Smart technology partnership for sustainable development

M Rokonuzzaman | Published: January 04, 2019 21:15:57 | Updated: January 07, 2019 21:18:36

The core issue of achieving sustainable development goals is about increasing wealth creation capacities of less developed countries in a globally connected competitive economy while causing less harm to the environment. Technology has a critical role to play to address this fundamental issue. For example, in the absence of technology up-gradation, if developing countries keep increasing the production to meet growing consumption, pollution would have serious negative consequential effects on sustainability. On the other hand, if developing countries fail to keep pace with the technology progression of advanced countries, less developed countries would suffer in trade competitiveness, thereby falling further behind in creating jobs and producing new wealth. On the other hand, technology import-driven agenda kills labour-intensive jobs on the factory floors in developing countries while creating high paying innovation jobs in technology-exporting ones, resulting in further erosion of the ability to create jobs. How to address this dilemma has been a major issue in addressing sustainable development goals (SDGs).

In goal number 17 of SDGs, there have been 04 targets related to technology. The target number 17.6 emphasises cooperation, with particular emphasis on north-south cooperation, and access to science, technology, and innovation. It's well accepted that northern countries have significant science and technology edge to help their neighbours in the south. Does it mean that developing countries should adopt the innovation model which has been perfected by developed countries? It appears that the adoption of linear innovation model of the North starting from scientific discovery leading to technology innovation supporting commercial innovation is inappropriate for developing countries. As a result, upon expanding the production of science and technology (S&T) education, developing countries are facing the reality of having a growing number of unemployed science and technology (S&T) graduates. How to integrate S&T graduates to innovate within the existing context of economic activities has been a major challenge for less developed countries to benefit from technology.  Unfortunately, technologically advanced countries do not have this expertise to help less developed ones. As a result, the direct adoption of the success model of developed countries would likely place less developed ones in a more disadvantageous position.

Target number 17.7 of the SDG emphasises the development, transfer, dissemination and diffusion of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries. In a market economy, strengthening both the supply and demand sides stimulating the competition in adopting cleaner technologies for generating profit works better than outside supply driven agenda. In order to create a sustainable capacity to benefit from cleaner technology, the focus should be on creating local capacity to innovate as opposed to technology import-driven agenda. It appears that the underlying technologies of artificial intelligence and the fourth industrial revolution have a strong potential to support innovations for making production processes more efficient while causing far less pollution than before. It's also encouraging that most of the component technologies are now commercially available. Developing countries should focus on developing local capacity for technology fusion and integration of science through software so that profitable opportunities are created for both innovating and adopting solutions around them. Instead of developing and transferring such technologies to less developed ones, technologically advanced countries should rather extend cooperation for supporting developing countries to create a local market for exploiting such innovation opportunities.  

The goal number 17 of SGDs promotes the idea of a technology bank, particularly to enhance the use of information and communication technology. Technology bank idea does not appear to be appropriate for many technologies. In a market economy, technology is being developed and integrated into products and processes to produce them for increasing both consumer and producer surpluses. In the absence of local demand, the availability of complementary facilities and entrepreneurial drives, access to technologies in the form of patents or other intangible forms alone does not end up in improving the production capacity. Moreover, commercial value of technologies keeps changing with time. Instead of pursuing the idea of developing technology bank, similar to high yield seed bank, the focus should rather be on enhancing the capacity for technology absorption, advancement, and improvement to innovate for making a profit. To support the profit-making scope of local innovations, incentives should be given to stimulate the demand for such innovations as well. The sustainability issue should focus on creating the market of local innovation capacity as opposed to strengthening the import of technologies from foreign sources.

To support the 16th target of the goal number 17, the focus should be on developing local capacity to articulate the growth opportunity out of technology innovation, and figuring out smart absorption, adaptation, and advancement of imported foreign technologies. In the absence of this capacity, developing countries will not find an exit from labour-saving technology import-driven agenda to benefit from technology. There is no doubt that this import driven agenda offers an easy option for increasing competitiveness and making production system cleaner, but that takes place at the cost of labour-intensive jobs while creating no high paying jobs for the growing number of S&T graduates. On the other hand, adoption of technology invention and innovation process of the developed countries following the linear model as a catch-up strategy does not offer the window to develop local innovation economy in developing countries for creating sustainable growth path.    

Technology partnership for sustainable development should take into consideration the emerging global economic paradigm driven by the rapid progression of next-generation digital technologies and economic nationalism. Digital technologies comprising of AI, Robotics, automation, and Big data--collectively known as the fourth industrial revolution-- are rapidly eroding the low-cost labour advantage of developing countries. As a result, technology import-driven agenda for productivity improvement and cleaner production processes is making the much-needed growth of jobs in developing countries unsustainable. To address the challenge of growth with jobs faced by developing countries, the past technology strategy does not appear to be appropriate anymore. To pursue the path of sustainable growth in an equitable and inclusive manner, the challenge has been to craft job filled growth path. To address it, the past strategy of technology import-driven export-oriented model, often known as China model, is longer viable. For sustainable development, the focus should be on pursuing the partnership in engineering local innovation capacity in developing countries to pursue innovation in making their existing productive activities more competitive.

M Rokonuzzaman Ph.D is academic and researcher on technology, innovation and policy.

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