Researchers pick ‘breakthrough’ technologies for growth

Image credit: Dieter Telemans/Panos

By Aamna Mohdin – SciDev.Net

Desalination using renewable energy, vaccines to help eradicate HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, and electronic textbooks that adapt to readers’ skills are among the 50 development-boosting technologies identified in a report published last week.

The report, released by the Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies (LIGTT) at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, United States, on 14 January, studied the most-essential ‘breakthrough technologies’ and the problems around them. It also outlines funding and policy hurdles.

Breakthrough technologies are defined as those that are radically different from those that already exist, according to the report. And to be useful for development they must also be cheap, require little infrastructure and only need basic technical skills to operate, says LIGTT.

The rigorous research focuses on nine categories covering a wide range of development issues, such as health, human rights, and food security and agriculture. As well as 50 main technologies, it includes one cross-cutting one: low-cost family transport, ideally using renewable energy.

“It would be a shame if the well-intended recommendations diverted resources and attention away from existing workable solutions that aren’t necessarily based on ‘whizz-bang’ technology.”

 Shashi Buluswar, LIGTT

LIGTT executive director Shashi Buluswar says the report aims to provide a radical view of the kinds of technologies that could be in the pipeline.

“A disproportionate amount of effort is focused on a small number of topics: water purification, clean cookstoves, infant warmers and the like,” he says. “These are, frankly, ‘me too’ technologies offering incremental improvements on technologies and approaches that already existed, but not offering a true path to large-scale impact.”

The report warns there is limited understanding of the underlying issues that drive technical innovation, especially in developing countries. It acknowledges that technology cannot always achieve development goals on its own, and needs supportive policies and adequate funding to thrive.

“The landscape is littered with clever technologies which get a lot of media attention, win awards and lots of funding, but do not make much impact,” says Buluswar. “Indeed, our own challenge is to ensure we don’t fall prey to that phenomenon.”

With technological breakthroughs that range from high-tech homes for the poor to a drug to eradicate malaria, the report could be criticised for being unrealistic. But Adrian Ely, head of impact and engagement at the STEPS Centre, a research and policy centre for science and development at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom, says the report’s role is to start a conversation, not to offer sure-fire solutions.

“It’s not specifying the technology itself in many places; it’s saying, for example, we need ways to keep vaccines refrigerated” or find other mechanisms to ensure they are unaffected by high temperatures, says Ely.

But he thinks the report could have done more to highlight simpler innovations. In some cases, he says, the high-tech solutions proposed, such as internet-connected devices, are irrelevant to many in the developing world.

“How will ‘internet-of-things’ devices help people who don’t have electricity and have to walk for miles every day to fetch water?” he says. “It would be a shame if the well-intended recommendations diverted resources and attention away from existing workable solutions that aren’t necessarily based on ‘whizz-bang’ technology.”

Buluswar says LIGTT sought input to the report from developing countries to assess the need for dedicated local research and development capabilities to customise technological breakthroughs to local needs.

“As a next step, our hope is to work with a broad range of organisations and individuals and create an ongoing ‘state of the breakthroughs’ forum,” he says.

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