Hype cycle for development ideas: 2014 edition

The “hype cycle” is a wonderful conceptual framework for understanding how technologies move from initial invention to widespread application. The basic path is simple:  whenever a new technology comes along, it usually gets hyped to the point of inflating expectations about how much it will revolutionize your life, then reality will sink in and we’ll all be disillusioned by the unfulfilled promises, after which it finally rises to a level of productivity.

Visually, it looks like this:

Gartner_Hype_Cycle

(Source.)

The technology firm behind the concept, Gartner, releases annual reports covering over 2,000 technologies in multiple industries. Most of the report is proprietary (read: expensive) but a summary graphic does a nice job of placing various technologies along the cycle. E.g. “consumer 3D printing” has gotten so much hype that it’s about to slide down the trough of disillusionment, while “speech recognition” has just crossed into the plateau of productivity. See below.

hype-cycle-2013

(Source.)

I like the key too, as each technology will move along the cycle at different rates. I’m not entirely sure what research methodology or analytical process was behind this, and obviously there’s a lot you can argue with about the placements, but I find it to be a useful framework.

Beyond intellectual curiosity, the utility of this lies in helping executives understand when and how to invest in new tech. It’s fun to jump on the bandwagon as the hype increases, but when the bubble bursts, resources spent on the technology start to look wasteful.

Previously, both Ian Thorpe and Lant Pritchett have applied the hype cycle to international development ideas. This means moving a bit beyond “technologies” in the strictest sense, and adding in things like research methodologies, project approaches, and conceptual frameworks.

The application to development highlights one major problem with Gartner’s Hype Cycle: there’s only one path. (Also, it’s not really a cycle, but we’ll let that slide.) The path in the chart above leads from invention to application. We know this isn’t the only path for ideas. Many are discarded or recycled — as they should be. If our ideas markets don’t produce failures, it means we’re not taking intellectual risks and thus we’re probably missing potential rewards. Some ideas should fail. Unfortunately, in our sector, some failed ideas get implemented anyway.

So I want to do two things here. First, I want to amend the hype cycle framework to make it work better for development ideas. Second, I want to plot out where various popular ideas currently sit.

So many routes down

Though the path up is roughly similar for all kinds of ideas, the path down doesn’t always lead to Gartner’s Plateau of Productivity. In the development sector, I see three other routes:

  • First, the Trash Heap of Failures is the final resting place for ideas that have been killed, forgotten, or shamefully hidden away. Chief candidates: the Washington Consensus, structural adjustment.
  • Second, the Swamp of Continued Use is an ongoing, zombie-like state for projects and approaches that everyone knows should probably be killed, but which continue to limp along anyway. There are countless market failures in the development and aid sector, allowing failed ideas to limp along for years. Chief candidates here: voluntourism, buy-one-give-one.
  • Finally, the Roundabout of Repackaging rescues faltering ideas and sends them back up to the peak. This framing is a bit cynical, while also recognizing that there’s value it intellectual iteration. As Linda Raftree has noted, many of the new ideas in development are re-mixes of old ideas. That’s only a bad thing if we’re mindlessly recycling failures.

That leaves us with a refined framework looking something like this:

Hype Cycle for Development Ideas

So where are we now? The 2014 edition

I took a stab at placing a few of aid and development’s hot topics along the framework. Whatever Gartner’s methodology may be, I assure you that mine is far less rigorous. This is an informal synthesis of what I’ve observed from following the discourse of the sector, watching how ideas intersect, and trying to understand how they gain or lose traction. I offer some meager justifications at the bottom, but I’d be curious to hear reactions/push-back.

Development Ideas Hype Cycle - 2014

It’s worth emphasizing the different speeds at which each of these ideas moves. As in Gartner’s framework, two ideas that are currently close to one another on the path might be moving along it at very different rates. Tied aid is a good example of that: it’s on the way to the trash heap, but the politics mean that it’s in no rush to get there. Similarly, not every idea reaches the same heights or depth: PDIA is just too wonky to peak the way microfinance did. Admitting failure as a concept stayed inside the sector, while the much broader connections of CSR mean higher hype. Much more than just apples and oranges here. Still, it’s an interesting fruit basket of ideas.

