Technology opens new opportunity, policy makers must prepare for disruption

26 September 2016

With global growth now in its sixth flat year, many political leaders - including those that gathered for the G20 Summit in Hangzhou earlier this month - are looking to technology to create jobs and other economic opportunities.

But countries will only reap the maximum benefits from these new technologies, including more productivity and production, by planning carefully for the social and economic changes that may come with new technologies, an UNCTAD technology expert says.

"Impressive advances in technology are already opening up new opportunities and generating significant efficiency gains," says Dong Wu, Chief of the Science and Technology Section.

"But while we urge developing countries to take more advantage of new technologies, we also advise them to prepare for these advances as much as possible because rapid change can be disruptive," she says.

Responsible for the substantive servicing of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), which meets in May each year, Wu says next year's CSTD themes will be on food security and the SDGs.

This year's CSTD themes were "smart cities and infrastructure" and "foresight for digital development", the process of forecasting technological evolution and its impact on society. This process also facilitates the right kind of policies and social responses.

Opportunities include the opening of new markets. The market for the internet of things, for example, those objects and devices used in daily life, is expected to rise to $1.7 trillion in 2020 and to as much as $11.1 trillion by 2025, according to the UNCTAD foresight report. In 2015, it was valued at $655.8 billion.

New technologies can also boost productivity and cut costs. Every year, Delhi's Inraprastha Institute of Information Technology saves close to $30,000 in energy consumption costs by using smart meters and temperature sensors to control building temperatures more efficiently.

For countries with low manufacturing capability, three dimensional printing represents another interesting opportunity. It could simplify the supply chain significantly, but might also mean that the trade in goods between countries is replaced by transmission of data.

As with globalization in general, technology is likely to produce both winners and losers. In the United States, big data has created an estimated 500,000 jobs, for example. But nearly half of all jobs in the United States are at risk of being computerized. Workers in transportation, logistics, office and administrative support are most at risk.

In developing countries, low cost jobs are also at risk. An estimated two thirds of all developing country jobs could be vulnerable to automation over the coming decades. And to take advantage of new technologies, countries will need the right skills and capacities.

"Technological progress will continue to open new markets, but these markets will only benefit those individuals and countries which are ready," Wu says.