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How can rethinking innovation achieve Technology Justice?

July 22, 2016
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amber-meikleAmber Meikle of Practical Action, introduces ‘Rethink, Retool, Reboot Technology as if people and planet mattered’, a new book on a massively neglected topic

The history of mankind’s development has long featured technology – from early cultivation techniques, fire, and the wheel, all the way to 3D printing and nanotechnology. Today, technology underpins all aspects of everyday life: from how our food is produced and how we access water and energy at home and work, to transport, our health and even education.

How we access, develop and use technology will also determine our path to meeting the two big challenges facing us today: ending poverty; and finding a path to an environmentally sustainable future for everybody on the planet.

That’s why the recent renewed appreciation and interest in the central role of technology in sustainable development is good news for us all. Though still finding its feet and mandate, the very existence of the new Technology Facilitation Mechanism  is acknowledgement that technology will be critical to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. And it’s about time too, because development faces twin technology crises.

rethink reboot retoolFirstly, billions of people remain without access to essential technologies: 3.2 billion people in Africa and Asia lack internet access; 30 per cent of the world’s population can’t access the WHO’s list of essential medicines; the majority of developing country farmers can’t get technical advice.

At the same time largely unfettered use of technology has led to vast and unintended negative consequences for the environment: take climate change, resulting in part from our addiction to fossil fuel technologies; the impending health crisis likely to result from our overuse and misuse of antibiotics; and the recent news that our intensive approaches to agriculture has led to ‘unsafe’ loss of biodiversity in more than half the world’s land.

These examples of injustice in technology access and use are compounded by a third injustice, in innovation. More often than not, patterns and processes of innovation mirror and exacerbate existing injustices in people’s access to and use of technology. That is because technological innovation is not driven by a focus on the most pressing social and environmental challenges we face, or improving the conditions of those living in poverty. Instead, innovation efforts, on the whole, serve those most able to pay rather than those most in need. The result is still greater technological inequality.

Innovation in health is a clear example: it has long been known that just 10 per cent of global health research expenditure is spent on the health problems of developing countries (think malaria, HIV, diarrheal diseases), despite the fact that more than 90 per cent of the world’s preventable deaths occur in those countries. This 10/90 gap has persisted since 1990, despite an eight-fold increase in research funding. It’s well known that the primary reason is that there is no market incentive to develop drugs to treat the poor. It’s the same story in agriculture, with a lack of market incentives resulting in minimal research into technologies that could transform the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in the developing world.

In his new (open access) book Rethink, Retool, Reboot: Technology as if people and planet mattered, Practical Action’s former CEO Simon Trace calls for urgent moves to:

  • rethink the purpose of our technological endeavour and how we provide access to and govern the use technology today.
  • retool – to change the alignment of our innovation systems to deliver technology that is socially useful and addresses the key challenges of poverty and environmental sustainability.
  • Above all, our relationship with technology needs a reboot. We need a different frame of reference – Technology Justice – to provide a radically different approach to our oversight and governance of the development and use of technology.

By drawing on Rockstrom’s theory of planetary boundaries and Kate Raworth’s doughnut of social and planetary boundaries, we have recast the doughnut (see diagram) to demonstrate what this reboot of our relationship with technology would mean. And how the principle of Technology Justice could help us to meet the social foundation, and stay within planetary boundaries.

Meikle fig 1Source: Raworth, 2012

The inner circle represents a minimum set of technologies that have to be accessed universally in order to meet the social foundation. And the outer circle represents the level of controls that we have to exert on our use of technology to remain within those safe boundaries. The core of the doughnut then represents not only the safe space for development, but the space of Technology Justice.

So, if Technology Justice is a world where:

  • Everyone has access to the technologies they need to achieve a reasonable standard of living in a way that doesn’t prevent others now and in the future from doing the same, and
  • The focus of efforts to innovate and develop new technologies is firmly centred on solving the great challenges the worlds faces today – ending poverty and providing a sustainable future for everyone on our planet

Then this lens helps us to see that some choices lead us in the direction of safe space, while others take us beyond, ortech justice 2 contribute little to meeting the social foundation. But, while this is pleasing conceptually, of course, immense practical and political challenges remain to doing this. It will require systemic change on a massive global scale. It will have repercussions on how we approach and incentivise science, technology and innovation in all sectors, as well as who does it.

Among other things, it requires agreement on a minimum set of essential technologies that are needed to deliver on the SDGs and help people meet the social foundation. The research void on how national innovation systems work in the developing world must be filled. Subsidies supporting use of harmful technologies must be reassigned to sustainable alternatives. Public debate must be part of the approach of managing social and environmental risk from new technologies. Alternative models are needed to finance and incentivise innovation that is based on need.

The challenges are vast, but it’s time to step up and finally make technology work for people and for planet. Please join the conversation on Technology Justice.

Rethink, Retool, Reboot Technology as if people and planet mattered, is available from Practical Action Publishing or as an Open Access PDF

2 comments

  1. We need to differentiate between digital tools and technology of the conversation is to be of any use. Words like technology and innovation have become synonymous with things that involve ‘high tech’ tools (cellphones, apps, diagnostic devices, etc.). Our most useful innovation and technology may lie in the non-digital hardware space but we may never even become aware of these if we don’t apply the terms ‘innovation’ and ‘technology’ correctly.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Allan! At Practical Action we largely work on non-digital technologies: renewable energy systems, sanitation equipment, and technical knowledge for sustainable agriculture – but talking about these as “technologies” in the wider world outside of development circles becomes challenging. They’re seen as tools, equipment, learning – but not tech.
      But digital tools can be fantastic complements to achieving Technology Justice, too – it all depends on understanding the context, existing access to underpinning services (mobile infrastructure, cost of airtime and data, energy access for charging devices, literacy), and how it might actually accelerate access to key technologies and ensure sustainable use of other technologies.

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