Strengthening Global Progress Toward Sustainable Development Through Innovation In Science And Technology

Debates on how best to promote sustainable and inclusive development are incomplete without a full consideration of issues of science, technology and innovation (STI).

Access to new and appropriate technologies promote steady improvements in living conditions, which can be lifesaving for the most vulnerable populations, and drive productivity gains which ensure rising incomes. There are two essential STI issues that need to be tackled simultaneously development agenda. Firstly, innovation driven growth is no longer the prerogative of high income countries alone, some developing countries have achieved significant economic growth through the creation and deployment of STI capacity. But, this has not been the case for all countries, in particular LDCs. Secondly, STI policy has often been pursued independently of the broader developmental agenda; it is important that STI be integrated into public policy goals, giving particular focus to the nexus between STI, culture, education and development. In addressing these issues, STI will need to be made more participatory and inclusive so that there is public engagement in the scientific endeavour from the full spectrum of social factors, including women, young people and indigenous communities. The least developed countries will require dedicated support to bolster their efforts to build STI capacity.


The concept of sustainable development remains a broad and complex topic. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development first loosely defined the term sustainable development in the report Our Common Future, saying that sustainable development is, "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."More recently, the outcome document The Future We Want, from the 2012 Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20), recognizes the essential requirements of sustainable development to be, "poverty eradication, changing unsustainable and promoting sustainable patterns of consumption and production and protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development." When examining these diverse definitions of sustainable development, it is important to realize that sustainable development combines three pillars of development: social, economic, and environmental.

Though the concept sustainable development has grown, it is increasingly clear that innovations in science and technology are an integral component of sustainable development. Agenda 21, adopted at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, confirms the importance of innovations in science and technology, claiming that information and education sharing are a key factor in helping to eliminate extreme poverty. The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, adopted at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (Rio +10), places emphasis on information communication technologies and the critical role they play in sharing best practices of sustainable development. In addition, the Economic and Social Council 2013 Annual Ministerial Review focused on a diverse range of topics such as agriculture, energy, and equality, demonstrating the various ways that innovations in science and technology can assist with the challenges of development.


In September 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Millennium Declaration which included a set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs are a set of specific targets to: (1) Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, (2) Achieve universal primary education, (3) Promote gender equality and empower women, (4) Reduce child mortality, (5) improve maternal health, (6) Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, (7) Ensure environmental sustainability, and (8)Develop a global partnership for development. The MDGs represent an important, widely-shared initial vision of sustainable development, and they can serve as useful guideposts for the efforts of the science and engineering communities -- recognizing, of course, that S&T has more to contribute to some of these goals than others; and that in general, such goals represent only a starting point for the developments that need ultimately to be achieved. We emphasize also that simple, single-dimension analyses of progress in achieving the MDGs can be misleading, since in some cases, the means that are used to achieve this progress (such as heavy reliance on foreign development aid) are not themselves sustainable.

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After establishing the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) as a subsidiary body of ECOSOC in 1992, the GA has adopted more than 10 resolutions on science and technology for development. Since 2000, this item has been fully included in the agenda of the GA and debated on a biannual basis. The CSTD is mandated to report on a yearly basis to ECOSOC and regularly submits draft resolutions for review and adoption by the Council. The 16th session of the Commission concluded in June 2013 and its outcome documents focused on two priority themes: science, technology and innovation for sustainable cities and peri-urban communities; and Internet broadband for an inclusive digital society.

The draft resolution presented for adoption by ECOSOC thus recommended stronger collaborations between public and private actors at the local level, and between municipalities and local governments at the national, regional and global levels. The Commission also encouraged the use of ICTs to improve the infrastructures of cities and to evaluate the future needs of urban populations, in terms of water and sanitation, energy, housing and transports, through simulation tools.

As the primary organ of the UN responsible for social, economic and environmental issues, ECOSOC has consequently adopted over the years a series of resolutions on science and technology for development. Those resolutions address a different issue every year, corresponding to the agenda of CSTD, and choose a different angle to promote the inclusion of science and technology within development policies, at the national, regional and global levels. ECOSOC also acts as a coordinating body and presents, through those resolutions, several recommendations to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which is acting as the secretariat of CSTD.

