Home > Digital Platforms > Revisiting “Leapfrogging” in a Platformised World

Revisiting “Leapfrogging” in a Platformised World

What difference do digital platforms make to the long-standing argument about “leapfrogging” of development by developing countries?[1]

The idea that latecomer nations could accelerate their passage through development stages via use of new technology has been around for decades[2].  It was no surprise, then, that leapfrogging played at least some part in turn-of-the-century cheerleading for the role that ICTs could play in development[3].  And statistics bore out the concrete example of global South countries jumping fairly quickly to mobile phone-based telecommunications infrastructure during the 2000s and 2010s, having invested much less in relative terms in the previous generation of landline infrastructure than countries in the global North[4].

The flaw in much of the simplistic thinking about technology and leapfrogging is that technology never acts alone in development; it always forms part of a socio-technical system[5].  Lower-income countries might be able to move more quickly than higher-income countries to a more-recent generation of technology.  But they could not repeat the same trick with the social part of their systems.

One way of understanding why the “social part of their systems” constrained development was to identify institutional shortcomings – often called “institutional voids” – that particularly meant developing country markets could be inefficient, ineffective, incomplete and/or inequitable.  While ICTs always had institutional effects, these were limited, with lack of institutional change acting as the brake that prevented economic leapfrogging.

In the past few years, though, this picture has changed with the arrival of digital platforms as an important force in development.  Digital platforms much more readily fill institutional voids than prior ICT-based systems.  They not only provide cheaper and better information, they form the entire institutional infrastructure for new markets; not just the transactional infrastructure but the regulatory infrastructure as well[6].

So digital platforms, being much more complete socio-technical systems than earlier ICTs, can offer developing countries a route for leapfrogging.  Yes, local context matters and platform implementation can be a bumpy road so a platform is not quite “market in a box”.  But, for example, e-hailing platforms have helped dozens of Southern cities quickly improve taxi markets that were beset by insecurity, high costs, long wait times, etc – problems that had existed for years without resolution.

But if leapfrogging, at least in terms of some markets, is now more feasible; exactly what are developing countries leapfrogging to?  The new platform-based markets are more efficient, safer, with less opportunistic behaviour.  But they are also more unequal and less democratic as the platform becomes marketplace, manager, adjudicator, enforcer and regulator all rolled into one; eliminating roles for government, unions, and other stakeholders[7].

Platforms may be offering an opportunity for leapfrogging but they come with a caveat: be careful where you leap.


[1] With acknowledgements to Anne Njathi for asking the questions about leapfrogging that led to this post.

[2] See e.g. Goldschmidt, A. (1962) Technology in emerging countries. Technology and Culture, 3(4), 581-600.

[3] See e.g. World Bank (1998) World Development Report, World Bank, Washington, DC; InfoDev (2000) The Networking Revolution: Opportunities and Challenges for Developing Countries, World Bank, Washington, DC; Steinmueller, W. E. (2001) ICTs and the possibilities for leapfrogging by developing countries. International Labour Review, 140, 193.

[4] UNCTAD (2018) Leapfrogging: Look Before You Leap, UNCTAD, Geneva.

[5] See e.g. Wade, R.H. (2002) ‘Bridging the digital divide: new route to development or new form of dependency?’, Global Governance, 8, 443-466; Alzouma, G. (2005) Myths of digital technology in Africa: Leapfrogging development?. Global Media and Communication, 1(3), 339-356; Kenny, C. (2006) Overselling the Web?: Development and the Internet, Lynne Reiner Publishers, Boulder, CO

[6] Heeks, R., Eskelund, K., Gomez-Morantes, J.E., Malik, F. & Nicholson, B. (2020) Digital Labour Platforms in the Global South: Filling or Creating Institutional Voids?, GDI Digital Development Working Paper no.86, University of Manchester, UK

[7] Heeks, R., Eskelund, K., Gomez-Morantes, J.E., Malik, F. & Nicholson, B. (2020) Digital Labour Platforms in the Global South: Filling or Creating Institutional Voids?, GDI Digital Development Working Paper no.86, University of Manchester, UK

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