____________________

Some selected justifications and reasoning:

  • Complexity thinking: The application of complex systems thinking to aid has a book and blog, but even its proponents note that it’s early stage.
  • Electricity: Thanks to the Power Africa initiative, big infrastructure projects are cool again. They came via the roundabout, and are certainly heading up the peak again.
  • Migration: Thanks to the work of Michael Clemens and others, migration is climbing the peak. Unfortunately, the politics and agency structures in Washington make for a slow climb.
  • Resilience: This is clearly on the way up. I think it might have come via the roundabout actually. Seems like a repackaging of disaster risk reduction (which struggled for attention) with a dash of institutions and complexity thinking.
  • Cash transfers: With a spate of NPR stories and other coverage, the hype is definitely there. As Tom Murphy points out, this is a bit of a technology-enabled second-life for an old idea, so it came via the roundabout. How much higher can the hype get before?
  • RCTs: Both Thorpe and Pritchett put RCTs before the peak, but I think they’re already on the way down. As a minor piece of evidence: Nicholas Kristof trumpeted RCTs over two years ago, prompting Chris Blattman (who utilizes RCTs in his research) to recommend going short on RCTs. More generally, the rhetoric around what RCTs can achieve has toned down in recent years. There’s still a lot of funding flowing that way, but increasing disillusionment, even among academics.
  • Social enterprise: Hard to know where to put this one. Clearly there’s still a lot of hype here, but there’s also pushback against many of the sector’s practices (e.g. see Kevin Starr’s argument for dumping the prizes) and it’s become such a big umbrella that it’s more of brand than an idea.
  • Design thinking: I’ve written on this one elsewhere. For the purposes of this framework, I see it on the way up the slope.
  • MDGsThorpe put the Millennium Development Goals in the trough a few years ago. I’m putting them on the way to the swamp. There’s so much rhetorical momentum that I doubt they’ll make it to the trash heap, but I think a lot of serious people are questioning what their positive contribution.
  • Impact investing: It seems like the impact investing community thought it would revolutionize measurement in the social sectors, only to discover that measuring outcomes is actually really hard. That was the trough. Now it seems to be settling into its own as an approach.
  • Microfinance: There was a lot of hype around microfinance in the mid-2000s, peaking with the 2006 Nobel Prize for Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yunus. A few rigorous studies in the second half of the decade took the sheen off it. Maybe I’m being too optimistic by putting it so close to the plateau, but I think the “technology” was already well-developed, and we simply needed to moderate our expectations.

10 thoughts on “Hype cycle for development ideas: 2014 edition

  1. I love this framework. Thanks for taking the time to contextualize it to international development and locating some of the ideas along it. I largely agree with your placements.

    One thing I sometimes consider is what’s the best-response as a practitioner involved in disseminating these ideas to moderate the volatility of the hype cycle and enhancing the probability of making it through the hype cycle.

    Perhaps more awareness among practitioners of this hype cycle will help to moderate some of the bombastic pronouncements we often find in the early stages of many of these ideas (e.g. microfinance solves poverty; all poverty-fighting money should follow programs based on RCT evidence),

    • Moderating the volatility is exactly what’s on my mind… for a future post.

      Awareness of the phenomenon is part of it, but there’s another element too. Better access to evidence (researcher to practitioner/policymaker links) could help. Though I’ve also been thinking about how increasing links might actually worsen the volatility, as when one study prompts significant investment in an area, but then another study finds different results a few years later.

  2. Thank you very much for this blog.

    This is so much fun and grounds for so much debate.