More recently, the Council has placed particular attention to STI through the work of its Annual Ministerial Review. For this purpose, the UN Secretary-General produced a comprehensive report on “Science, technology and innovation, and the potential of culture, for promoting sustainable development and achieving the Millennium Development Goals,” aggregating inputs and reviews from a large number of UN bodies and regional commissions. As part of the preparatory work for the 2013 AMR, ECOSOC has organized regional consultations in Western Asia, Asia and the Pacific, Africa, and Europe, in collaboration with the concerned UN regional commissions and other bodies. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) are thus actively involved as partners in the consultations coordinated by ECOSOC.


The technological challenge and global public goods

In the MDGs, issues of science and technology have focused predominantly on access to essential medicines (particularly for the treatment of HIV/AIDS) and on internet connectivity and the related spread of communication technologies (ICTs). The favoured approach has been through needs assessment and targeted capacity building. However, delivering on the full range of amenities which underpin the MDG agenda, including, inter alia, environmental protection, the containment of health epidemics, mitigating climate change, requires access to a range of appropriate technologies. Much of the required technology is already available in the public domain but accessing and linking them to the required knowledge and skills within countries is neither automatic nor costless. It calls for investments in dynamic capabilities, particularly those that shape the ability of national stakeholders to uptake and absorb technologies and make improvements in line with local circumstances. This is not a one-way process. Some level of technological capabilities in countries is critical to ensure the provision of these amenities to all. At the same time, the critical importance of such amenities spans beyond individual countries or regions. In such a case, the international community as such, has a collective responsibility to ensure the provision of these goods. Within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the new Technology Mechanism established by the Cancun Agreements in December 2010 represents a move towards a more 'dynamic' arrangement by fostering public-private partnerships; promoting innovation; catalyzing the use of technology road maps or action plans; mobilizing national, regional and international technology centres and network; and facilitating joint R&D activities.

Innovation and Growth: Value Creation

In addition to its role in providing global public goods, science, technology and innovation (STI) serves as a crucial driver of rising prosperity and improved national competitiveness. However, because technological knowledge and skills are cumulative, first mover advantages have created a very uneven global landscape. Connecting local technological needs to international technological opportunities is a particular challenge for many developing countries. A well functioning STI ecosystem needs to include, inter alia, political stability and well-functioning institutions, an educated workforce; sound research and education infrastructure and linkages between public and private innovation actors; enterprises committed to research and development; as well as a balanced intellectual property rights (IPRs) framework.

Given that knowledge exhibits several properties of a public good, there is a persistent danger of underinvestment, and policymakers have increasingly sought to improve the incentives to create and transfer knowledge from publicly funded research to enterprises, thereby reinforcing the impact of that research on innovation capacity. But in addition to national strategies, regional and international frameworks including the UN and its agencies, funds and programmes must respond in new ways to ensure that innovation is integrated into national development priorities, particularly in least developed countries (LDCs), where the technological divide is greatest. These varied responses are required because STI ecosystems have become more complex and are now built on a mixture of collaboration and competition involving market incentives but also private and public partnerships across borders. Intellectual property is an important way of rewarding the commercialization of innovation which underpins growth and development, as well as promoting the disclosure and dissemination of technological information. It is as such a key element of the ecosystem. But it is not an end in itself.

Commitment to the protection of intellectual property through cooperation among states should be coupled with a commitment to ensuring that all countries are able to benefit from the use of intellectual property rights for economic, social and cultural development. Finding the right balance between accessibility and reward (for creativity and innovation) remains a fundamental challenge in building inclusive and sustainable development paths. Given that appropriate intellectual property policies are context specific there is also a need to ensure that, for those countries that request it, appropriate technical assistance is available to make most effective use of the IP system, especially in order to be able to foster national developmental goals.

