Frontier Technologies: A Window of Opportunity for Leapfrogging!

Camila Gonzalez studying at home on a computer she received through Uruguay's "One Laptop per Child" Programme.  ©PABLO LA ROSA. 25 June 2009.

Imagine a world with no hunger, where every child attends school and no one dies from a communicable disease. This is not a utopian dream, but rather our collective vision for a society where no one is left behind. It serves as our guiding spirit—our raison d'être—as we work together towards the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Frontier technologies offer us considerable hope for a sustainable future.

The World Economic and Social Survey 2018: Frontier Technologies for Sustainable Development (WESS 2018)—the flagship report of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA)—describes technologies at our disposal that can help us eradicate hunger and epidemics, increase life expectancy, reduce carbon emissions, automate manual and repetitive tasks, create decent jobs, improve quality of life and facilitate the achievement of new heights of prosperity for all. Breakthroughs in carbon capture and sequestration may eventually help reduce net emissions and mitigate climate change, as envisaged in the 2030 Agenda. New materials used in photovoltaic cells are enhancing energy efficiency and making renewable energy technologies a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Digital finance, which is facilitated by advances in frontier technologies, is enabling more efficient allocation of savings and investments, thus creating jobs and directly contributing to reducing extreme poverty—an overriding objective embedded in the 2030 Agenda.

While such possibilities are alluring, let us remember that technology cannot make its own choices. We humans develop and deploy technologies to solve our problems. Technologies cannot, on their own, reach the people that need them the most. Policies—still shaped and guided by human beings—allow technologies to benefit people and solve complex, intractable problems. Policies help us develop and diffuse the most-needed technologies, reaching the furthest corners of the world. They can also bridge the great technological divide that persists among individuals, communities and countries, helping them realize their sustainable development potential.

In the past, it took decades for a technological breakthrough to spread across countries. Diffusion and adoption were slow and there were considerable barriers. The process is different for many new technologies. Mobile phones, for example, reached billions of people in less than 20 years. Today, nearly 70 per cent of the world’s population uses mobile phones not only to communicate, but also to read news, check weather, make payments and sell products. These devices have become an indispensable feature of modern existence, regardless of where we live or what we do for a living. The Internet is another technological advance that more than half the world’s people use every day. These are great examples of enabling technologies used by communities and societies to bypass or ‘leapfrog’ a linear path of progress. Frontier technologies open new windows of opportunity for communities and countries to catch up and accelerate development.

What are frontier technologies? As the WESS 2018 makes evident, there is no unique set of such technologies. We are witnessing the rapid development of a broad spectrum of interrelated and interdependent technologies that are fundamentally transforming the world. Advances in one foster breakthroughs in others. In the field of renewable energy, for example, advances in energy storage are enabling breakthroughs in electric vehicles. Similarly, artificial intelligence (AI) is making robots and automation processes smarter and more efficient, paving the way for autonomous vehicles. AI is also making it easier to diagnose diseases and is propelling breakthroughs in genetic technology. Many of these frontier technologies are fortunately within the reach of billions of people.

Unlike our experiences with previous breakthroughs, communities and societies can adapt and adopt frontier technologies with relatively low upfront costs. We do not need massive capital investments to replicate an algorithm and make it work in a new economic or social setting. Breakthroughs in renewables or genetic technologies can also be quickly diffused without incurring huge transportation costs. Technology built in one corner of the world can easily be transported to another corner—often with the click of a button. Portability, replicability and affordability are the essence of many frontier technologies. They can create an even playing field for all countries, especially the least developed countries (LDCs), and allow them to achieve their full potential, often bypassing earlier and less efficient means.

The WESS 2018 also makes it clear that there is no guarantee that frontier technologies will serve our needs, let alone deliver sustainable development. On the contrary, the report warns of possible pitfalls. If we do not put the right policies and institutions in place, many frontier technologies can potentially do more harm than good. Robots and AI, for example, may eliminate millions of jobs without replacing them with new ones. The creators and owners of such machines will likely become more prosperous at the expense of millions of people. The robotization of jobs may also foreclose manufacturing and industrialization opportunities for many developing countries. With advances in frontier technologies, we are likely to experience higher levels of wage and income inequalities unless appropriate countervailing policy measures, including strengthened social protection, are put in place. Nevertheless, the cautionary tale of the WESS 2018 comes with an important silver lining. If we manage to harness frontier technologies and make them accessible and available to the people who need them most, particularly those in developing countries, there is a strong chance that we will achieve positive sustainable development outcomes. The question is how we make that “if” a certainty.

