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The relationship between human and digital development and the need for innovation with equity

Form the theme of the UNCTAD publication Technology and Innovation Report 2021: Catching Technological Waves – Innovation with Equity

The speeding-up process of development in technologies, artificial intelligence, and robotics has shown strong potential to address sustainable development. Nevertheless, incurring inequalities is a risk that cannot be forgotten. This can take place by provoking and creating new digital divides between positive and negative aspects of technology.

Frontier technologies have the potential to bring huge benefits to the lives of the poor. As a matter of fact, there are huge digital opportunities for agriculture, health, education, energy, and other areas of development. On the matter, there are many examples of successfully mobilizing leading-edge technologies.

As “frontier technologies” we intend all those digital innovations 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, in other words, all those tools, research, and patents that could help in achieving the UN 2030 Agenda. For example, breakthroughs in carbon capture and sequestration may eventually help reduce net emissions and mitigate climate change. New materials used in photovoltaic cells could enhance energy efficiency and make renewable energy technologies a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Digital finance 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.

However, much of this technological diffusion remains on a pilot basis. Usually, low, and middle-income developing countries and least-developed ones are those who suffer most from the disparities and the enlarging gap between human and digital development: they often cannot afford to take part in the rapid process of technological change.

Is it possible to take full advantage of the current technological revolution so to narrow the gaps?

The 2021 UNCTAD Technology and Innovation Report examine the likelihood of pioneering technologies and how they could increase existing inequities by creating new ones. It also discusses national and international institutional policies, instruments, and reforms needed to create a more equitable world of digital opportunities for all, bridging the existing technological gap so as to leave no one behind.

According to the report, advanced technologies already represent a market of $350 billion, which could reach $3.2 trillion by 2025. These numbers might encourage private and public entities to catch all the possible technological opportunities. However, many countries, particularly the least developed and those in sub-Saharan Africa, are not prepared to adapt themselves to the current digital revolution. Consequently, this could have a serious impact on the achievement of the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda. Among other constraints, the Report underlines a common concern that automation, AI, and robotics could destroy jobs and replace humans’ hands. There is the fear that the abyss among the wealthy and those who are not, would expand, while the benefits are caught by some with skills and capital.

Apart from these concerns, can developing countries catch the technological window of opportunity and align themselves with the rest of the world?

The Technology and Innovation Report 2021 urges that all countries must pursue science and technological innovation policies which should be appropriate to their development and social, economic, and environmental system conditions. In order to do so, it is mandatory to strengthen and align Science, technology, and innovation structure with industrial policies, by building digital skills among students and workers, and closing digital divides. Moreover, the report highlights the importance of the enhancement of social protection through governmental action, which should be brought also into the job market to ease workforce transition which may have potentially negative consequences for frontier technologies.

Furthermore, international cooperation is a required instrument to build innovation capacities in developing countries. Participation in this process must include all society sectors, all age groups, without distinctions based on gender or education; if women do not participate in this digital revolution, it cannot be completed, and the digital gap will be deepening. The inclusive debate on the impact of frontier technologies on sustainable development should be based on these assumptions.

In conclusion, new technologies hold the promise of the future, not only concerning sustainable development but also to ensure climate action and provide better health to the biggest amount of people possible. As this report highlights, the leading principle of the 2030 Agenda is to leave no one behind, providing a compulsory incentive to bind frontier technologies to sustainable development.


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