Concerted global efforts are needed to help developing economies leverage technological innovations for sustainable development.
Sustainable and frontier technologies can enable the developing world to fast-track greener and inclusive development, but international collaboration is required to realize this prospect.
That was the main message from the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) at a meeting it held on 25 and 26 October.
“There is a critical role for international cooperation to provide technical and financial support to developing countries, so that they can benefit from these green windows of opportunities,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, director of technology and logistics while opening the meeting.
UNCTAD provides substantive support to the CSTD, the UN “torch-bearer and focal point for science, technology and innovation (STI) for development.”
Discussions at the meeting focused on two priority themes: how STI can boost cleaner and more competitive production and ensuring safe water and sanitation for all.
Late-mover advantage for developing countries
Green, sustainable technologies can open a window of opportunity for developing economies to achieve technological leapfrogging, the meeting noted.
Unencumbered by legacy systems, countries lagging behind are more agile in adopting such technologies at lower costs and avoiding risks associated with experimentation, research and development, and slow initial uptake experienced by advanced economies.
Besides, changes to policies, funding availability and global demands – fuelled by the world’s urgent push for sustainability – can also help reduce barriers to entry, accelerating the adoption of these technologies in the developing world.
Making economies cleaner and more productive
Technological innovations can bolster developing countries’ role in greening global value chains as well as diversifying and moving towards more sustainable economic sectors – provided enabling policies and collaborations are in place.
For example, successful models to speed up the development of renewable energy technology have been institutional in nature, with countries using new environmental laws to encourage public-private sector cooperation on green transitions.
In China, the 2006 renewable energy law fostered the creation of the country’s biomass industry.
Egypt’s 2014 renewable energy law has enabled the private sector to partner with the government to produce electricity from renewables.
Another example in energy production is the global green hydrogen economy.
Developing nations such as Chile, Panama and South Africa already have advanced green hydrogen strategies consistent with sustainable development.
With richer countries lacking labour to produce electrolysers, which is key to creating green hydrogen, their developing counterparts have an opportunity to meet future demand in Europe, Japan and South Korea.
Pursuing universal access to water and sanitation
Even today, safe drinking water and sanitation remains a challenge to many vulnerable communities worldwide.
Rapid advances in frontier technologies – including the bioeconomy, artificial intelligence, big data, the Internet of things (IoT) and nanotechnology – all have the water and sanitation sector as a potential primary beneficiary.
These solutions make it possible to reach last-mile populations, as off-grid decentralized solutions become increasingly affordable and can be run and maintained locally with minimal training.
For instance, Swiss Fresh Water has developed a low-cost and low-power desalination system enabling small-scale production of cheap drinking water in developing countries, especially in Africa.
Similarly, UN Women has helped pilot a solar water pumping project – now managed by community members – for drinking and irrigation in Mozambique.
Actions needed to realize ‘green windows of opportunity’
For developing countries to unlock opportunities from STI, the meeting renewed calls to bridge the divide in digital capacity – largely driven by uneven investment in research and development between wealthier and poorer economies.
Meanwhile, international cooperation on innovation will require more equitable partnerships, going beyond traditional donor-recipient relationships.
When planning for technology transfer, it’s important to consider a range of key factors and make such transfer part of a holistic effort to build up broader socioeconomic infrastructure in developing nations.
On policy recommendations, the meeting emphasized cultivating and empowering local innovation ecosystems, notably by including women and marginalized groups in design and project implementation.
It also underscored the need for STI policies that support concrete solutions to advance sustainability and climate resilience.