Keywords: leapfrogging, innovation, sustainability, emerging economies, sustainable consumption, production, factor x
Leapfrogging into the future: developing for sustainability
It has become almost a platitude that radical and sustainable improvement of need-fulfillment has to be reached in one generation to prevent the possibility that Nature will break down under the combined pressure of population growth and growth in wealth per capita This requires 'radical' or 'system' innovations. In this respect, there is an important difference between consumer economies such as Europe, the EU and Japan, emerging economies such as China and Malaysia in Asia and bottom-of-the-pyramid economies where people survive on 1–2 dollars a day: in consumer economies, the physical economic infrastructure is already fully developed, which often causes important 'lock-in' problems with regard to realising radical change; in emerging economies (which might bring about the biggest leap in environmental pressure) this infrastructure, by and large, still has to be built up, so that, in theory, there is much more freedom to design sustainable systems from the onset; in bottom of the pyramid economies, markets are so different that copying Western market systems is factually quite difficult, although examples and innovative solutions are required anyway. But is this 'leapfrogging', particularly by emerging economies, while theoretically possible and practically desirable, really going to happen? Current experiences are not encouraging: 'dinosaur' industries such as the car industry are invited to invest heavily in countries such as China leading to a transplantation of existing problematic transport infrastructures. This paper argues that, where Western countries need a system innovation and transition management approach to realise a change to sustainability, emerging economies would have to apply something very similar to ensure that the larger flexibility they have is indeed used to leapfrog to sustainable systems. This implies that functions such as visioning, indicative planning, foresight and reflexive governance have to be fostered to ensure that foreign and national investments are used to create sustainable systems.