Frontier Technologies Tech Survey Results

Lea Simpson
Jan 20, 2019 · 6 min read

In 2016 DFID staff were invited to respond to a survey on frontier technology and specifically, which technologies they believed held the greatest promise for development.

Those survey results fed into a report into Ten Frontier Technologies for International Development and this programme. Now, as part of our fourth call for application, we’ve carried out the survey again, to understand how technology perceptions have shifted, which technologies are thought to be the most promising and to get a sense of what has changed in fast moving world of tech.

In this post we outline some of the headline numbers, technology movers, shakers, fallers and climbers. In places we have included our own thinking and hypotheses about why the results look the way they do. We invite you to join us with your own reflections and interpretations.

Headline numbers:

Total votes = 115 in 48 hours

Total country spread: 37

Top 5 Countries covered by our respondents:

  1. Nigeria
  2. Ghana
  3. Uganda
  4. Kenya
  5. Bangladesh

Top 5 Cadre Response:

  1. Private Sector Development
  2. Livelihoods
  3. Social Development
  4. Infrastructure
  5. Humanitarian

The Top 10 technologies 2019: it’s all about Big Data

This year’s survey had one very clear, standout winner: Big Data. With 34 of the 117 votes, it is heads and shoulders above the rest.

The top 10 technologies for development in 2019 results

Here’s what DFID staff had to say about Big Data, why it got their vote and why it’s imperative to weigh up the opportunities alongside the risks:

“…Big Data will help DFID with predictions and studying trends that will help with planning and allocation of resources to the most needy and in areas that promise high development returns.”

“Big data is both a massive opportunity and a massive risk for those living in poverty and instability. We are also at real risk of being hijacked by it while not understanding it ourselves.”

An incredibly prescient contributor, who voted almost entirely for the top ranking tech, had this to say:

“I have chosen ‘alternative internet delivery, big data, solar, & circular economy’. I make those choice as these technologies have broader implication to support the DFID work… Alternative internet and solar energy seem something for consideration. Big data is also useful to make robust decision. Last not least, circular economy can be considered in the way of promoting recycling, reusing and reducing emission to ensure environmental and broader socio-economic aspects to the work DFID does.”

The 2019 top ten — where were they in 2016?

The top 10 technologies in 2019 and where they ranked in 2016

Two technologies have remained in the top 10: Big data and Household/community scale batteries

Only two technologies remained in the top ten. Apart from our winner, big data, household/community scale batteries came in at number 9, falling 7 places from 2 in 2016.

“Battery technology could make a real difference in efforts to effectively harness renewable energy and prevent climate change, same with smart grids.”

Significant shift from hardware to software

The 2016 survey had a significant emphasis on hardware, with condensers, desalinators, solar powered batteries and smart grids dominating the list. This time round it’s a different picture, with all but two of the top ten focussed on software and processing.

5 of the top 10 are newly included technologies

Of the top ten technologies, five were included by The Hub as we refreshed and updated the options. These technologies were included through consultation between The Hub and DFID stakeholders and having reviewed material like Gartner’s Hype Cycle for emerging technologies and ICT for Africa.

These five new inclusions are:

  1. Circular economy
  2. Financial Technology
  3. Blockchain
  4. Machine Learning
  5. Artificial Intelligence

We chose to maintain strict definitions of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence as two different technologies. Had we collapsed them into one, Alternate Internet Delivery, which came in at 11, may very well have crept into the top 10.

‘Other’ came in at number 9

One of the more intriguing results this time round was the popularity of ‘other’, which came in at number 9 with 13 votes. None of the technologies suggested by the voters in the comments appeared more than once, despite the comments typically including a long list of technologies like this one:

“You have missed out so much — eg technology for reporting human rights abuses, technology for citizen participation, cyber security, use of technology in weapons systems and for surveillance…”

The vibrant responses and high ranking of ‘other’ might be due to:

  1. The fast pace of technology itself, but also the mainstreaming of concepts that were new and relatively underhead of a short time ago e.g. blockchain.
  2. Technology is regularly muddled with the application of technology. As we can see in the comment above, it’s often tricky to tease out the technology from how it is used e.g. technology for reporting human rights abuses requires a channel, power, connectivity and more
  3. Technology is typically more useful in combination with other technology. This is a trend that we’re seeing across our portfolio and something we’re going to spend more time analysing in the coming months. True frontiers are being unlocked by combining solar batteries with data in Zimbabwe and satellites with machine learning in Tanzania.

The bottom 10 of 34

A source of significant intrigue, our bottom 10 included some technologies The Hub felt confident would climb to the top but actually came in right at the bottom.

Of the bottom ten, the most surprising to The Hub, in order of most surprising to least surprising are:

  • 5G
  • Augmented Reality
  • Virtual reality
  • Wearables

5G received only six of the 115 votes cast, with Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Wearables receiving a dismal one vote each.

This might be due to:

  1. The lack of evidence and tangible evidence or examples of these technologies in practice
  2. Relatively little attention in the news and tech media (or hype) when compared with technology like big data
The Bottom 10

Top 10 2016 — where are they in 2019?

  • Big data is the only climer from 7 to 1
  • Water condensation technology is the biggest faller from 5 to 23
  • Solar condensation technology is also a big faller from 6 to 22

How will this inform our work?

  • Follow up with DFID advisors who have said that they’d value exploring the application of the technologies they have voted for
  • Actively seek out technology providers to be part of our Digital Marketplace. If you work in these technology areas and would like to be the first to know about opportunities to work on our pilots, please apply to be part of our Digital Marketplace
  • Enhance our understanding of the potential opportunities and pitfalls of frontier technologies

Tell us what you think

What is your interpretation of this data? We’d really like to hear from readers who have thoughts about these numbers and how we’re reading them.


Our methodology

  1. The survey: 2016 list of technologies + Gartner’s hype cycles + The Hub’s inclusions = survey’s final long list of 35 technology
  2. All DFID staff invited to respond over 48 hours (to note, this was 24 hours longer than the previous survey)
  3. Respondents were invited to select technologies, without ranking
  4. The survey included 35 technologies, including an option for ‘other’
  5. Respondents invited to share the logic behind their selection

Nine new technologies included by The Hub:

  1. 5G
  2. Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning
  3. Blockchain
  4. Wearables
  5. Automonous vehicles
  6. Smart dust
  7. Reputation economy
  8. Graphene
  9. Biotech

Annex: Gartner’s Hype Cycles

Gartner ICT for Africa 2018

Frontier Technologies Hub

Working with the FCDO to apply frontier technologies to development

Frontier Technologies Hub

Working with the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to apply frontier technologies to the biggest challenges in development.

Lea Simpson

Written by

Founder of Brink, Team Leader of the Frontier Technologies Hub. Tech optimist and lifelong nerd.

Frontier Technologies Hub

Working with the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to apply frontier technologies to the biggest challenges in development.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store