Rapid technological change threatens to outpace public policy

14 May 2018

The pitfalls and benefits of new technology must be grasped by the international community if governments plan to exploit it for inclusive growth, UN meeting hears.

The dizzying speed of technological change – from Big Data to gene editing – risks leaving governments behind, unleashing both positive and negative unknown social and economic effects, participants at a meeting of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development, hosted by UNCTAD in Geneva, Switzerland, heard on the opening day of its 21st session on 14 May.

“The pace of political decision-making – and its implementation – is inversely proportional to that of technological change,” UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Isabelle Durant said in opening remarks.

“The gap between the two continues to grow and raises serious and multiple ethical, governance, equality and equity issues that governments must address.”

The high-level roundtable was introduced by Donovan Guttieres of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth who said the issues under discussion were vitally important for today’s children and tomorrow’s leaders.


He said that there is “just as much apprehension as there is excitement about new technologies” on the part of the young, before demonstrating this with a short video of young people talking about their hopes and fears.

“Governments are not keeping up,” Mr. Guttieres said.

The event, moderated by Andrew Revkin, former New York Times writer and Strategic Advisor for Environmental and Science Journalism for the National Geographic Society, featured:

  • Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation, University of Oxford
  • Danielle R. Wood, Assistant Professor, Space Enabled Research Group, MIT Media Lab
  • Musa Mhlanga, Principal Researcher, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa
  • Ilkka Turunen, Special Government Advisor in the Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland

Customization and satellites

Mr. Mayer-Schönberger – who is said to have coined the expression “Big Data” – explained that data is best thought of as a means to make better decisions.

He said that public policy would benefit from the ability to customize health, transport and education actions “at the street level” and more data only maximizes the effectiveness of governments to make decisions.

“An aspirin is given in an average dose, but I am not an average person and I never have an average cold,” he said, explaining customization. “Data is your friend.”

Presenting her work at Space Enabled, a satellite and earth observation research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ms. Wood said that space technology offered direct support to several Sustainable Development Goals. She showed examples of projects in Ghana and Benin that had benefited from satellite mapping data.

“Any country can be involved in building small satellites because they are affordable and can be tailored to a country’s sustainable development needs,” she said.

Who decides?

Mr. Mhlanga said that rapid advances in genomics like gene editing (CRISPR technology) presaged a merging with Big Data and digital platforms to present an unprecedented ethical challenge to public policy.

“Microsoft has become one of the largest consumers of DNA for use in today’s and future computers,” he said, warning that regulation was being outpaced by technological capacity.

More optimistically, however, gene editing could also be the key to development conundrums like hunger and disease. He said that gene editing could make extinct the mosquitos responsible for deadly diseases.

“But who decides?” Mr. Mhlanga asked. “There are so many benefits. There are so many pitfalls.”

Bodies such as the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development had a role to play in steering the issues, he said.

Mr. Turunen said that science and technology education had a bigger role to play if the social and economic effects that rapid technological change was sure to bring did morph into political threats.

The event, which attracted several interventions from ministerial delegations, was livestreamed on Facebook (starts at 13 minutes).