Diffuse Innovation

In the case of technological innovations most societies acquire much more from other societies than they invent themselves. Thus, diffusion and migration within a continent contribute importantly to the development of its societies, which tend in the long run to share each others developments.

-Jared Diamond

Innovation is the wellspring of sustained advances in human development everywhere...

and the countries that score highest on the Human Development Index also score very highly on the Global Innovation Index (e.g., Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Hong Kong, China (SAR), Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Germany, and Netherlands). In contrast, the countries that score lowest on innovation are also the least developed, including Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Guinea, Mali, and Burundi. Jared Diamond argues that although some countries advance through innovation as a result of being “geographically blessed,” others can gain access to innovations if they create a culture that is open to innovation and invest in technologies that allow innovations to spread easily. Friedrich von Hayek made a powerful argument for societies that allow knowledge to diffuse widely and quickly, implying that innovations that enable knowledge to be dispersed can accelerate development, 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 specific advances and increasing inequality, both between and within countries. For example, there are vast global inequalities in both internet and mobile phone access, with internet use varying from less than 10% in many sub-Saharan African countries to above 90% in most North American and European countries. Within-country inequalities also exist in most countries, even in the USA where a Pew Research Center reported 90% of adults with a college degree use the internet compared to 70% of adults without a high school diploma. Gender inequalities in access to information also exist within many countries. An Intel report found that 25% fewer women than men have access to the internet. For innovations to reach their full development potential, these access to information gaps between and within countries and genders 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, investments that increase the ease and pace with which new knowledge is spread should be prioritized. All countries should set goals of at least 60% male and female internet and mobile phone usage by 2025, and at least 80% by 2030. Strategies to achieve these goals could include incentivizing the 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 transfer systems. Countries could also support innovations that widely diffuse new knowledge quickly in the areas most likely to benefit the poor, especially health, education, and livelihoods. 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 (UN), 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 30% of the population is currently connected to the internet. Closing the large income and gender gaps in internet and mobile phone access should also be prioritized. The international development community should continue to 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. The free flow of ideas and the creation and diffusion of innovations is dependent on these basic freedoms.

Updated January 2024

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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.