Ben Ramalingam
Kevin Hernandez
Pedro Prieto Martin
Becky Faith
Publication Date
November 1, 2016

"The...potential and limitations of these technologies are fundamentally dependent on choices that we make, today and in the future - choices about keeping platforms open and interoperable, choices about hardwiring users' rights and freedoms into our technologies, and choices about systematic efforts to overcome the new patterns of exclusion that new technologies inevitably create." - from the Foreword by Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Within the development sector, new technologies are seen as centrally important to achieving the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The United Kingdom (UK) Department for International Development (DFID) commissioned the Digital and Technology Research Group at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) to undertake a review of 10 frontier technologies and what they might contribute to development efforts. The report begins by describing the nature of frontier technologies and their specific relevance to international development. It moves on to look at key cross-cutting messages within the technology reviews and then sets out a number of potential roles for development actors in facilitating frontier technologies in ways that can make a positive contribution to international development goals. The second part of the report presents the 10 technology reviews, which explore each of the frontier technologies in more detail.

Frontier technologies: address large-scale economic, social, or political opportunities or problems; have broad potential impacts across diverse fields; carry substantial potential for displacing or leapfrogging existing technologies, or previous technological pathways taken in developed countries; and involve considerable uncertainty about opportunities, risks, and future pathways. The list of 10 frontier technologies arose out of crowdsourced consultation process with DFID staff and advisers globally. There then followed a process of research and learning, based on an extensive review of the available literature on each technology, as well as consultations with expert informants and DFID staff. in total over 300 articles, reports and studies were reviewed, and over 50 experts were consulted over the course of April-September 2016. This process itself is reflective of the increasing emphasis by development actors - in principle at least - on designing with and for end users, on being responsive to social, cultural and political dynamics, and on taking an adaptive and iterative approach to innovation processes.

The frontier technologies looked at in the report are in the areas of:

  • Manufacturing and consumption: new digital tools that enable new approaches to manufacturing using novel materials, and new digital platforms that bring together producers and consumers in novel ways
    • 3D printing (see pg. 40): printers capable of printing 3D objects directly from digital prototypes
    • Collaborative economy tools (see pg. 48: a range of initiatives based on enhancing the utilisation of assets by establishing horizontal networks across and between owners of assets and potential users
  • Connectivity: new approaches to expanding digital connectivity and growing the range of things that are online
    • Alternative internet delivery (see pg. 58): large-scale initiatives, usually involving innovative aerial or satellite-based approaches to infrastructure aiming to expand affordable internet access globally
    • Internet of things (see pg. 64): data communication technologies built into physical objects, enabling a wide variety of objects and assets to be sensed, measured, coordinated, and controlled remotely
  • Transportation and logistics: autonomous aircraft and airships, enabling more efficient and lower-cost transportation and logistics to less accessible areas
    • Unmanned aerial vehicles/drones (see pg. 74): aircraft that operate without human pilots on board, for easier and lower-cost sharing of information and goods
    • Airships (see pg. 79): new aircraft designs that use alternative energy sources and do not rely on the same infrastructure as traditional aircraft, thereby expanding reach and access
  • Fresh water: new approaches to sustainably extract fresh water from seawater and brackish water, and from the atmosphere
    • Solar desalination (see pg. 90): the use of alternative energy to convert salty or brackish water into clean drinking water around the world
    • Atmospheric water condensers (see pg. 97): innovative structures and materials capable of collecting fog and rainfall as a source of clean drinking water
  • Clean energy and air: distributed energy generation and storage technologies, and novel ways to reduce smog in different settings
    • Household-scale batteries (see pg. 104): low-cost home battery systems that recharge using electricity from solar panels, providing energy access to off-grid communities
    • Smog-reducing technologies (see pg. 111): a range of technologies aimed at reducing levels of air pollution

Ten key themes from the technology reviews:

  1. Frontier technologies are defined and shaped by context - Frontier for whom? In what ways? And with what benefits?
  2. Frontier technologies are often in reality a blend of different solutions.
  3. Frontier technologies are as a way of highlighting the limitations of existing solutions, and suggesting new ways to overcome them.
  4. Diffusion takes time and can have multiple pathways.
  5. Frontier technologies can lead to unequal benefits: One common challenge across the 10 technology reviews is the tendency for the benefits of frontier technologies to accrue to those actors who already enjoy material and other advantages, meaning that key groups - women, children, elderly, lower socio-economic groups, ethnic minorities - are less able to gain a fair share.
  6. Frontier technologies require skills and capacities to manage high levels of risk and uncertainty.
  7. The frontier technologies looked at here have the potential to contribute to individuals, households, and firms in developing countries.
  8. The leapfrogging potential of frontier technologies needs careful analysis.
  9. Many of these frontier technologies provide the opportunity to deepen, extend, and in other ways transform value chains, enabling more efficient delivery of goods or services to more people, especially the economically poor and people living in remote areas.
  10. The potential of frontier technologies to lead to a greener circular economy could be dramatically improved by combining them with each other and other technologies.

The ideas set out in the section of the report offering recommendations for development organisation draw on the technology reviews and focus on two broad areas: first, how development organisations can strengthen strategies and management for specific frontier technologies; and second, how they might improve the enabling environment for frontier technologies. Among the suggestions: deepen understanding, recognitition, and the search for frontier technology needs and opportunities; build skills and capacity in understanding and using frontier technologies; establish sound performance, quality, and risk management principles and standards; promote and advocate for improved conditions and frameworks for frontier innovation practices; and tackle constraints to uptake and diffusion through networks of influencers and opinion formers.


IDS website, May 12 2017. Image caption/credit: "Kamla, age 33, is Rajasthan [India]'s first female solar engineer....Kamla works on solar batteries connected to roof panels. Robert wallis - Panos