Solutions to climate change, the energy crisis and the long-standing challenge of food security in the world’s poor nations will depend on the human ability to innovate, UNCTAD economists contend. They say developing countries cannot leave this process to others – they must get the pieces in place so that innovative ideas and business practices can emerge within their own borders.
An Innovation and Technology Day will be held on 24 April during the UNCTAD XIII quadrennial conference in Doha, Qatar, to allow government officials and other participants to discuss practical methods for accomplishing this goal.
They and experts in the field of innovation and technology will review experiences from around the world and will ponder on how to promote what economists call “greater innovation capacity” in developing countries.
Innovation has catalysed improvements in human life throughout recorded history and is certainly necessary in the current difficult global economic situation, UNCTAD economists note in the background material for the session. The Industrial Revolution of the 1770s and the more recent information revolution have shown how vital the process is for higher productivity and economic growth. These significant transformations brought increased output and national wealth to the countries that were able to create these innovations or successfully adopt them.
An innovation is the implementation of a new or significantly improved product or process, or a new marketing or organizational method. Innovation is not the same as inventing something new, such as a new technology. The spread of ideas used to be a slow process. Today, information and communication technologies mean that ideas and information can travel instantaneously around the world. So innovation should be easier. If this is the case, why is innovation so uneven across companies and countries?
Part of the answer is that innovation usually takes place within a system and is dependent upon certain prerequisites. These include collaboration and flows of knowledge among different actors and the availability of supporting institutions (the laws, regulations and customs prevalent in a country). Other important requirements are financing and physical infrastructure. A lack of reliable, affordable electricity can be a major obstacle to innovation and technological change. These things may be taken for granted but are not always readily available. This is especially the case in many developing countries, particularly the least developed countries. They face many market failures and failures in the systems that support innovation, and their businesses often confront hurdles to innovation that firms in developed countries do not face.
Another factor holding developing countries back is that the capacity to acquire, adopt and adapt relevant technologies may be weak. The private sector is often poorly developed and dominated by small and microenterprises that lack the scale and vital inputs needed to function efficiently and prosper. These obstacles have all contributed to large gaps in technological and innovation capacity and performance among countries. In laggard countries, government action can help to lower the hurdles and build innovative capacity.
What can governments do? They can act to strengthen the technical, professional and entrepreneurial skills of their citizens. They can take steps to provide needed infrastructure, improve systems of innovation, promote flows of knowledge and technology, and create coherent plans and strategies to achieve these goals as part of national development plans. International collaboration and assistance also can play an important role. Participants in the Technology and Innovation Day will consider examples of successful steps governments have taken to improve innovation performance.
UNCTAD has long assisted developing countries in this field, and continues to carry out research and analysis on innovation and technological capacity. It also provides technical assistance to developing countries to help build innovation capacity. And it promotes dialogue on these issues so that countries can share their experiences and identify good practices that might be replicated.
The Innovation and Technology Day is a timely opportunity for leaders from many countries to learn more about how innovation can support sustainable growth and development – and to learn how to promote greater innovation capacity. They can help create a better future by learning from others’ experiences.