The Global Redesign Initiative and the need for up-front investment in sustainable technology innovation

by Andrew Maynard on May 31, 2010

The global financial crisis of 2008-09 laid bare the inadequacies of global systems in an increasingly interdependent world, and highlighted the need to rethink the “architecture of global cooperation” – the idea at the core of the World Economic Forum Global Redesign Initiative.  As the World Economic Forum publishes and discusses the outcomes of this intensive twelve month initiative, the critical need for up-front and integrated investment in sustainable technology innovation cannot afford to be overlooked.

If anyone is still in doubt that sustainable technology innovation depends on up-front investment in responsible development, just take a look at the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.  With strategic investment in planning for plausible outcomes, the unfolding environmental and human disaster could have been avoided, or at least substantially reduced.  Yet the failure to plan for the future and invest in technologies and strategies that would underpin safe and sustainable operations is indicative of a naive mindset within corporate and policy circles – that when problems occur, science and technology will deliver timely and effective solutions. 

Sadly, this is not the case.  In the face of high impact and increasingly complex technologies, new approaches are needed to developing the science, policies and tools that will underpin sustainable innovation.  This is at the center of a new proposal coming out of the World Economic Forum Global Redesign Agenda to develop a Global Center for Emerging Technology Intelligence – or CETI.  The proposed Center aims to ensure that governments, businesses and other stakeholder organizations are equipped to make the most effective use of science and technology innovation in addressing the global challenges of the 21st Century.

CETI is just one of many proposals in the recently-published World Economic Forum Report of the Global Redesign AgendaEverybody’s Business: Strengthening International Cooperation in a More Interdependent World.

As Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum writes in the report’s preface,

“Our purpose has been to stimulate a strategic thought process among all stakeholders about ways in which international institutions and arrangements should be adapted to contemporary challenges. This report summarizes and interprets the significance of the proposals that the Forum’s many communities have developed in response to this challenge.”

The ideas and proposals presented in the report are essential reading for anyone concerned about sustainable growth in a changing world.  But, just as the recent financial collapse and the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico were caused in part by a lack of foresight and investment in the future, many of the ideas here assume that science and technology will underpin proposed actions.  The reality is though that this will only happen with strategic investment in sustainable technology innovation on a scale that, as yet, does not occur.

And this is where the Global Center for Emerging Technologies Intelligence comes in.

The full CETI proposal can be read here.  But the main details of the proposed Center are outlined below:

Context

Emerging technologies are critical to long-term global prosperity. They represent the innovation that adds necessary economic and social value to materials, products and processes. And they provide potential solutions to a wide range of pressing global challenges including energy generation and storage, health care, climate change, food security and access to clean water. Yet without better global cooperation on technology innovation, many potential emerging technologies will not mature to the point at which they can be used effectively.

Government and corporate decision-makers are foundering in a world dominated by rapid and unprecedented social and technological developments. They are limited in their ability to anticipate and respond to new developments and they lack the mechanisms necessary to work with non-traditional but increasingly influential stakeholder groups.

Proposal

The Global Centre for Emerging Technology Intelligence will directly address this need. A neutral, transparent and authoritative organization, the Centre’s leaders and staff will work with decision-makers at the highest level in industry, government and other organizations in ensuring the best possible tools are available to support the successful and sustainable development and implementation of new technologies.

The mission of the Centre is to ensure that governments, businesses and other stakeholder organizations are equipped to make the most effective use of science and technology innovation in addressing the global challenges of the 21st Century.

