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:



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.



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.