Technology and Innovation for Catch-up Growth

Technological change, particularly in developing countries, is not only about innovating at the frontier, but also about adapting existing products and processes to achieve higher levels of productivity as applicable to their local contexts. In this process, the ability of local firms and enterprises to access technological know-how is fundamental to shaping their ability to provide products and services, both of the kind that are essential to improve living standards, and that could also promote growth and competitiveness. This requires investment not only in higher value manufacturing industries but also into sectors that contribute to broader public policy goals (such as health, agriculture, nutrition and environment) as well as across a range of activities that support overall development, including also marketing, management and financial services. Such investments, over a period of time, help to increase absorptive capacity and the ability to adapt and apply existing technologies, thereby leading to a gradual increase in productivity and social welfare.

Knowledge accumulation in all countries depends on steady investments to increase science education as well as to improve the STI policy environment to foster endogenous innovations, through all means of learning, including research and development. Some lessons stand out in this regard. First, incorporating science education in the curricula from primary and high school levels to the encouragement of research poles around existing universities is one key step. Second, partnerships with university research institutes and industry will be a key driver of improving the overall ecosystem making it attractive for human skills to return, including the return of skilled labour from developed to developing countries. Third, broadening the culture of science, technology and innovation is also important. Fourth, science and technology must be accessible to all levels of learning, including to the public through the media to show how research can drive high technology innovation and wealth creation. Finally, knowledge sharing both nationally and internationally is critical. This can be promoted through ICTs and broadband networks, particularly the application of technology-supported learning (eLearning), which can increase the effectiveness of education, including its outreach and awareness-raising.

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The question of promoting equitable global economic development has always been seen in conjunction with promoting access to the knowledge base in those countries at the technological frontier. But bridging the technological divide has been an uphill, and for many countries a frustrating, endeavour. However, the experiences gathered over the past few decades, both within countries and at the international level, are valuable in charting a future course. Of these, some of the most essential ones are summarized here. Learning opportunities for innovation arise regularly from a variety of sources, such as from investments in new machinery and equipment, technology suppliers, mobility of labour, interactions with other knowledge agents, trade and investment.

External opportunities, such as contract manufacturing for export and supplying to global value chains, are additional sources of learning. However, because learning does not occur automatically or without costs, it requires appropriate incentives, policies and institutions. Institutional frameworks that enable the creation of dynamic capabilities are best viewed in terms of what are now called national innovation systems, and often also, sectoral innovation systems. National innovation systems can be understood to mean the underlying network of all actors, economic and non-economic, interactions among who is critical to promote learning and knowledge accumulation. Trade rules, intellectual property rights and investment are means to achieve overall development, including through technological change. There is a need to ensure that they are coherent with overall technological development objectives of countries.

There is also a need for efforts to ensure that existing agreements maximize policy space and, where appropriate, expand it in sectoral areas of interest to developing countries to ensure inclusive, sustainable development. A range of international collaborative ventures and alliances can help address the creation and dissemination of technologies in sectors of public importance, especially health and agriculture. STI partnerships can play a critical role. As the United Nations Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation noted, innovation and technology are needed to transform countries from reliance on the exploitation of natural resources to technological innovation as the basis for development.

However, some recent empirical research conducted by the World Bank has sought to explain the relative scarcity of STI partnerships. The research concludes that efforts to promote partnerships have been ad hoc and partnerships have been limited in their capacity to promote broad, systemic improvement. Such partnerships have also not always been sustainable in generating a legacy since partnership programs often operate in isolation from related donor activities taking place simultaneously in the countries. Finally, partnerships are not always linked to the priority needs of developing countries. These weaknesses of partnership programs need to be addressed if they are to deliver effective results and build capacity.


