Report: new technology can fix global problems if managed well

15 May 2018

​The 2018 Technology and Innovation Report anticipates a world where the right policy mix steers rapid technological change toward solving development challenges.

Technologies on the frontier of what is possible can boost the ambitious agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals and help find global solutions to 21st century economic, social and environmental challenges, says the UNCTAD Technology and Innovation Report 2018, subtitled “Harnessing Frontier Technologies for Sustainable Development”.

The report presents examples of how frontier technologies can improve lives in developing countries:

  • Big data analysis is helping to respond to outbreaks of deadly diseases: during a typhoid outbreak in Uganda, for example, the Ministry of Health used data-mapping applications to facilitate decision-making on the allocation of medicine and mobilization of health teams; and develop insurance products for small-scale African farmers.

  • 3D printers are being used in developing countries to produce prosthetic limbs that are custom-built and cheaper.

  • Artificial intelligence is reading digital scans more accurately than doctors, freeing them for care in which the human touch is important.

  • Internet-of-things (IoT) devices are allowing farmers to monitor soil conditions to decide when is the best time to plant.

  • Drones and GPS systems combine to maximize yields with minimal fertilizer or pesticides.

“Frontier technologies hold the promise of reviving productivity and making plentiful resources to end poverty for good, enable more sustainable patterns of growth and mitigate or even reverse decades of environmental degradation,” UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi said.

“However, technological change and innovation need to be directed toward inclusive and sustainable outcomes through a purposeful effort by governments in collaboration with civil society, business and academia.”

According to the report, frontier technologies today are better, cheaper, faster, more scalable and easier to use than ever before. They are converging through the increasing use of digital platforms to produce new combinatory technologies, accelerating the pace of change across multiple sectors. The report says that the benefits can be of a magnitude that is difficult to imagine.

International support

The report calls for a concerted international effort to build technological capabilities and to support all forms of innovation in developing countries. Least developed countries, in particular, should receive international support to build their domestic capabilities and create the enabling environment necessary for frontier technologies to deliver on their promise.

The report also notes that the spread of new technologies threatens to outpace the ability of societies and policymakers to adapt to the sweeping changes that they generate and calls for an international dialogue to develop policy responses to the serious ethical, environmental, economic and social questions raised by frontier technologies.

It proposes the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development – meeting for its 21st session from 14-18 May 2018 – as one forum in which this could take place.

“By recognizing the immense benefits of new and emerging technologies, and identifying and addressing the risks sensibly, we can overcome the fears and anxieties raised by accelerated technological, economic and social change.” Shamika N. Sirimanne, director of UNCTAD’s division on technology and logistics, said.

“It is in this constructive spirit, that we must continue to make a solid case for the benefits of multilateral collaboration, openness, and the transformative potential of technology.”

Societal challenges

The report considers issues raised by rapid technological change that need to be appropriately managed.

Digital technologies for instance have implications for citizens’ rights and the ownership of data. Big data analytics and IoT devices rely on personal data, which is increasingly becoming accessible to commercial and government entities, raising important issues of privacy and security, and reinforcing the need for regulation of data sharing and use.

Artificial intelligence systems are being used by financial institutions to make decisions on credit applications, by Internet companies to decide which advertisements to show users, and by retailers to decide which discounts or deals to show potential and repeat customers, by employers to select candidates in recruitment process.

Such algorithms are not infallible, and errors can arise from communications or sensor failures, unforeseen data volumes, incorrect computer code, or computer or data-storage failures. They also need to be better understood, to identify and mitigate potential discriminatory biases and ensure transparency on their use.

The report says that “consideration is therefore needed for appropriate regulatory frameworks for data collection, usage and access, to safeguard privacy and security, while balancing individual and collective rights (including freedom of expression and information) and allowing private sector innovation”.

The report suggests that governments can also create and support new institutional mechanisms for monitoring data sharing and use, and work with local companies to promote practices for safeguarding privacy and security that are compatible with national regulation. Institutional arrangements may also be appropriate for monitoring and transparency of digital automation algorithms and to evaluate the societal implications of their applications, given their power to shape the experiences of individuals.

Avoiding further divides

Frontier technologies can also exacerbate existing economic, social and technological divides.

Big data, IoT and other digital technologies could be harnessed by countries, regions and cities with strong existing capabilities, leaving others further behind.

“Much of the innovation in 3D printing, for example, emanates from countries that already have well-established manufacturing capabilities,” the report says.

Similarly, massive open online courses (MOOCs) may enable better-off, more educated and more digitally-connected students and professionals to supplement their education with world-class content, leaving further behind those without digital access, economic opportunities or accessible education – especially in the world’s poorest countries.

Convergence multiplies the power of technology but may also result in a concentration of power in large market players, with potential negative impact on the empowerment of operators from developing countries. Some technologies may also carry risks of overexploitation of natural resources (for example, fisheries).

The report therefore cautions that governments and other stakeholders need to be proactive in putting in place policies that minimize such socioeconomic or environmental risks and ensure that the benefits of technologies are distributed equitably within and across countries.

Mind the gaps

The report identifies research and development (R&D) gaps that limit the ability of developing countries to assess not only the technological but also the economic, social and environmental opportunities, challenges and risks that may emerge from frontier technologies, and put in place the relevant policy frameworks.

Synthetic biology, for example, is a key frontier technology with significant potential impact on food security, health and the environment. Without adequate R&D capabilities, a country will struggle to establish and implement the biosafety regulatory framework needed for the development of competitive productive capacity in this sector.

R&D is not the only gap that needs to be addressed if developing countries are to benefit fully from frontier technologies. Digitalization and automation will give rise to profound changes across many sectors, including manufacturing, which has historically driven structural transformation and provided better jobs for workers displaced from lower productivity sectors.

A labour force with skills that are complementary to technological advances is essential if technological change is to be compatible with social inclusion. Rapid technological progress requires the labour force to develop a broader range of skills, focusing on humans’ comparative advantage, to increase employability.

Moreover, the gender gap is particularly evident in fields crucial to the transformation required for sustainable development and to harnessing the benefits of frontier technologies, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics, information technology and computing.

Essential requirements

The report underlines the need to strengthen national systems of innovation in developing countries to accelerate technological progress, including improvements in infrastructure and innovation financing.

The overarching challenge for developing countries to reap the benefits from frontier technologies, as much as from more established ones, is to learn, adopt and disseminate knowledge and technologies to promote sustainable development. This is an essential requirement for technology transfer, which is a complement to, not a substitute for, efforts to build endogenous innovation potential.

Success is dependent on the effectiveness of relevant innovation systems, which are weaker in developing countries. While centred on firms, innovation systems that also encompass research and education systems, government, civil society and consumers – and their effectiveness – rest on the capabilities of these various actors, the connections among them, and the enabling environment for innovation that they create.

Connections among actors are equally essential, to facilitate learning, technology adoption and the development of new technologies. This requires networking and collaboration capabilities among all actors, even where there are innovation intermediaries or knowledge and technology brokers.

Where the local knowledge base is underdeveloped and access to market intelligence limited, developing links with foreign firms, funders and research centres is a key step. While innovation collaboration can occur spontaneously, it often requires active facilitation by government or non-government actors, especially in areas related to social and environmental challenges.