• Opinion
  • March 1, 2019
  • 5 minutes
  • 1

From drones to blockchain: Using tech for international development

Opinion: Three lessons from the frontline on using frontier technologies

frontier technologies in international development

This piece was written by Lea Simpson, who leads the Frontier Technologies Hub funded by DFID. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


The Frontier Technologies Hub, funded by DFID and launched in November 2016, is designed to explore the application of frontier technologies like 3D printing, drones and blockchain to the biggest challenges in international development.

Our program boasts a portfolio of over 22 pilots doing work, for real, across Africa and SE Asia. It has influenced policy, launched startups and “failed fast”. The program also won the Civil Service Award for Innovation in 2017.

We have learned a lot about implementing specific technologies, what works and ways to overcome cross-cutting, non-technical challenges on the ground.

Two years on, we’ve also learned a lot about how we might usefully challenge accepted wisdom — the well rehearsed beliefs that are taken for granted without really being questioned — and wisdom that deepens our understanding of what it means to be “frontier”.

Technology is most useful in a bundle

While one’s typical inclination is to get excited about a single, specific technology, the stars in our portfolio typically stack and bundle a few technologies to unlock progress.

In Tanzania, for instance, we are automatically surveying the condition of rural roads. This requires a bundle of satellites, drones and machine learning. Also in Tanzania, we have connected villages to water by installing Internet of Things (IoT) enabled taps with pay-as-you-go cards. This requires mobile money, IoT, solar and connectivity.

Think about the infrastructure required to turn an idea into a reality and the business model needed to sustain it. What is that stack?

There is upside in being tech-centred

We’ve all heard that “true innovation requires us to fall in love with the problem” and yes, the world is full of technology applications that are hammers looking for nails.

But the idea that innovation can only happen with a purely problem-centred point of departure is an incredibly limiting accepted wisdom.

We have found starting with technology unlocks creative thinking for teams, especially when those teams are tackling entrenched challenges.

For teams working on providing sustainable sources of clean water to communities in Africa, water purification was a well trodden path of invention, but technology unlocked the potential of other paths like desalination. Technology breaks us out of our conventional thinking.

Play with technology, at least conceptually, explore and expose yourself to as much new invention as possible and imagine ways it could result in a genuinely transformative idea. Then, make sure your idea isn’t one of those hammers looking for nails, by starting small and testing rigorously!

It’s less about “frontier tech” and more about “tech frontiers”

There is an accepted wisdom that some technologies are frontier, others are more routine. To deeply understand frontier technologies, it’s more helpful to think about the new frontiers for technologies than simply to look at the technologies themselves.

For those of us working with tech for social impact and considering what we might do to have the greatest contribution to the sector, it’s more useful to think about the next evolution of technology than the technology itself. And this evolution is happening faster and faster.

For example, using drones to do anything was considered frontier two years ago. Now, use in mapping and supply chains is relatively routine, other use cases, such as humanitarian, are still frontier. This nuance is missing if we simply consider “drones”.

Look at the system and whether logistics, local talent, policy environments and more might unlock the next stage of mega progress? That’s the “frontier”. — Lea Simpson

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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