewable energy sources. For example, it is possible to set in place mini-hydro plants for the generation of electricity at the village level, or even at the level of individual schools, hospitals, workshops and the like, with consistent savings on running costs if compared with larger projects. But it is also possible to envisage new systems for transporting and storing energy, such as those based on methanol, ethanol or DME (dimethyl-ether), all products that can be obtained starting from agricultural crops or waste, as is being practiced since 25 years in Brazil, where ethanol is produced from sugar cane and used as a fuel for cars, either alone or in combination with gasoline, with the advantage of reducing the country’s dependence on energy imports. Agricultural waste and cow dung can be converted into biogas and compost. The biogas so obtained typically contains 50 to 60 percent of methane, and can be used to fuel engines for the generation of electricity at the village level. Photovoltaic solar energy is another example of leapfrogging technology that is currently used in several developing regions, from sub-equatorial Africa to Latin America to Mongolia. In this latter country the Mongolian Institute of Physics and Technology is engaged in a sizable R&D program on photovoltaic solar. One possible application is the production, through the electrolysis of water, of hydrogen, which in turn is the best feedstock for fuel cells.

Rethinking energy systems without the inhibitory factor of existing infrastructures may well allow the development, in developing countries, of new solutions, environmentally friendly, convenient and resistant to mal-functioning, in short, more sustainable. Once proved, they could be applied even in countries with a long history of industrialization. So we have, then, a realistic priority for research programs in developing countries, in particular in those where important industrial research centers exist, such as TERI in India, which enjoys a very high reputation worldwide. The issue at stake is to engage the best human resources available in advanced research projects, not following the path traced by industrial countries, but identifying precise targets and areas of application, keeping in mind the specific conditions of the country, in terms of economy, vocation and culture. For this to become reality, it would be useful to introduce appropriate legislative measures aimed, for example, at mandating the use of solar energy in public buildings (for example, in heating and cooling) and that of bio-climatic architecture in city planning and building design. In a similar fashion, financial support should be provided to rural energy programs based on renewables and decentralized projects. International cooperation in research on the part of the more advanced countries, but respecting local particularities and necessities, could turn out to be very useful.