Explanation/Rationale

Why a Global Centre for Emerging Technology Intelligence Is Necessary

Science and technology have been at the heart of economic growth, social prosperity and improvements in quality of life for close to ten thousand years. From the agricultural revolution to the information revolution, advances in society around the globe have been underpinned by new discoveries, and their innovative use in new products and processes. Nearly 250 years ago, the invention of the Spinning Jenny vastly increased speed with which cotton could be turned into yarn, revolutionizing the textile industry and helping usher in the industrial revolution. The discovery of penicillin in the early 1900’s allowed previously fatal infections to be treated, opening the door to modern surgical procedures. In the mid twentieth century, the invention and subsequent development of the transistor initiated a technology revolution that is still driving economic and social growth. And more recently, innovations in global communication, social networking and information processing have begun to empower global communities in ways unimaginable a few years ago.

Yet despite the clear impact of these and other examples, the continued success of science and technology as an engine for economic and social growth is not guaranteed. Over the past few decades, global economic and social landscapes have shifted radically, leading to new thinking on how to tap into the potential offered by emerging technologies. A growing global population, coupled with a widespread desire for a first-world quality of life, is placing unprecedented demands on resources around the world. Humanity’s actions are becoming uniquely entwined in environmental reactions, redefining our relationship with the planet on which we live and depend. And modern communications are making a mockery of geographical and institutional boundaries that have endured for hundreds and thousands of years. These three factors not only place new demands on how emerging technologies are used; they also rewrite the rules for using them effectively.

Recent attempts to introduce genetically modified foods into commerce in Europe provide a sobering lesson in how easy it is to mishandle emerging technologies. Despite little evidence to the contrary, apparent concerns over health and environmental impacts severely retarded the implementation of a technology that could save and improve millions of lives around the world. Yet these concerns were grounded in a backlash against corporate control that cut consumers out of the decision-making process. And through a socially-savvy media, people were galvanized to say “no” to “frankenfoods” – not because of the science and technology, but because of the way they were handled.

Missteps over the development of genetically modified foods are a prominent case among many where the trajectory of a technology has been dictated by social concerns as much as scientific evidence. It is becoming increasingly clear that hierarchical, evidence-based decision-making is not sufficient on its own to ensure the success of new technologies. In part, the situation is exacerbated by peer to peer global communications, where virtual groups can be informed about, motivated by and empowered to take action on emerging issues before institutional decision-makers are even aware there is an issue to respond to. We now live in a world where an incident in China, or the Middle East, can influence attitudes and actions in regions like Europe and the Americas in a matter of minutes through media like FaceBook and Twitter.

The impact on realizing the social and economic potential of new technologies is potentially profound. Established approaches to government and corporate policy-making founder in the new social order, and are limited in their ability to anticipate and guide new developments effectively. They lack the responsiveness, adaptability and foresight to anticipate hurdles to progress, or to work through partnership with non-traditional but increasingly influential stakeholder groups – including consumers.

Yet this disconnect between established policy mechanisms and new approaches to implementing emerging technologies is occurring at a point where future global prosperity is more dependent than ever on new science-based solutions to pressing problems.

Providing people with access to healthy food and clean water; managing climate change and its impacts; treating disease; generating and using energy wisely; coping with pollution—over the next fifty years, global challenges in these and similar areas will reach an unprecedented level. Without rapid and targeted advances in science and technology, humanity will not be able to face them without paying a large price. Now, perhaps more than at any time in history, we need the tools that science and technology provide to face an uncertain future. And just as the challenges are global in scope, so the solutions will need to be global in reach.

In emerging areas such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology and geoengineering, there is growing awareness that a new paradigm is needed if the technologies are to be developed effectively—one that predicts and avoids potential hurdles, develops and implements new technologies in partnership with multiple stakeholders, identifies and addresses possible health and environmental impacts before they occur, and responds rapidly to new developments. Yet there is a gaping chasm between the knowledge that a different approach to policy-making is needed, and an understanding of what this new approach should look like.

This is the gap that the Global Centre for Emerging Technology Intelligence will fill. Working with decision-makers at the highest level in industry, government and other organizations, it will aim to ensure that decision-makers have the best possible tools at their disposal to ensure the successful and sustainable development and implementation of new technologies.

