Using technology for sustainable development

M Rokonuzzaman | Published: October 10, 2017 20:40:45 | Updated: November 11, 2017 12:40:46

Stephen Hawking has come up with a big question -- are we alone in this universe? No one knows how long it's going to take to get the answer if we follow our scientific methods of exploring the unknowns. But, it's more or less sure that we have only one planet to support our survival and that of other living creatures.

To enhance the utility of available natural resources for improving our quality of living on this planet, we have been exploring laws of naturally occurring phenomena and turning them into technologies. We innovate solutions around those technologies to delegate roles from humans to machines to produce wealth, whether goods or services, for human consumption. In this wealth creation process, we consume natural resources and cause harm to the key ecosystem capacities-such as air, water and soil-vital to sustain life. With the growth of wealth creation, we are depleting natural resources and causing harm to the environment. And if we keep doing so, development becomes unsustainable. How to produce more with fewer resources while causing less harm to the environment has been the key issue to address sustainable development agenda.

Basically, we need to extract and convert natural inputs in an appropriate way that sustains the ability of the natural system to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services upon which the economy and the society depend. At the end, we intend to achieve the functioning of the society where living conditions and resources continue to meet human needs without undermining the stability of the natural systems.

In most of the cases, except air, we cannot consume resources in their natural conditions. Rather, we prefer them to be extracted and processed to produce consumable outputs. To do so, we use both product and production technologies. The adopted technologies determine the effectiveness and efficiency of conversion to meet our needs, and also the harms it causes to the environment-polluting air, water and soil. For example, we can use completely two different technology platforms in converting fossil fuels to produce transportation services. One of them processes liquid fuel in internal combustion engines in a vehicle to produce mechanical motion to transport us from one place to another. Another technology platform extracts energy from fossil fuel in large centralised power plants to produce electrical energy. This electrical energy is distributed through network and is used to charge batteries to power vehicles.

Implications of these two technologies on the effectiveness and efficiency of usage of energy in transportation are different. It appears that the later option is far better than the former one. As a result, despite having fixed natural resources, technology in converting those resources in usable form makes a difference. Better the technology, more effective and efficient is the conversion process, and less the effect on the environment. But technology progression also causes other concerns, such as job loss, inequality and insecurity. Some of the major issues related to technology and sustainable development are summarised below:

  • TECHNOLOGY IMPACTS ECOSYSTEM: Despite the role of technology in increasing the utility of naturally occurring resources, technology is blamed for causing harm to the environment. As a result, the sustainability of ecosystem becomes a matter of concern. For example, air pollution caused by cars and power plants is stretching the capacity of the environment to offer us clean air to breath. In certain situation, such pollution has become a major cause of illness and death. For example, according to a report, 1.2 million deaths take place every year in India due to air pollution. Moreover, 3 per cent of the GDP in India is also lost due to air pollution.

  • TECHNOLOGY IS DEPLETING NATURAL RESOURCES: Due to technology progression, utility of naturally occurring resources has been increasing. As a result, the consumption of those resources is accelerating. For example, in the absence of iron ore processing technology in producing steel, and without the presence of products to be made out of steel (such as cars or ships), there could have been very little demand of iron. As a result, with the progression of technology, natural resource stock is being depleted.

  • TECHNOLOGY INCREASES SECURITY CONCERNS: Although technology has been contributing to the improvement of quality of life, it's also causing significant harm to lives and materials. For example, road accident alone has been a single largest cause of unnatural deaths. Far larger numbers of people are killed every year by road accidents than wars. For example, according to World Health Organization, almost 1.25 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes. In the age group between 15 and 29 years, road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death. Despite very low ownership of cars, 90 per cent of the world's fatalities on the roads occur in low and middle-income countries. Moreover, misuse of technology in developing killing machines in the name of security is also alarming. The recognition of iCAN's role towards disarmament of nuclear weapons by Nobel committee in 2017 is a testimony to the gravity of such a concern. Moreover, the growth of Robotics and AI is also posing the threat of making such situation worse.

  • TECHNOLOGY KILLS JOBS: Since the beginning of human civiliasation, technology progression has been the driver of demand creation. As a result, although due to the increasing role of technology in production, we have been losing jobs, but new jobs created due to growth of demand has been higher than the lost jobs. As a result, job loss was not a sustained issue with the growth of technology. But, the progression of AI and Robotics is opening the possibility of having human-free production, posing threats to mass scale job loss. 

  • TECHNOLOGY INCREASES INEQUALITY: As technology is taking grater roles through delegation of roles from humans to machines to produce better quality products at lower cost, workers' share in creating wealth is diminishing. As a result, the scope of wealth distribution through participation in productive activities is diminishing. Moreover, due to the growth of scale and scope advantages, particularly due to the growing role of software in production, smaller production units are getting marginalised. As a result, monopolistic market power is being accumulated by dominant producers weakening the competition force, which is running the risk of slowing down the innovation race. 
  • TECHNOLOGY CREATES DISCONTINUITY IN DEVELOPMENT LADDER: Historically, low wage countries had labour as a cheaper option than technology to produce outputs. As a result, these countries capitalised low cost labour to increase income level. For example, Bangladesh pursued this strategy to increase income level by trading low cost labour, either as manual value addition to ready made garments outputs, or by exporting unskilled labour force. Upon having wealth accumulation through labour trade, the next growth option could have been through investment in infrastructure and education. But, due to diminishing demand of labour, such development is facing the threat of discontinuity. As a result, many developing countries, including Bangladesh, are running the risk of being caught in low-income trap.

  • TECHNOLOGY PROGRESSION CREATES MORE FROM LESS: Population density on this planet has been increasing. According to United Nations Population Division, "in 1950, the world had 2.5 billion people; and in 2005, the world had 6.5 billion people." It's predicted that by 2050, this number could rise to more than 9 billion. On the other hand, large segments of the population are progressing towards higher quality of life, increasing the consumption-primarily of industrial outputs. But neither the natural resource deposits nor the ecosystem capacity is increasing. As a result, technology progression is the only option to produce more wealth from less natural inputs, while causing less harm to the environment.

Thus, technology progression increases our ability to produce more with less, but such progression drives other concerns from bad to worse. A critical challenge for policy makers and regulators is to strike a balance between increasing wealth creation out of technology progression and minimising negative consequential effects of the process.


M Rokonuzzaman Ph.D, academic, researcher and activist on Technology, Innovation and Policy, is Professor, North South University, Bangladesh.




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