The rush to new technology frontiers

Amber Meikle

In a year of global agreements, Amber Meikle from Practical Action explains why technology justice is a crucial paradigm for development.

Fifteen years is a long time in the world of technology. Futurologists predict that by 2030 we’ll have, among other things, an internet connection with Marsindustrial scale desalination, and shared consciousness with an external computer. A quick Google search turns up any number of seemingly unexpected, implausible or potentially life-changing technologies. But whose life? How can we reverse recent trends and channel this rampant innovation to closing the already gaping divide between those with access to the technology they need and those without. How can we use technology to ensure that no one gets left behind?

The next 15 years of technological change and innovation – governed well – could transform the wellbeing of millions of people in the developing world and protect our planet for future generations. Or, it could reinforce power imbalances and the technological divide between rich and poor, and create new social and environmental challenges.

How we govern the access, innovation and use of technology in the next 15 years will influence our progress on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) being agreed by the United Nations in September. The successes and failures of technology, development and the future of our planet are bound together.

We know that access to the right technologies is an essential component of development, and yet billions of people still can’t access the energy, medicines or modern seeds that they need to improve their lives. At the same time billions more people use technology in a way that is harmful to our planet or other people, wastefully consuming natural resources such as fossil fuels and water, or using antibiotics in a way that reduces their efficacy.

These technology injustices must be recognised and overcome if we are to succeed in our global goal of sustainable development for all people everywhere.

There is also an important role for organisations like Practical Action, Planet Earth Institute and others in pushing science and technology up the development agenda. There are promising signs of rising innovation levels already, according to WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organisation) Sub-Saharan Africa now has more ‘innovation learner’ economies than any other region.

At the same time, globally we must do a better job at sharing technology and technical knowledge. This means revisiting a patent regime that is not fit for purpose, and is accused of stifling the innovation it is supposed to promote – not least by creating a system of trolls and defensive patent-holders who buy-up patents to prevent others from developing the technology.  As Owen Barder and Charles Kenny put it: reforming the global patent regime would be to every country’s benefit.

At the Addis Ababa conference on financing the SDGs in July, the national governments agreed to establish a technology facilitation mechanism, alongside the proposed UN technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity-building mechanism for least developed countries. Together, and correctly constructed, these two mechanisms will offer a multi-stakeholder platform to institute and progress a long overdue global conversation.

It’s time that we built a global consensus about the type of technologies and innovation that we want and need for our development, for everyone, and for the future of our planet.

Amber Meikle is Senior Policy and Practice Adviser, leading Practical Action’s influencing work on Technology Justice.  She is the author of the recent report ‘Introducing Technology Justice: a new paradigm for the sustainable development goals’

Practical Action and University of Edinburgh will be co-hosting a conference and workshop to explore the challenges of technology justice, in Edinburgh in January. Contact Amber Meikle: @tecjustice for more information.