How can we ensure that developing countries, especially the LDCs, can benefit from frontier technologies without paying a huge price to access them? First and foremost, developing countries must build necessary human capital to take advantage of frontier technologies. For example, the yawning gap in the tertiary education enrolment ratio between high- and low-income countries must be bridged with increased investments in human capital. While many frontier technologies are easily replicable and adaptable, developing countries will need the necessary skills and knowledge base to access and use them.

Alongside human capital, developing countries will also have to build the enabling infrastructure to ease their access to frontier technologies. If their populations still lack basic water, sanitation and electricity, we cannot expect them to take advantage of online education and learn to write computer code. Let us not forget that, as at 2015, only 66 per cent of the population in low-income countries had access to an improved water source and only 28 per cent used improved sanitation facilities. It is hard to imagine a country being able to leapfrog technological advances without securing water and sanitation facilities for its population. Furthermore, nearly 1 billion people—almost all of them in developing countries—still lack access to electricity. Another 2.5 billion only have intermittent, and often unreliable, connections to electricity. How can we expect these population groups—including almost one in every three people in the world—to take advantage of frontier technologies if they do not have access to electricity?

These are necessary conditions that must be met for developing countries to take advantage of technological breakthroughs in frontier technologies. They are already envisaged in several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—particularly in SDGs 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9—but Governments will need to clearly and unequivocally prioritize the formation of human capital and necessary physical infrastructures to reap the potential of frontier technologies. This prioritization must take place now because the window of opportunity to leapfrog will not remain open for long.

The WESS 2018 explains the pathway that countries can take to create enabling conditions for leapfrogging. A properly designed and executed national innovation system can make enormous headway in increasing the adaptive and absorptive capacities of developing countries. There is no perfect model of a national innovation system. In some countries, government plays a lead role, and in others, the market is dominant. Most countries fall somewhere in between. A national innovation system can prioritize basic science over applied science, or indigenous innovation over adopting and improvising technologies imported from abroad. Regardless of these variations in structure and priorities, all successful national innovation systems have a few things in common. They all provide institutional networks for learning; enhance absorptive capacities; facilitate the sharing of technological knowledge; and expand access to finance. The window of opportunity to catch up hinges on how quickly developing countries are able to master the will and put in place an enabling innovation system that can conceive and execute appropriate policies to develop, diffuse and adopt frontier technologies for sustainable development.   

Even a strong national innovation system requires external support. While a national system can create a conducive environment, it will still face considerable challenges in accessing many technologies developed in advanced economies. As frontier technologies, like other products, enjoy patent protections, their diffusion to developing countries will require a change of mindset and a new approach. We will need a more flexible and SDG-supportive intellectual property rights regime to facilitate the ease of access to the technologies that are most needed for sustainable development, including those related to renewable energy and energy storage, as well as various gene and biotechnologies. There is a clear and urgent need for a global dialogue to facilitate developing countries’ access to critical technologies.

As developing countries make efforts to accelerate sustainable development with the aid of frontier technologies, they will also face the formidable challenge of the growing concentration of innovation among a few large firms in advanced economies. Such concentration can stifle innovation and leave many communities and countries behind, as large market players restrict access to, and diffusion of, critical technologies. Many developing countries are already finding it increasingly difficult to access innovations. We must assist them in their efforts to bridge the technological divide.

The United Nations remains a trusted and impartial forum for Governments and other stakeholders to discuss and determine the trajectory of frontier technologies, taking into account shared human values and the imperatives of sustainable development. This is duly reflected in the Secretary-General’s Strategy on New Technologies. Underscoring the importance of fostering inclusion and transparency, the Strategy establishes that the United Nations must provide a platform for Governments, businesses and civil society to make collective choices about new technologies, anchored in the values and obligations of the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also tasks the Organization to “promote the development of partnerships across a range of actors to increase collective knowledge, test ideas, and expand dialogue”. These principles will guide the efforts of the United Nations to bridge technology divides and foster sustainable development for all.

The United Nations can play a vital role in identifying technologies that may be critical for achieving the 2030 Agenda and the interconnected SDGs. Renewable energy technologies that promote environmental sustainability, vaccines that save lives and biotechnologies that boost food production and eliminate hunger are all critically important for achieving the SDGs and securing our common future. The clock is ticking—we must act now to achieve the SDGs by 2030. We cannot afford to miss this precious window of opportunity to leapfrog towards sustainable development for all, with the help of frontier technologies.