Moderating the hype around development ideas

When I presented the hype cycle for development ideas in a recent post, I didn’t bother to identify the causes or underlying dynamics that drive the cycle. I presented Gartner’s framework, applied it to international development (with some adaptations), and everyone reading nodded along. “Yep, that makes sense.” No proof needed.

That I could get away with this is telling.

The easy translation of Gartner’s framework from the tech sector to other fields — not just international development — suggests that there are deeper structural forces at play. Some combination of how the media covers trends, promotional feedback loops, and basic human optimism means that we’re susceptible market bubbles (dot-coms, housing), inflated expectations for incoming presidents (google “disillusionment with Obama”), and probably more  faith in movie adaptations of books than is ever warranted. Each peak is followed by a crash, and then right-sizing. Maybe. The specific dynamics vary, as we see with development.

Proving the underlying principles is not that interesting to me. I’m going to take the existence of hype cycles and their applicability to development ideas as a given until someone wants to challenge them.

Even the idea that huge swings in the cycle are bad is pretty self-evident: hyped ideas draw resources and attention away from less flashy but possibly more effective ones, whether they’re the ideas along the plateau of productivity or simply the ideas that are hitting a lower peak of inflated expectations. To gain traction, advocates for new ideas face an incentive to push theirs to the highest peak possible, leading to more volatile cycles and poorer investment decisions across the board. It’s not just inflation of ideas; it’s inflation of inflation.

Yet before an idea reaches the peak, there are dissenting voices urging caution. We’d do well to listen.

Wouldn’t the sector be better off if it could test new ideas, even get excited about them, but find their weaknesses and understand the right way to make use of them — all before shifting major resources their way?

That means moderating the hype cycle. Here’s my speculation on a few actors and the steps they could take toward making that happen. (Fair warning: I don’t have a lot of faith in any of these actually accomplishing much. Sorry.)

1. Everyone. The first and most obvious mitigation is general education about the hype cycle effects. I’m heartened by how many people were interested in the last post, but I know that it’s a tiny slice of the sector’s decision makers.

2. Academic (counter-)hypers. You would think that academia serves as a source for counter-hype, and often it does. We should generally expect improved academic-policymaker-practitioner linkages to help moderate the volatility.

However, academic linkages can also be used to drive the hype cycle higher. My favorite example of this comes from counter-hyper-in-chief Bill Easterly: in his most popular book, he outlined how the creation of the Millennium Challenge Corporation was anchored in an academic study that didn’t stand up to later scrutiny. One academic study does not imply gospel truth. Academics know that, but the mantra of “evidence-based policy” can itself be used for political ends.

Incentives also become mixed when scholars create organizations around their ideas. The cross-over role of academics into practice or policy is critical, but everyone has a stake in their ideas. We should be aware of that stake when listening and focus on the evidence itself. The genius of academia lies not in the saintly discernment of any given scholar, but in a cut-throat epistemic community that actively works to tear down ideas. Once scholars step out of that community — into the world of TED talks and innovation prizes — they face an entirely different incentive structure.

3. Other counter-hypers. This is admittedly self-serving, but I think the blogosphere plays a big role in counter-hyping. It’s worth noting how few dissenting voices have institutional homes for their counter-hype. That makes sense: staff within organizations have more incentive to promote their own ideas than to criticize others. Critical blogging is usually secondary to our day jobs, and some stay completely anonymous.

4. Established donors and organizations. One of the drivers of the hype cycle is the need for entrepreneurs to sell their ideas. This was true in the dot-com bubble as well. The difference there was that anyone who believed an internet startup’s hype was investing their own funds, with the potential for massive personal gain. In the development sector, those who buy the hype are paying with funds that are meant to help someone else. It’s a different market, with different responsibilities.

What that means is  we might all be safer if hyped development ideas were quarantined a bit. Shield them from the demands of fund/capital-raising, and their backers would feel less pressure to hype. One way to do that would be for more established organizations to serve as incubators and channels for innovation funds. They could potentially provide a hype-free zone to test and tinker. Once proven, the idea can be scaled or spun-off.


So that’s what I’ve got for moderating the hype cycle. I know… they all feel thin. Anyone have better ideas?


  1. Part of the value of the hype cycle concept is serving as a pointer to more constructive criticism. Rather than emphasize efforts at counter-hype – which can be difficult to distinguish from “Dead Aid” type screeds against the entire concept of aid – saying that “you’re crowding out space for several other ideas that are practical and tested” offers the ability to be more nuanced. Not so much for the academics, but for others, having in mind a reference point (e.g. Is New Hyped Idea X really that much better than Y or Z?) makes for a more nuanced and informed discussion, one that has some utility to policy-makers and implementers, where a critique of a given model usually doesn’t.

  2. Don’t forget donors, who I think are often the greatest hype cycle drivers. They demand organizations be “innovative” to get funding and only want to see “success”, even if that is defined as a few pretty photos and a single story for their annual report.

    This is not to say they are evil outright, donor staff have to get approval from funding committees and appease external stakeholders, both who themselves often are excited by the hype in the media.

  3. Very much agree with Wayan. In my experience, donors of all kinds are very often contributors to, if not outright the drivers of, this thing you call the hype cycle.

    For me a larger issue is that there is presently no equivalent (that I’m aware of) in the aid world to research & development (R&D) in any tech field. For a wide range of reasons and underlying causes, some of which make great sense (but others, not so much), we pretty much go straight from “I wonder if it would work to…”, to implementing directly on live “beneficiaries.” There’s no generalized pathway for evaluating a new idea (so-called “innovation”), testing it with any kind of objectivity (absence of meltdown in test communities typically being seen as evidence of success), and then mainstreaming the ones that perform well.

    Thus, there’s little or no real basis for pushback on dumbassery foisted on the aid community via the hype cycle, other than that it just “feels” really wrong. Think, TOMS Shoes, 1,000,000 T-shirts, “Three Cups of Tea”, the thousands of wacky water purification and T-shelter designs we get inundated with after every disaster…

  4. I like the point about academia – but the problem is that only few people read the views that are contrary to current group-think.
    We at our foundation have three departments and sometimes one can have contrary view to other – we have a culture of freedom in qritique and sceptisism. But only to an extent.
    Thank you for these hype cycle posts that got me thinking. What is development cooperation in two words? From building bridges to democracy promotion – it is everything and nothing. Bridges would be built even without ODA, so we need to grasp it with something grander than definition of one tiny sector with a huge annual 150 billion turnover. I think, “Development cooperation is applied philosophy”. I really think so, since Marx philosophy should not just define the world and words, but change it.
    As for the hype cycle – it is a nice concept but only two-dimensional (time + some value of hype measured e.g. by Google n-grams or Google Trends). And we shouldn’t mix tools with concepts, methods, paradigms…
    As for the utility the model of optimal landscape is interesting. That you can have a local optimum, but sometimes you need to go down the valley to find a better optimum on a higher hill.
    My concept I mockingly call Finding Omega (the oposite to Seeking Alpha, the popular financial blog). It is based on the best cost/benefit ratio solution (similar ot Copenhagen Consensus Center). But the difference is that here you look for hidden inefficiencies that can change the narrative or completely redefine the sector.
    My examples or solutions:
    1) Ban or tax the Per Diems
    2) Treat organized crime and terrorism as two sides of one coin – one joint threat
    3) Support the establishment of Laozi Institutes as a competition to China soft power strategy of Confucius Institutes
    4) Hacktivism is counterproductive in the long term – only “hacking the political narrative” changes the system – the old school advocacy supported by some new tools like Innovation Jam by IBM

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