Promoting inclusive innovation within countries

Governments will find it difficult to raise living standards in a sustained manner, feed their growing populations, keep their children healthy, and protect their environment, if they cannot find better, cheaper and smarter ways of producing goods and bringing them to market. The future holds other challenges where new technologies will be key, particularly where climate change is involved. In both traditional and frontier markets, competition between innovators will be critical to ensure the development of socially useful products and processes at affordable prices. However, for many developing countries, persistent obstacles will need to addressed through a global partnership for development. The first of these is financing acquisition and innovation. In a large number of developing countries, shallow financial markets often thwart their responses to developmental needs. It remains imperative that the challenge of mobilizing such financial resources for technological development form a significant part of the developmental agenda.

A second obstacle is incentives. Where there is a strong market pull, commercial drivers encourage a diversity of approach. However, in addressing some of the key development challenges, market incentives may not be sufficiently strong to drive the necessary innovation. Where markets are not strong, additional approaches are needed to bridge the gap. We see this clearly in the lack of development of new treatments for neglected tropical diseases. But a similar situation may occur with any technology needed to address the needs of poor populations. In a world where the primary incentives for innovation are market-based, the inability-to-pay often translates into an inability-to-access. There is a need for a proactive policy agenda that focuses innovation on the needs of poor populations and makes the products of that innovation more readily available to those who need it. A third obstacle is information. Data covering the three pillars of sustainable development needs to be collected, harmonized, managed and integrated in a more coherent way to support better policy-making and decision-making. The issue of access to information has been addressed in The Future We Want4 and the public-right-to-know is fundamental in engaging all relevant stakeholders in sustainable development. The technology exists for collecting economic, environmental and social data and making it accessible for all via the web but there is a challenge to change attitudes and cultures within those ministries and agencies responsible for data collection so that the sharing and exchange of information across the three pillars can result in synergies and bring increased benefits for a wide spectrum of users from policy-makers to the business community to citizens. Mobile learning and the use of mobile devices for communicating data and information for sustainable development has enormous potential. One challenge is to provide content in a format suitable for quick and easy comprehension by the user.

Partnerships are critical to overcoming these market failures. In the field of health a range of Product Development Partnerships (PDP), several involving the UN system and its agencies, have been formed to promote the development and distribution of treatments, therapies and vaccines for diseases which otherwise would have been “neglected”. While the PDP model has had some success in the health field, in other sectors, other models have been tested including by national governments in several countries such as India, China, Brazil and Chile, among others. Alternatively, institution led models such as the Global Research Alliance which addresses global development challenges through inclusive innovation generated within its global and culturally diverse network has also started to deliver results. The World Bank has suggested that such initiatives could be complemented by an Inclusive Innovation Fund (IIF) to support innovators in developing their ideas to the point where they can raise private finance by proof of concept or through prototyping and marketing development. Such Funds are being operated in developing countries at national level, but could be extended regionally or internationally. Given the importance of absorptive capacity in the diffusion and uptake of new technologies in developing and least developed countries, the Climate Innovation Centres piloted by Infodev  may prove important in the diffusion of climate smart technologies. In considering the STI framework the global partnership for development should consider developing such centres with a broader remit to complement the Inclusive Innovation Fund.


Information and Communication Technologies and Access to Knowledge

The rapid pace of innovation in ICTs has launched a digital revolution, generating new ways to create and share knowledge, to acquire and disseminate information, and to communicate. This information society now counts almost 6.8 billion mobile-cellular subscriptions and 2.7 billion Internet users worldwide. However, those figures are hiding very important disparities between developed and developing countries, and within those countries between the different socioeconomic groups composing their population. In 1998, the ITU advised the organization of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), in order to build a concerted plan of action to develop the information society at the global level.

The WSIS was organized in two phases, the first one in 2003 in Geneva and the second one in Tunis in 2005, and the annual WSIS Forum now provides a follow-up on the outcomes of those conferences. The Forum is also an occasion for the ITU to capture the trends in the WSIS action lines and to assess the evolution of the global information society. In 2012, the organization thus noted an important need for openness and universal access to information on the web and through Open Educational Resources (OER), and “the urgency to provide new and innovative solutions for persons with disabilities to access information and knowledge." In the same tone, UNESCO has been advocating for the building of "knowledge societies," defined as societies setting up “institutions and organizations that enable people and information to develop without limits, and that open opportunities for all kind of knowledge to be mass-produced and mass-utilized throughout the society as a whole."

