There is a vast literature describing the central role innovation plays in economic growth and human development. In fact, human progress can be mapped in relation to the invention of specific, transformative innovations including the wheel, fire, language, farming, the printing press, the engine, the telephone, the light bulb, penicillin, contraception, and the internet.  Many of the innovations with the greatest development impact share two things in common – (1) they enable individuals to overcome basic human limitations, and, (2) they contain within them the means of their own wide diffusion. The wheel and the engine enabled people and products to move more quickly, while the printing press, the telephone, and the internet allowed information to disperse wide geographic distances in seconds. Many of the European and Northern American countries where these innovations originated and were developed still dominate the top spots on indices of human development and innovation, including Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, USA, and the UK  (Global Innovation Index). In contrast, the countries that score lowest on innovation are also the least developed, including Niger, Zambia, Togo, Guinea, and Yemen.

Jared Diamond argues that although some countries have advanced through innovation as a result of being “geographically blessed” with abundant resources that freed up time to experiment and design better ways of doing things, other countries gained access to innovations by creating cultures that are, “open to innovation”, and by investing in innovations that allow new ideas and technologies to spread easily.  According to Diamond, societies that embrace risk-taking, have a scientific outlook, tolerate diverse views, and accommodate “heretical” attitudes benefit more from innovations. Friedrich von Hayek made a powerful argument in favor of societies where access to knowledge is widely diffused among the population and freely accessible to all, and William Easterly has consistently advocated that the freedoms that underpin the creation and distribution of knowledge are the foundations of development.


When innovations do not spread easily the benefits can be captured by minorities handicapping the full development potential of innovation and contributing to inequality, both between and within countries.  For example, there are vast inequalities between countries in both internet and mobile phone use, with the proportion of the population using the internet varying from 6% to 92% in the 20 highest population countries.  Almost all of the countries where less than 10% people use the internet are in sub-Saharan Africa. Although mobile phone use is much higher and less unequal across countries, still the gap is wide. For example, there are 40 mobile phone subscriptions for every 100 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo compared to 163 in Russia (International Telecommunications Union).

Within-country inequalities in access to the tools of knowledge dispersion also exist in most countries. For example, the US Census reports that 95% of high income households use the internet compared to 48% of low income households, and a Pew Research Center report found that 90% of adults on the highest incomes have internet access at home, compared to 40% of adults on the lowest incomes. Inequalities between men’s and women’s access to the internet and mobile phones also exist within many countries. Two recent reports have found large gender gaps in both mobile phone and internet access by women and girls, especially in low and middle income countries.  GSMA found that 200 million fewer women than men own mobile phones globally, and that women in South Asia are 38% less likely than men to own a mobile phone.  Intel reported that 23% fewer women than men in low and middle income countries have access to the internet, with gaps as high as 35% in South Asia and 43% in sub-Saharan Africa. They concluded that 200 million women do not participate online and the number rises everyday as populations grow rapidly in these countries. In contrast,women’s internet access is on a par with men’s in most high income countries, and in France and the USA it actually exceeds it. For innovations to reach their full development potential, the gender gaps in access to the internet and mobile phones both between and within countries will need to be closed.


To maximize the impact of innovation on development, especially in the countries struggling with poverty, poor health and low education, countries should focus efforts on increasing the ease with which new knowledge is spread and set a new goal of at least 60% male and female internet and mobile phone usage by 2020 and at least 80% by 2030. Countries that are already at these levels should target the 80% coverage goal immediately. Beyond ensuring that countries have the infrastructure to support national mobile phone and internet access, strategies could also include incentivizing use of mobile phones and the internet in homes, schools and workplaces by subsidizing and/or rewarding access for the bottom 40%, including through the tax and/or transfer systems. In this context, closing the access gaps to mobile phones and the internet for women and girls is likely to have significant impact.

As not all innovations are equal in their development impact, countries could also prioritize diffusion of a set of innovations in the areas most likely to benefit the poor, especially health, education, and livelihoods. Countries would need to determine their own innovation diffusion priorities, but the following five areas would be particularly beneficial to development – (1) reduce women’s time spent on unpaid labor, (2) reduce mortality and morbidity from major threats to health, (3) reduce illiteracy and advance educational attainment, especially for girls, (4) increase incomes, especially for women, and (5) reduce the costs of physical isolation. In most of these areas transformative innovations already exist that just need to be dispersed among vulnerable populations (e.g. contraception, vaccines, microfinance). The essential innovation required is the diffusion and in most of these areas public-private partnerships would the most efficient and effective path to collective impact. To hasten the uptake of new technologies, countries struggling with low levels of innovation should strive to create cultures where open inquiry, criticism and the pursuit of constant improvements in all spheres are valued and rewarded.


The United Nations, its agencies and development partners should adopt a new global campaign, “Democratizing Access to Knowledge” and support the diffusion of pro-development innovations on a grand scale. Under the umbrella of Sustainable Development Goal 9, “foster innovation”, the UN should target universal connectivity of the world population by 2030, with a special focus on the countries where less than 5 people per 100 are connected to the internet. The UN should also prioritize closing the large income and gender gaps in internet and mobile phone access. The international development community must argue that the diffusion of innovation thrives in societies where freedom of speech, the press, association and assembly are not only protected, but actively encouraged, as the free flow of ideas and the creation and diffusion of innovations is clearly dependent on these basic freedoms.

A final note.  A great deal is written about individual innovators and the power of their visions to transform societies.  Indeed there is a “cult of the innovator” in many high innovation societies that no doubt provides a strong incentive for entrepreneurial talent to thrive. However, as critical as inventors are in the story of innovation, the success of their inventions often relies on societal factors beyond their control and that even they may take for granted, such as a society’s appetite and capacity to adopt a new innovation.  To build a climate of entrepreneurship, those seeking to increase the impact of innovation on development should look carefully at how to stimulate a population-wide appetite and capacity to adopt new and better ways of living, especially among the most vulnerable populations.