KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

The development ideas hype cycle

with 21 comments

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?

Written by Ian Thorpe

June 3, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

21 Responses

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  1. I have a post coming out on mHealth that talks about some of the same problems as I worry that the peak of hype has yet to be reached.


    June 3, 2011 at 3:54 pm

  2. Great post & examples! What about the Rights-based approach?


    June 3, 2011 at 6:08 pm

  3. Hi Ian

    The hype curve highlights that someone is promoting a product, when you see some nostrum on the rise (millenium villages, RCTs, CCTs etc.) Each of these nostrums have stakeholders who stand to benefit if their product takes off.

    The hype curve reminded me of another great curve: the product lifecycle. The hype curve only seems to talk about the initial stages of the product lifecycle, even though some technologies become obsolete before they become mature (broadband over powerlines is marked as such on the graph.) None of the hypers (people who hype) want to highlight that their product will eventually become obsolete, and at today’s rate of change, that might well be before they are accepted.

    Both curves remind us that intellectual production is in many ways not different than industrial production. We need to become critical, informed buyers. Unfortunately, the buying public is general neither critical nor informed. Thus we get CAI, the Ford Pinto of development.

    David Week

    June 4, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    • @Jaap thanks for this excellent link (and a great blog to follow in the future).

      Ian Thorpe

      June 6, 2011 at 9:22 am

  4. Nicely put, Ian. The next step is to learn had to be a “canny consumer” without become an old cynic (as I like to pretend to be) or PolyAnna (if I have my US reference right). Is there a meta-idea which would allow for the absorbtion of new ideas without going overboard? Or do ideas only come to light if they have an (over-)selling advocate?

    Mark Hereward

    June 6, 2011 at 7:02 am

    • @mark – yes good question, I wonder if in order to get something promising off the ground, and to get sufficient attention and support in the first place a bit of irrational optimism (and the inevitable disappointment) is required – even if the rational part of my brain is saying why can’t we just analyze ideas and accept them for what they are with a balanced view of their strengths and weaknesses.

      Ian Thorpe

      June 6, 2011 at 9:11 am

  5. Hate to be such a grinch, but I think often instead of the plateau of productivity, there is the sad cliff of oblivion

    Janet Gunter

    June 6, 2011 at 9:05 am

  6. It sounds a bit like rationalised fence-sitting to me, Ian 🙂

    I’m from the tech sector so have a similar cynicism curve about Gartner research.

    Can we just get on with solving problems?

    Mark Charmer

    June 6, 2011 at 9:05 am

    • @markc – yes, good point about Gartner research 🙂
      I do wonder though if in order to get funding or management support for something new there is an inbuilt tendency for us to oversell or over believe in our own ideas – and for those who are better at selling than I am, to engender that in others too. I don’t think it should stop anyone getting on and solving problems though, not am I “against” many of the things that are now climbing to the peak of inflated expectations – but I think we all need to be prepared for the eventual crash into the trough of disillusionment and figure out quickly how to get past it into real (and realistic) productivity.

      Ian Thorpe

      June 6, 2011 at 9:21 am

      • Hi Ian,

        I actually subscribe to the principle of underselling big ideas – it’s really important to manage expectations when you’re leading something new. It takes effort to undersell but it’s worth it.

        At Akvo, if we set out to present the full implications of what we’re doing – and what it could mean over time for NGOs and development aid – people’s heads would explode. It’s not the way to go – you have to bed things in and let them speak for themselves, make it easy for people pick them up, noodle on them, and decide *for themselves* that something is really good.

        I’m lucky because I’m not asked to hype things. For example, not once since we set up Akvo has anyone bugged me about how much press coverage we could be getting. We don’t do press stuff really (even though we have the experience and resource in place to do it). It would cost us about $50,000 to build a load of “buzz” and I could set it off anytime we liked. But I’d rather stay focused on incremental improvements and build relationships and trust with people who can really get under the skin of our tools and network. And because everything we do is online, we can keep our own story grounded and focused on our own website, with less risk of people getting confused about what we are and what we aren’t.

        At the same time, if you’re running any kind of startup (which is where much – though not all – of the innovation is happening) you have to be obsessive to get anywhere. Most organisations (the customers we deal with day to day) are designed to defend what they already are – and largely designed to kill innovation. Sure they may say innovation is a fundamental thing for them (“Look! There’s our Innovation Team! We do a quarterly competition!”) but they’re usually deluded (at best). Every other step along the path to adoption of new ideas in that organisation will be lined with obstacles to saying yes, created by people who find it easier to say no. Most people are paid not to do other things. Which when you think about it, is a big problem. So you have to win them over one by one. It takes enormous patience – and passion. Nothing less will do.

        Anyone with a bit of soul has to experience inflated expectations and disappointments. It’s what makes us creative, happy, sad. Gartner can rationalise this in a curve and charge consultancy to talk about it, but it’s just part of the way we all are – and it’s something we learn to handle through experience. But excitement and disillusionment are part of life – and of work. We shouldn’t try to rationalise them away. They’re what keep us all moving forward.

        Mark Charmer

        June 8, 2011 at 6:26 am

  7. Hi, Ian,
    another great one, although I don’t understand very much on developement, now I got to know that the hype curve really has a name.
    The problem is not the curve itself, but, as you hint in your last comment, the problem is the eigendynamic of it. The realist gets turned down in the hype phase, because he seems kind of spoilsport, not understanding the tremendous potential, an afterwards in the deep, the realistic seems to ride a dead horse.
    Riding the wave you are not in the driving seat.

    Gerald Meinert

    June 6, 2011 at 2:41 pm

  8. Hi Ian
    I am not sure that the fate of some new ideas is not affected by the hype curve itself. In the case of cash transfers, for example, some of the problems that we have faced in getting government buy-in in parts of Africa have been the fact that the hype has actually put people off – “another fad / its just the latest thing / nothing can be this good / what, no down sides at all? / I can’t hear myself think!” etc

    We should be careful to be a bit more circumspect about building the hype… Being positive and even enthusiastic is good, but I guess we sometimes go far far beyond that.

    Charlotte Harland

    June 7, 2011 at 8:35 am

  9. […] traps, to participatory approaches, to micro-finance, to the Paris Declaration, development work is clearly prone to fads. But, now that we’re 60 plus, I’d like to suggest that perhaps we’re a little old for all […]

  10. […] me try out all these things, be breathlessly enthusiastic and then lose interest (my own software adoption hype cycle). Now I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks I think I’m in a better place to be able […]

  11. […] the past I’ve blogged about the development hype lifecycle in which a new idea can slowly start to generate interest then in turn become hugely popular and […]

  12. […] most commented post was: The development ideas hype cycle with 18 […]

  13. […] both Ian Thorpe and Lant Pritchett have applied the hype cycle to international development ideas. This means […]

  14. […] any new technology or tool it suffered from the Hype Cycle, in particular it rode the peak of inflated expectations. But in the meantime a lot has happened. […]

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