Development Engineering: Scaling Tech Solutions from Ideation, to Pilot … to the World?
Scaling technologies that promote economic development is challenging – as evidenced by the massive number of “pilots” that drain the talent and resources of practitioners, academics and donors alike. As a result, successful technology scale-ups are scarce. Instead, the complex obstacles to scale continue to dominate the discourse around technology for development.
To tackle this challenge, UC Berkeley established the Development Impact Lab (DIL) in 2012 as part of USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network. Our mission is to wed the academic disciplines of engineering and development economics to design technologies that are built for social impact at scale. We have formalized our approach in the new field of “development engineering,” which introduces rigorous impact evaluations into the process of designing, prototyping and scaling new tech solutions.
As DIL nears the end of its fifth year, we have been reflecting on our portfolio of projects, considering the development innovations that have scaled and those that have not. A few key examples illustrate that large-scale impact is indeed possible with the right mix of targeted funding, technological innovation and rigorous field work. They are:
- CellScope, which turns a smartphone into a microscope capable of diagnosing TB and the loa loa parasite in real time;
- ElectroChemical Arsenic Remediation, a low-cost process for removing arsenic from drinking water; and
- Community Cellular Networks (CCN), village-scaled cell towers that provide rural communities with access to GSM networks.
CCN is an especially good example of an innovation that has scaled rapidly (and effectively) with targeted support from the university during its early stages. It started as a research project by the TIER Group at UC Berkeley more than seven years ago, when researchers decided to tackle the following daunting development challenge: Over 1 billion people live outside the coverage of cellular networks – primarily in rural areas – across the globe.
Connectivity is becoming increasingly central to economic development and improved welfare. Having a network connection allows low-income individuals and communities all over the world to share information and generate income. However, extending coverage to large rural areas with low population density is cost prohibitive for telecommunications companies due to lack of electricity, lack of data infrastructure and low return on investment. It is simply not profitable for mobile network operators to increase coverage in areas with unreliable or nonexistent infrastructure and low numbers of potential consumers.
Enter the TIER group and CCN, a cell phone tower that runs on solar or micro-hydro power and costs less than a tenth of the price of traditional cellular equipment. It can provide voice and data services to households living within a few kilometers, and can be operated efficiently by local entrepreneurs.
Early on, DIL provided funding for TIER to pilot the CCN in Papua, Indonesia, in partnership with a local school. Residents in the nearby village rapidly adopted voice services, and the local operator saw his SIM card business become profitable. But adoption is only the first step. How were people using their new mode of communication? In what ways did connectivity affect people’s lives (both positively and negatively)? Did it really accelerate development? Was the business model sustainable?
This is the focus of a second phase of research funded by DIL, this time in the Philippines. The second phase will see the deployment of the technology at a larger scale (across multiple villages). By randomizing the rollout of CCN, the research team will be able to rigorously measure its impacts on households while tracking the profitability and sustainability of the business model. Specifically, researchers hypothesize that CCNs:
- promote local economic development, because the village base stations are locally owned and operated, keep profits in the community and link users with outside markets; and
- are financially viable, because they involve limited capital expenditures, instead building on existing community infrastructure when available and operating with lower power draws.
While the CCN team awaits the results of this study, they continue to refine their initial prototype through Endaga, a spinout company they founded to help commercialize the technology. In October 2015, Endaga announced it was being acqui-hired by the Silicon Valley giant Facebook, because Endaga’s technology could help Facebook achieve its mission to connect the majority of the global population that does not have access to the Internet.
Endaga has been integrated into Facebook’s infrastructure, where it has access to new resources and opportunities to help it scale the technology worldwide. The original research team continues to partner with university researchers on the randomized control trial (RCT) in the Philippines to understand the precise costs and benefits of the technology. Over time, they hope to gradually connect millions of people in remote areas to the global information ecosystem, while learning from their field deployments.
Ultimately, CCN’s journey – from ideation, to pilot, to Facebook – demonstrates how development engineering can help address difficult global development challenges by building social and economic research questions into the process of prototyping, deploying, adapting and scaling a novel technology.
Access to cellular networks and the Internet is becoming increasingly fundamental to achieving economic development. CCN, an affordable model for connectivity, could push remote communities along the path to development by helping them overcome obstacles like missing infrastructure and lack of a cost-effective, community-based option; and while CCN is not yet operating at scale, it is well on its way. Telecommunications companies are paying attention to what researchers are learning and are increasingly open to testing new approaches to service delivery in remote regions.
Academic resources: “Local, Sustainable, Small-Scale Cellular Networks“; “Expanding Rural Cellular Networks with Virtual Coverage“; “GSM Whitespaces: An Opportunity for Rural Cellular Service“; and “Rescue Base Station“
Natasha Beale is a program manager for technology and development at the Center for Effective Global Action, UC Berkeley. She manages the Development Impact Lab, the Digital Credit Observatory and a retrospective impact evaluation project called ERIE.
Photo courtesy of the Center for Effective Global Action