What’s technology innovation got to do with it? Final thoughts on the Summit on the Global Agenda

by Andrew Maynard on November 22, 2009

As this weekend’s Summit on the Global Agenda came to a close this morning, I was left with an abiding impression of a looming yet largely hidden potential crisis in global security and prosperity: A failure to develop and use technology innovation effectively in serving the growing needs of society.

The summit set out to address a multitude of challenges to “improving the state of the world” (as the World Economic Forum tagline goes), and identified many innovative solutions to overcoming them.  Yet in many cases there was a disconnect between the ideas and their effective implementation…

Where the translation of an idea into practice depended on social or policy innovation, there were often clear thoughts on how to move forward.  But an integrated discussion on the role of technology innovation in enabling solutions to global challenges was conspicuous by its absence.

It wasn’t that delegates didn’t realize the importance of technology innovation.  On the contrary, many of the recommendations coming out of the Summit acknowledged the need to develop and use appropriately new and emerging technologies.  But there was a sense that technology innovation simply happens and that, as needs arise, solutions will naturally emerge.

I was reminded of this while listening to feedback from the Council on Water Security, whose members experienced a similar lack of awareness amongst Summit delegates.  When they asked people where the water would come from to support their ideas in various areas, the reply was inevitably “I guess it will come from somewhere” – to the amusement and consternation of the Council members.

The same blind spot seems to exist for technology innovation.  People realize that technology innovation is important. But when asked where it will come from, the assumption is simply that “it will come from somewhere.”

This is as dangerous as it is wrong.

Strategically relevant technology does not just happen.  It depends on targeted investment, coupling outputs to needs, and working with stakeholders to develop and implement appropriate and acceptable solutions.  And it takes time – lost of it.  Developing appropriate technology-based solutions to global challenges is only possible if  technology innovation policy is integrated into the decision-making process at the highest levels in government, industry and other relevant organizations.  Without such high-level oversight, there is a tendency to use the technology that’s available, rather than to develop the technology that’s needed.  And as the challenges of living in an over-populated and under-resourced world escalate, this will only exacerbate the disconnect between critical challenges and technology-based solutions.

The importance of technology innovation – and emerging technologies in particular – was highlighted by Lord Malloch-Brown in his closing remarks at this year’s Summit on the Global Agenda.  Yet there is still a way to go before technology innovation is integrated into the global agenda dialogue, rather than being tacked on to it.

At this year’s Summit, there was one Council out of seventy six that was specifically charged with addressing technology innovation – the Council on Emerging Technologies.  And in a move that speaks volumes about the economic and policy world’s disdain for science and technology, the Council was placed in the “Managing Global Risks and Addressing Systemic Failures” cluster.  Clearly, emerging technologies are perceived more as a threat than an enabler of solutions.

If progress is to be made, this must change in future years.  Technology innovation is key to improving the state of the world.  And getting it right – targeting research, translating innovation to practice and engaging stakeholders – is essential to addressing many of the major challenges being addressed by the Summit on the Global Agenda.  Rather than burying the Council on Emerging Technologies along with catastrophic risks, illicit trade, pandemics and other risk-focused councils, it surely makes sense to elevate it – along with other science and technology-rich councils – to a place where it can inform the dialogue at a much higher level.

Of course, I’m mindful here that this is the World Economic Forum I’m talking about, not the World Technology Innovation Forum.  But the cold hard truth is that without global intervention, there is no guarantee that technology innovation will provide solutions to the challenges that the Forum is attempting to address.

The bottom line is that whether we are talking about economic prosperity, social stability or personal well-being, we marginalize the role of technology innovation at our peril.  The broader work of the World Economic Forum reflects this.  Hopefully, so will next year’s Summit on the Global Agenda.

1 Hilary Sutcliffe November 23, 2009 at 5:31 am

Scary!

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