“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door,” argued Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century US lecturer, philosopher, and essayist. In other words, if scientists and engineers invent a better solution to something, scaling and deployment will happen automatically.
Although Emerson was writing in the 19th century, we are still operating on the basis of his optimistic but misguided premise. Experience suggests that technology deployment is neither simple nor automatic. Inventing a new technology is no guarantee it will be embraced. Steve Jobs knew this and focused as heavily on design and promotion as pure engineering. Modern software engineers release and iterate. Yet in the more challenging context of global development, scientists, researchers, and inventors take it for granted that a promising invention or technology will work as theorized, be accepted automatically in the communities for which it was intended, and spontaneously spread to all who need it.
Because these optimistic assumptions rarely pan out as expected, we can no longer afford technology deployment to be an afterthought as we tackle ambitious development targets like the Global Grand Challenges and UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Deployment is an indispensable piece of the puzzle and requires at least as much attention as the quest for new discoveries and technological solutions. Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, recently highlighted the deployment problem when he noted that “technologies to achieve Africa’s green revolution exist. For the most part, they are all just sitting on the shelves.” The deployment of these technologies poses a great entrepreneurial challenge. As Dr. Vanu Bose observed 135 years after Emerson, “It takes more creativity and innovation to market a new invention than it did to invent it in the first place.”
Alas, green revolution technologies are not the only ones sitting on the shelves, valued in principle but all-too-often unused in practice. There is no shortage of proven, cost-effective, and affordable development solutions for many of the most pressing development challenges. These include off-grid renewable energy, potable water, community health clinics, Wi-Fi access for remote communities, solar powered irrigation pumps, low-cost housing and sanitation, and off-grid food storage, refrigeration, and processing.
“Deployment requires at least as much attention as the quest for new discoveries and technological solutions.”
Although many of these technologies were not developed specifically to address the needs of the more than two billion people at the so-called bottom of the pyramid, they should make it even more affordable and easier, in principle, to hit sustainable, inclusive development targets, especially in the least developed countries where enormous progress is possible simply by deploying proven solutions already in widespread use in other countries.
Why then aren’t we on track to achieve global objectives such as the Sustainable Development Goals? If proven, cost-effective solutions to so many challenges already exist, shouldn’t it be fairly simple and straight-forward to start financing their deployment at scale? The situation is, of course, more complicated than it at first appears. Technology is a powerful first step, but technology alone will not solve the world’s greatest challenges unless we also address the organizational, entrepreneurial, financial, and business development issues associated with getting these solutions into the hands of tens, if not hundreds of millions of people.