    Just to kick off:
    The cycle itself could be perfected, with the risk of losing its simplicity. There is an important difference between the inflated expectations peak on the expert level and the political peak. Perhaps a camel might be a better visualization. In order to get to implementation however, the political peak is a necessity. Some examples:
    - As things stand now, the odd “leader” excepted, immigration is rising to its peak in the blogosphere, but seems nowhere going fast on all other levels.
    - Microfinance is rising on the peak of inflated expectations with every new minister from a pro-business party in a donor country. However, with the advent of mobile banking, as a development issue it seems to be losing completely its edge. The same for social enterprise with left leaning politicians.

    I think the real added value of this piece is in discussing the trends.

    For most of the areas, I agree with your assessment. However,

    PDIA, if it means problem driven iterative adaptation (a better name? evolutionary approach?) seems to me what might be what is practical from the whole complexity drive. Indeed Complexity thinking is all fun in big institutions like the World Bank, or perhaps DFID, but below and on the ground the choices are made on a smaller scale and shortening the feedback loop might be the best option for a complexity approach. So PDIA is more realistic than the Big Picture Complexity Thinking. If played well PDIA might rise faster to the peak and productivity than complexity thinking as a whole.

    Migration: dream on, although the analysis is sound, the global political climate will not let it rise to the top. However, it is the responsibility of the wonks to keep pushing. What makes you think the Washington crowd is very relevant to the global picture on development?

    Resilience: definitely roundabout. I remember in the 90s something called drought cycle management at FAO and in the 00s some important publications on resilience at the World bank, with some years later disaster risk reduction. It seems in the end that the approach will be to tackle issues with high visibility, instead of the issues that have the most impact on the poor. I would put it downhill towards the Swamp. Like sustainable development and the holistic approach, it is a science of everything, and therefore implementation on a larger level might only happen as a mainstreming issue (but wait, risk analysis was already a part of the logframe in the 80s.)

    Cash transfers: it is on the peak of inflated expectations, but at the same time the amount of cash already distributed (e.g. as the default food security intervention in humanitarian assistance for the whole of the EU) it also sits squarely on the rising part towards the plateau of productivity. In humanitarian assistance, the discussion on cash is over. The risk is that it will wither away as resilience gets more resources (resilience will be probably non cash transfer, so better for development agencies and humanitarian agencies).

    MDGs: unlike Busan, the MDGs have important and continuing results putting real poverty issues on the political map of the better governed countries. As an international effort, it is on its way down and the complex replacements that are being concocted seem to go nowhere. However, the MDGs as a set of priorities for national governments and accountability to the citizens, I would put it on the plateau.

    Busan and Paris: wonks in general find it not worth talking about, except for Owen, but politically it was very hot. Now it seems to be gone. The absence in your list is telling.

    Microfinance: see above.

  3. I’d be interested to know where you would put political/power analysis (and more importantly, informed practice) on your cycle. Obviously, different organizations are at different points along the path (probably past the peak at places like DFID or Oxfam, for example), but overall I think it may be somewhere around migration or resilience. My litmus test is often USAID, as they often get into things near the top of the visibility range (e.g. RCTs, resilience), and they are just starting to talk about PEA. Thought?

  4. Sorry, but I forgot one:
    Tied aid is gone in the blogosphere, but on the peak of rising expectations in a rising number of donor countries, moreover alive and kicking in practice, especially in the MICs.

  5. David,

    I think you meant to say “hyper-individual”. After 50+ years of ODA, the idea of having in place tools and process to measure the impact of this major investment recently became a priority. I am working at the other end (South) where they can’t make sense of what the 26 members of the Private DAC Club are already doing.

    Just to make things more complicated, somehow we think by moving the money from the left pocket to the right pocket i actually generating something different. Jean Michel Severino wrote about hyper-collective but we are far from even understanding how these new pieces fit into the spectrum of aid delivery.

    I think you are also missing the “local first” piece in your graphic. So much to say about your graphic …if we could just come up with a real action plan that is sustainable not just a new keyword for a new program!

    Hopefully we can shortly be able to demonstrate this integrated approach ….from hyper-individual to hyper-collective!

    Saludos….From Cali Colombia

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