Testing Frontier Technologies and Exploring Pathways to Scale for Enhanced Development Impact

R4D leads a consortium to test technology at the development frontier, develop organizational capacity across DFID, engage global partners to scale what works, and share our learning with the global community.

The Challenge

Frontier technology refers to technology being applied in new contexts. For example, drones are not new, but using them to deliver vaccines to remote regions of East Africa for the first time would make their use frontier technology.

As new technologies and digital business models reshape economies and disrupt incumbencies, interest has surged in the potential of frontier technologies to contribute to positive changes in international development and humanitarian work. Widespread adoption of new technologies is acknowledged as centrally important to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

But new solutions also present risk. How do we know which technologies are best suited to particular contexts? What support do innovation pioneers need to get their ideas off the ground? How do you test whether or not an innovation is meeting the demands of the community and adapt it accordingly?

The Opportunity

The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has outlined an ambition to enable their staff – and other partners – to understand frontier technologies, test their application and explore pathways to scaling them for enhanced development impact. A range of initiatives – collectively the Frontier Technologies program – have been introduced to support this goal.

The first of these is Frontier Technologies Livestreaming. Livestreaming explores new ways of helping DFID staff test the application of frontier technologies to address some of the biggest development challenges in their countries of operation. Grounded in agile and adaptive management approaches, the initiative is open to exploring the application of technologies across any sector and any development challenge in DFID’s priority countries.

Since its launch in 2016, 22 Livestreaming pilots have been implemented in 12 countries across Africa and South Asia, and in the process Frontier Technology Futures emerged, a complementary capacity-building initiative designed to enhance the frontier technology knowledge and local tech connections of DFID teams and Country Offices. With Brink as the Technical Lead and IMC Worldwide as the Fund Manager, the program achieved great success, generating valuable insights and learnings on the potential of frontier tech to advance the development agenda.

In late 2019, DFID expanded the scope of the Frontier Technologies program (FT) and R4D joined the consortium. The mandate was to continue Livestreaming and Futures and expand into two new workstreams on Partnerships and Research & Learning.

Our Work

R4D’s approach was designed in consultation with both DFID and the implementing partners from the earlier phases of Frontier Technologies and is based on four interconnected and overlapping technical workstreams:

  • Frontier Technology Livestreaming. This is the core workstream, carrying out pilot projects sourced from DFID central departments and Country Offices, which are well-placed to design pilots grounded in local contexts and needs.
  • Frontier Technology Futures. This workstream is a capacity development offering to DFID Country Offices across the global network and key central departments. Our team supports Country Office staff in building a culture of adaptive management, confidence to test new innovations, and connections to their local technology and innovation ecosystem.
  • Frontier Technology Partnerships. This workstream combines strategic partnering with relevant organizations and initiatives in the wider development and tech communities in order to (a) bolster program activities, such as supporting the adoption or scale-up of high-potential Livestreaming pilots; (b) support expansion or replication of elements of the FT model in new contexts; and (c) enhance understanding and shared learning across the broader frontier technologies space. These activities will seek to mobilize expertise through networks such as the International Development Innovation Alliance (IDIA) and others.
  • Frontier Technology Research & Learning. This workstream focuses on (a) researching new/emerging topics to keep the FT design impactful and relevant, (b) experimenting to establish a County Office-led FT model, (c) extracting insights and lessons learned around the application of frontier technologies in development, and (d) strategically disseminating these in a timely and accessible manner to priority stakeholders both within DFID and across the FT partnership network.

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Global & Regional Initiatives

R4D is a globally recognized leader for designing initiatives that connect implementers, experts and funders across countries to build knowledge and get that knowledge into practice.