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This is the beginning of a conversation. Through the history of international development, a small number of breakthrough technologies have had transformative impact: the polio vaccine; the new seed varieties which launched the Asian Green Revolution; anti-retroviral drugs which appear to have rendered HIV/AIDS a chronic and manageable disease; and more recently, the M-PESA mobile payments platform. Such major breakthroughs are rare. The truth is that far too much of the effort is focused on incremental technologies which—despite compelling narratives, significant funding, and considerable media hype—fail to reach any reasonable scale or impact. Why? Because there is limited broad understanding of the underlying issues, and the role of technology. Decision-makers—donors, social impact investors, program officers, employees in government agencies, practitioners working in NGOs—often make their decisions without adequate information or analysis.

The main purpose of the 50 Breakthroughs study is to identify where game-changing technologies are most required. The study's main objectives are to:

  • Foster a thought-provoking conversation about the role of technology in solving the world's most pressing problems, and focus effort on the breakthroughs that really matter.
  • Provide contextual background for technologists, so that they can determine how their work can address these critical challenges.
  • Provide decision-makers a guide to asking the hard, but important, questions.

In this study, we consulted with a large number of experts, but not all of them agree with our conclusions. We are certain that new evidence will disprove some of our conclusions and analyses. Still, we are sharing our findings because the problems we all seek to address require urgent action, and we can't wait for perfect data. Let's begin the conversation.