The three-year Frontier Technology Livestreaming initiative was launched this week (1 November) at the agency's headquarters in London, United Kingdom, along with a report that singles out 10 technologies that fit its definition of 'frontier'.
These are technologies with the potential to "displace existing processes" and "reshape industry and communications, and provide urgently-needed solutions to global challenges like climate change", according to the report.
Technologies that it says meet this definition include 3D printing, drones, solar desalinisation and smog-reducing tech, as well as some less widely seen as development tools such as the Internet of Things and the collaborative economy.
Four of the tech providers identified in the report, all UK-based, were present at the launch.
"People in the private sector would love to get involved in some of these [development] programmes," said a member of the team in the department.
Commenting on the initiative, Oxfam’s senior strategic adviser, Duncan Green, told SciDev.Net: “With something like tech innovation, governments can help by creating an enabling environment where lots of new ideas bubble up, are tested, and then flourish or fail. This project seems to go part way towards that.”
James Wharton, the parliamentary undersecretary of state at DFID, said the hub "could be a milestone" in terms of the direction the agency takes in using technology to maximise the impact and value of aid.
"The hub is in itself a pilot of a new way of working at DFID," said a source at DFID. It encourages staff to do pilot studies and use potentially transformative technologies as a resource and a new type of action research, they explained.
It also aims to put DFID at the front line of adoption of these technologies, or their commercialisation in business terms, they added. The initiative invites companies or other 'tech providers' to register with the hub so their skills and offerings are known to the initiative, and they also have the opportunity to propose ideas for a project using a product that's ready to pilot in the field.
The report sets out recommendations for how development organisations can capitalise on frontier technologies and navigate the risks of using them, lead author and research lead for the initiative, Ben Ramalingram told SciDev.Net. "These have been incorporated into the design of the live streaming initiative," he said, and the themes identified in the report will serve as the starting point for the first round of proposals.
The programme is designed to help match tech providers with needs on the ground, and to support the design of a pilot study. During evaluation, the agency will look at indicators and insight as to how the projects could be scaled up or feed into larger development initiatives.
According to Green, the big question is how to go beyond 'pilotitis': pilot projects that fail to put down roots and go to scale even when successful. “That will require deep engagement with country tech and innovation systems, and local governments and businesses,” he said.
The learning process will involve DFID country offices but is unlikely to involve local governments. This learning will be disseminated through stories on the publishing platform Medium.
M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money transfer system, which revolutionised financial inclusion in East Africa, was one of the best investments the agency has made and the programme aims to follow that lead.
Some amendments for clarity were made to this article on November 2nd.