The Goals of a Global Centre for Emerging Technology Intelligence

Be an authoritative and neutral source of intelligence on emerging technologies and the opportunities and challenges they raise

The Centre will work towards becoming the premier go-to source of information on emerging technologies for decision-makers, the media and the public. This will be achieved through developing a global network of experts on emerging technology policy, potential and risks, building in-house expertise, producing high value/high impact products and working closely with the media. The Centre will also promote accessibility, inclusiveness and strategic partnerships in an attempt to bridge divides that can characteristic advance technologies.

Provide timely information on emerging opportunities and challenges

The Centre will develop in-house expertise in identifying, evaluating and assessing new opportunities and challenges related to emerging technologies. Assessments of emerging issues will be published and made publicly available on a regular basis.

Bring senior stakeholders together to identify emerging issues

The Centre will bring high-level experts and decision-makers together on an annual basis to identify emerging issues and inform a rolling two-year programme of targeted projects.

Publish targeted research, analysis and recommendations

Based on a two-year strategic plan, the Centre will publish analyses and recommendations on key emerging technology issues.

The bottom line here is that sustainable technology innovation doesn’t just happen – it requires sustained, strategic and substantial up-front investment in the knowledge, frameworks and policies that will allow innovation to address global challenges without creating new problems.  CETI is one approach to addressing this need.  But whether this proposal is developed or something else is adopted in its place, one thing is very clear – global redesign will not happen unless we rethink sustainable technology innovation.  And for that to happen, science and technology need to be pushed much further up the global agenda.

1 Hilary Sutcliffe May 31, 2010 at 7:15 am

I like this CETI idea a lot, but do worry that it will just end up like these EU Observatories for example the Nano Observatory, http://www.observatory-nano.eu/project/ which although they do good work, they just put stuff up there, maybe do a bit of PR and hope people will use it. Intelligence is only useful if it is used.

I appreciate that yours is about engaging senior level practitioners and not academics like these do and I know I am being uncharitable to these organisations, but I rarely hear of their work influence real policy, because it is all ideas, academic research and not practical solutions. We need more galvanising and funding of existing networks who are trying to do innovative work, have the skills and the knowledge, but can’t get the cash!

The Global Redesign Initiative talks a bit about such ideas in their ‘Bottom Up’ solutions http://www.weforum.org/pdf/grs2010/report/9-Institutions.pdf .

Self-serving, moi??!!

2 Claudia June 1, 2010 at 5:56 pm

While reading an article on-line (Mobile phones and bees: shoddy research helps no one by Ian Douglas http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/wildlife/7778401/Mobile-phones-responsible-for-disappearance-of-honey-bee.html ) I was reminded of a larger problem.

Simplistic poorly designed ‘studies’ abound in every field. The trends of recent decades- specialization, corporate influence, pre-determined result orientation, ambition over curiosity- all have conspired to undermine science fundamentals.

While I do suspect that microwave and other radiation proliferations have had profound if subtle effects on living creatures, the bottom line is that as new technologies come along they are just not tested. Whether it is gene modification, nanotechnology, wireless devices, the vast chemical saturation of our environment …..we see products rushed on to the market without any real consideration given to risks. It seems to me that catastrophe will inevitably result.

The scientific establishment was never perfect, but I doubt we realize just how badly it has been hollowed out in recent years.

3 Tim Harper June 4, 2010 at 9:44 am

I think you will find that all the “EU Projects” that are referred to fail to make an impact because they are purely passive, and similar results can be achieved by a bit of automated googling.

What makes CETI different is the proposal for proactive support and risk avoidance. We can easily imagine the risk posed to international order in a world of nine billion people, and thinking about the technological developments which will mitigate increase competition for scarce resources is a key part of CETIs mandate.

It;s no good simply attempting to imagine the problems that the future will bring, we also have to imagine the solutions, and to ensure that technological stimuli and their regulation allow us to deploy these solutions wisely.

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