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How to “leave no one behind” - pexels

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

How can we ensure everyone benefits from technology? (Image: Theophilos Papadopoulos)
How can we ensure everyone benefits from technology? (Image: Theophilos Papadopoulos)

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.

Practical Action
Practical Action

To do this requires finding a way to more fairly share the costs and benefits of technology. This means investing in expanding access to existing technologies that half of the world takes for granted, such as electricity. In this case, prioritising new off-grid connections over upgraded grid capacity for those who already have access.

We also need to accelerate progress in making existing and new technologies environmentally sustainable. This will mean difficult decisions for those countries and people – often in the developed world – that have got used to consuming natural resources at an unsustainable level. This is well demonstrated by the recent controversy surrounding Obama’s Clean Power Plan, launched in August to reduce emissions and fundamentally change how US business and individuals receive and use energy. There will be winners and losers in the short term at least, potential loss of jobs and higher electricity prices in coal-producing states, but in the long-term we will all be winners.

The direction of innovation must also be addressed. Instead of endless upgrades to consumer technologies, we need to prioritise the development of technology that meets environmental needs and the needs of those living in poverty. Diversifying the geography of innovation will be an important way to ensure that technologies better reflect the diversity of users. This needs substantial investment in national and local innovation systems and capacity in developing countries. National governments should take the lead in creating the right environment for this, including encouraging greater international cooperation on research, such as through EU-Africa cooperation.

Innovation is rising in Africa (Image: WIPO/Global Innovation Index)
Innovation is rising in Africa (Image: WIPO/Global Innovation Index)

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.