The development ideas hype cycle
I’ve been following closely the recent debates about the use of Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) in development and the emerging attention they are receiving in mainstream media, and the critiques and plaudits they are attracting from some academics and practitioners (Jennifer Lentfer pulled together a good compilation of postings here). But this discussion reminds me of something.
Those of you that have a technology background might well be familiar with Garner’s “Hype Cycle of emerging technologies“.
This is where a new technology seems close to being possible for commercial development, it is is discussed and hyped leading to inflated expectations of what it can do and its likely commercial success. When it fails to deliver on this promise the trough of disillusionment quickly comes along. And finally the real use and value of the technology slowly emerges from the gloom in a stage known as the slope of enlightenment, finaly reaching a stage of maturity and appropriate use known as the plateau of productivity.
Here’s a picture:
This cycle lo0ks very familiar to me when I think about new ideas in development and the latest “silver-bullet” which gets touted as the end of poverty only to lead to disappointment and then eventually to quiet adoption as one tool among many in the development toolbox.
Right now it looks to me as if RCTs are heading rapidly up towards the peak of inflated expectations (despite the critiques) getting a lot of attention – but probably being oversold as a solution in the process. Chris Blattman sums this up nicely in his post “Go short on randomized trials“. It’s probably fair to say that RCTs can be a very valuable tool in development, and a tool we should be using much more than we do now – but if I’m right about the applicability of this cycle to development ideas – then we are also headed for a nasty shock where suddenly everyone will be saying how RCTs aren’t really that helpful at all, are too expensive etc. and only after a suitable period of doom and gloom will the idea reach its true potential as a valuable tool in development, but one among many rather than being a silver bullet.
It would be interesting to look at a number of other current and past hot topics in development and map them against this cycle to see where they fall in the same way Gartner does with emerging technologies (which is by the way a fascinating read for techies).
For me use of mobile phones is clearly another approach that is currently reaching a peak of inflated expectations and enthusiasm whereas other aspects of ICT for Development (such as OLPC) are already in the trough of disillusionment. some approaches such as cash on delivery aid are probably heading up the path towards inflated expectations – but still have some way to go before they reach their peak. Others such as cookstoves are probably already there.
Sitting in the trough of disillusionment right now are probably the MDGs and “Aid Effectiveness” (in its Paris Declaration form). Emergency cluster response might possibly be here too. But eventually, one hopes, the best parts of these ideas will rise from the ashes and their effective use will be commonplace and routine but no longer as interesting to talk about (PRSPs and National Development plans anyone?).
I’d love to hear from you about your favourite/least favourite development trends and fads and where you think they fit on this ideas lifecycle. Social media? Public-Private partnerships? Microcredit? Debt relief? Social entrepreneurs?