In Brief

UNCTAD: Frontier Technologies Must Benefit All

Technological change and innovation need to be directed towards inclusive and sustainable outcomes through a purposeful effort by governments, in collaboration with civil society, business and academia. This is one of the key recommendations of a major new report published on May 15 by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

“If policy-makers are not proactive technological disruption can entrench inequality, further marginalise the poorest, and fuel reactionary movements against open societies and economies,” writes UNCTAD secretary-general Mukhisa Kituyi in his introduction to the report.

“Most crucially, there is an urgent need for a sustained effort by the international community to ensure that the multiple gaps in technological capabilities that separate developed and developing countries are closed. Investment in hard and soft infrastructure and human capital, complemented by a scaled up, coherent and accelerated effort to enhance innovation systems for sustainable development are necessary to spread the economic, social and environmental benefits of frontier technologies.”

During her opening address at UNCTAD’s annual commission on science and technology for development, during which the report was launched, the organisation’s deputy secretary-general Isabelle Durant said that the pace of political decision-making – and its implementation – is inversely proportional to that of technological change.

“The gap between the two continues to grow and raises serious and multiple ethical, governance, equality and equity issues that governments must address,” she said.

The report explains how harnessing frontier technologies – combined with action to address persistent gaps among developed and developing countries in access and use of existing technologies, and to develop innovations (including non-technological and new forms of social innovation) – could be transformative in achieving sustainable development goals and producing more prosperous, sustainable, healthy and inclusive societies. They offer the prospect of solutions and opportunities for sustainable development that are better, cheaper, faster, scalable and easy to use.

Given that the extent of the developmental impact of technological advances has already been seen in the transformative effects of information and communication technologies in many low-income economies, while the potential to increase the environmental sustainability of development is evident in recent advances in renewable energy. However, new technologies threaten to outpace the ability of societies and policymakers to adapt to the changes they create, giving rise to widespread anxiety and ambivalence or hostility to some technological advances, hence the report’s efforts to raise awareness of the risks unequal technological advances can present.