Information and Communication Technologies and Civil Society

Social development is also strengthened by STI through new opportunities to communicate and to get engaged in social and political debates. ICTs now allow a larger part of the population to participate to discussions at the local, national, regional and global levels, and to make their voice heard. Citizens and civil society organizations (CSOs) have acquired a new form of power, demanding more openness and transparency, more accountability, and thus tend to move towards a new mode of (e-) governance. CSOs have thus been increasingly integrated into the decision-making processes at the global level; the WSIS is an interesting example of multi-stakeholder forum, where Non-Governmental Organizations and CSOs are invited to participate and to present contributions during the summit. As the first UN primary organ where CSOs are benefitting from a consultative status, ECOSOC could interestingly be a crucial forum for discussion on ICTs and the civil society. Furthermore, the digital revolution has generated a strong potential for integration of excluded groups such as women, youth, indigenous people and persons with disabilities. ICTs indeed offer an easy access to information and knowledge, going far from gender hierarchies and “directly to the roots of women’s inequality”, and thus working towards the empowerment of women.


Innovation is recognized as a driver of economic growth and poverty eradication. In this context, innovation can be understood in broad terms, including "technical and non-technical aspects, business model innovation, ecoinnovation, demand and user-driven innovation, innovation in services and design, and public-sector innovation." In the aftermath of the economic and financial crisis, pursuing economic growth at the national, regional and global levels requires strong investments in STI, in a large number of sectors such as education, research, agriculture, labour markets and trade. In the path towards a green economy, innovation in science and technology plays a central role in generating new productive activities and new types of decent jobs, primarily in the energy sector.

Technological Transfers and Public-private Cooperation

Innovation is a fundamental source of inequality between countries, as they cannot all make the necessary financial investments and build national environments favourable to technical innovation. To counter such imbalance, technological transfers allow less advanced countries to benefit from the knowledge and experience of more developed countries. Mechanisms to strengthen South-South and triangular cooperation have thus been developed, such as the International Centre for South-South cooperation in science, Technology and Innovation (ISTIC), located in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). However, other strategies can be implemented, as countries have the potential to leapfrog and develop technologies that are more advanced faster, through investments in R&D and by building partnerships with the private sector. An example of such public-private partnership (PPP) can be found in Europe, where the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC) has set up a partnership with the European Commission in order to foster economic growth and employment in the field of bio-based products.

Case Study: Microfinance, Mobile Banking and Inclusive Economic Growth

The use of microcredit and microfinance products has been developed in the past 30 years in order to provide a universal access to financial services through sound and sustainable institutions. The expansion of inclusive finance strategies thus allows excluded and isolated groups to have access to banking services, and plays an important role in reducing poverty. In this context, the use of mobile banking generates innovative solutions to extend financial services to the populations without access to traditional banks. In Kenya, the M-Pesa system, which was introduced by Safaricom in 2007, allow users to transfer money between mobile phones, at very low costs.

M-Pesa can even be used to purchase solar home lighting systems, through a partnership between the operator and the mobile technology company M-Kopa. Musoni, a Kenyan microfinance institution, is also using mobile banking services to deliver loans to its clients, who can then make repayments over their phones. Through those innovative banking services, isolated populations thus have an opportunity to reach and take part to the formal economy of their country.


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About the Author
Author: Anant Mishra
Anant Mishra is a former youth representative United Nations.Almost 4 years of experience, he has served in number of committees including United Nations Conference for Trade and Development and Economic and Social Council primarily focusing on international trade, finance, economics. food crisis and disputes. Currently he is serving as a Mentor & a Member for the organising committee of Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2014. He is also the state convener, chhattisgarh for a nation wide think tank, Centre for Education Growth and Research, New Delhi. Beside this he is an editor, foreign affairs for political mirror, columnist for business digest and iReporter for the CNN. He is also an author for the Indian Economic Review, an yearly journal for Delhi School of Economics.

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